There is a palpable sense of relief amongst many in the Labour Party that Gordon Brown finally acknowledged the inevitable and stood down, after it became apparent that there could be no deal with the Liberal Democrats, or with the Lib Dems and Nationalists, or with the Lib Dems, Nationalists, SDLP and solitary Green. Labour lost, not as badly as many had predicted, but Labour lost all the same. This was the worst result since 1931 and particularly so in England. Solace can be taken from the better results in Scotland, Wales and in some of those marginal seats targeted by Ashcroft’s millions, but now there is a new opportunity for Labour in Opposition to re-build. As for Nick Clegg, he already resembles the virgin, deflated by the promises of the night before, while the best prediction for the first resignation from the coalition must be Vince Cable.
And what of the “New” Labour project? The election ended the first part of the dishonest construct. The second part is now still born. Messrs Mandelson, Adonis and others were busy behind the scenes during the election campaign opening lines of communication with Nick Clegg and others. The proposed Lib Lab coalition was supposed to bring re-alignment of what is loosely described as the ‘Centre Left’. The new construct, post PR would have been an amalgam of the many who have spent the past quarter century disposing of Labour values and whose paltry vision was of a new party without the trade unions. This life boat for a derided professional political class has now sunk without trace.
Who knows, Labour could be back in power within two or three years, with a pretty hefty majority. Consider this; the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn Jones let slip that the victors of this election could be out of power in a generation, so severe will be the medicine prescribed to prevent Britain becoming another Greece. Consider this too, the Liberal Democrats have not decided to support the Conservatives in a ‘partnership’, but have gone into outright coalition. This means, in effect, that the Lib Dems lose their independent voice and face being subsumed into the majority party. “The Lib Dem Con” will have played very badly with all of those who voted for Nick Clegg and his crew to keep the Tories out, and still worse for those The Guardian implored to vote Lib Dem because the party was more progressive than Labour. Being out of power is of course something of a politicians luxury – MPs will continue to be paid, while many of their constituents will shortly find themselves on the economic scrapheap. So, it was gratifying to listen to Bassetlaw MP, John Mann spell out what he sees as his priority; fighting public sector cuts and defending the interests of his constituents. Such common sense should be the preserve of all Labour MPs, but clearly, to re-build Labour will need more than new lines of defence.
For a start Labour needs to face up, not only to the scale of the defeat, but the emerging economic and political realities which will deserve deeply serious political leadership and a substantial change in policy. The party must now draw a line under the New Labour years, and in avoiding recrimination, make it absolutely clear that the old practices of spin, deception and fixing are over. The party rule book must be re-instated, the NEC and the members respected and real power over policy development handed back to where it belongs – the party as a whole.
The economic firestorm set to engulf Britain may not as former Bank of England, Monetary Policy Committee member, David Blanchflower has claimed leave the country in a state similar to that of Greece. But it is inordinately clear that the poorest and weakest are set to suffer the most, which is why Labour and its trade union allies has to swiftly become the first line of defence. Labour will need to fight the cuts and defend our public services; it will need to come out against the massively wasteful programme to renew Trident and call a halt to the ruinous war in Afghanistan. Instead of mealy mouthed platitudes the party will also need to take advantage of the first big split that will likely open in the coalition, whether or not the European Central Bank should also seek to regulate the City of London and the banks that have driven us to the edge of ruination. While Vince Cable and George Osborne scrap it out, Labour should call for the banks to be broken up, for bonuses to be massively contained and for international action to regulate speculation, whether from the hedge funds or short traders. More than this, the party has to campaign for a European wide trade policy, designed to protect key industries from cheap imports and hostile takeoevers. And in recognition of what is a genuine concern to many of labour’s traditional supporters, to campaign for the restrictions on the movement of labour from inside and outside Europe.
This has been an extraordinary election, and the aftermath is indeed historical. Yet this period risks carrying a great deal of historical baggage with it. This was, in essence a TV driven election, one in which key issues were overlooked for cheap ratings and dubious polling. All polls should be banned, as they are in France during elections, which could neatly take us away from the outrageous offence of a Sky TV Leaders debate being neatly rounded off by a YouGov-The Sun poll.
There was a complete absence from that campaign by trade unionists, academics, activists and most importantly women – except in the guise of decorative Leaders wives. This was a men only campaign, and a men only attempt to cobble together coalitions. It says a great deal about how far we have collectively travelled backwards that there is, for instance, no senior Labour woman declaring herself as a leadership contender, nor does it seem to concern very many that Labour appears only to confer leadership to women such as Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman as stand-ins.
But most significantly of all this was a campaign and an election result that still leaves the British political class reinforced, and from an even narrower class background. Our political class simply still does not get it, nor does it show any signs of breaking from the neo-liberal economic consensus of the past quarter century. Capitalism is in crisis. Let’s ensure Labour’s new leaders, whoever they may be, at least understand that this is the basis upon which to understand everything else.