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Dale’s Diary: Miliband quits, and now Labour must reclaim middle ground to win again

Dale’s Diary: Miliband quits, and now Labour must reclaim middle ground to win again

🕔08.May 2015

The death of political parties is often exaggerated after a poor election result, and there will be plenty of people wondering today just how Labour can ever recover from the utter carnage dished out by voters on May 7, writes Paul Dale.

History demonstrates that it is entirely possible for Labour to re-invent itself and move back to centre stage in UK politics, but it will take some brave decisions to do so.

Tony Blair remains by a considerable distance the party’s most effective and popular leader, who might have won even more elections had he not burnt his hands with the Iraq war. There was nothing very secretive about Blair’s success – he broadened Labour’s appeal with a ‘big tent’ approach to take in the centre ground, which happens to accommodate the views of the vast majority of British voters.

Sadly, Mr Blair is a hate figure with a great many Labour MPs and members across the country who for reasons not entirely understandable hanker back to left wing policies of the 1970s and 1980s. Like the Bourbon kings and queens of France and Spain, they have forgotten nothing but learnt nothing from history either.

Like the Conservatives, Labour has always performed best when it has put forward a sensible pro-capitalist agenda allied to caring social policies. Ed Miliband’s fatal mistake, encouraged by some trade unions, was to move Labour back in time to a more left wing agenda and the great debate about his legacy, fuelled by decimation  in Scotland, is bound to be whether he or Michael Foot were the most ineffective Labour leaders in history. The jury’s out on that one.

Miliband concentrated far too much on a narrow policy agenda – promoting a claim that the NHS is on its last legs, a proposition that is always going to be difficult to sell to the tens of thousands of people whose experience of the health service is a good one. Don’t believe me? Study any local newspaper for a few months to catch up on letters from readers who are grateful for the expert care they receive in our hospitals.

Wealth taxes, a mansion tax, taxes on banks and banning non-doms were Mr Miliband’s big idea, but it has been a very long time since promoting a high-tax regime appealed to voters, still less to businesses.

In his resignation speech today Mr Miliband predicted that Labour would come back.

Whoever becomes the new Labour leader must hammer out a pro-business and pro-wealth creation agenda because failure to do so will almost certainly commit a great political party to more wilderness years.

Thought must also be given to Labour’s future relationship with the trade unions. The Conservatives found it easy to present Mr Miliband as being a union puppet, even if the claim was not entirely true. A little distance between the party and the unions is called for.

Those on the far left will scoff at this, naturally. For them defeats can always be blamed on Labour not being left enough, although it remains to be seen how the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition explains away its dismal performance. The media will be to blame, I expect.

The more forward thinking Labour people have rightly urged caution about a dash to elect a new leader. Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s director of communications, urged a period of soul searching:

Whereas I thought we took too long to elect a leader last time, perhaps the debate about the party’s future this time should be even longer. Because perhaps one of our problems is that we did not in reality have the debate that we should have had, with ourselves and with the public, from the moment Tony Blair made way for Gordon Brown.

After a result as awful as this, there has to be real deep soul-searching, and honest analysis about how and we have gone from being a Party identified as the dominant force across UK politics over a decade and more, to where we are today.

These are not questions that can, or should, be answered in a hurry.

What Campbell appears to be saying is that the Labour tribe has never truly moved on from the ideological rift between Mr Blair and Gordon Brown. Repairing the damage caused by internecine in-fighting must be the first step towards putting Labour back on course.

John Reid, the former Home Secretary, told the BBC a period of Labour self-reflection was due and urged the party to rediscover a classless appeal.

If you want to offer a truly radical alternative to… a pretty awful government, then you have to be honest.

We have to get back to where Labour attracts votes across classes, across regions, across social stratas.

Labour is not exactly awash with leadership contenders. There are plenty that might want the job, but not so many that could actually do the job.

Possible candidates include the shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, the shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, the shadow health minister, Liz Kendall, and the shadow justice minister, Dan Jarvis. Yvette Cooper may throw her hat into the ring. Mr Burnham will start as favourite.

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