First published on the Huffington Post
Being backward-looking is a curse in politics. We need to know our history, so that we do not repeat the wrong bits. But pining for a bygone era, or looking to recreate something that has been and gone, never works. Worse still it stops you being able to shape the future. As centre-left people who want a Labour government, this is our task.
Today, at the Labour pressure group Progress where I am director, we launch Bedtime our stocktake of the record of the 1997-2010 government. It takes an audit of those thirteen years across five big areas of public policy: the economy, pubic services, welfare, equalities and human rights and foreign policy. We do this not to harp on about bygone days, but to help put those days firmly behind the Labour party – and to play our part in helping it move on. To put behind us, the inheritors to the party’s modernising tradition, once and for all, the idea that we are simply looking to pick up where Tony Blair left off in 2007 or Gordon Brown left off in 2010.
The last Labour government was the Labour party’s greatest electoral success. It transformed our public realm and brought into being a Britain more relaxed with itself. It had a record of improvement and innovation in the public services that no other Labour government can match and rescued and reinvigorated the NHS Aneurin Bevan founded. It built upon the foundations the first Wilson government laid of liberal reforms to gender, race, disability and LGBT legislation that came on leaps and bounds in the late 1990s and early Noughties. Under Labour, Britain took a leading role in Europe, the climate change debate, on aid and on the millennium development goals, and established the ‘Chicago doctrine’ on liberal interventionism.
Not everything was perfect – no one has suggested otherwise. The legacy of many decisions still looms large – especially the big reforms to the public sector and controversial foreign policy decisions. And it was ever thus – we progressives are never satisfied, our job never done. Why? Because we are the idealists. There will always be too much injustice, too much inequality, but we do not make progress the enemy of perfection.
So for Labour to move on it must move out of the shadow of the last Labour government. We must, therefore, put the last government – respectfully and resolutely – to bed.
In doing so it should be remembered that just winning was the product of hours of blood, sweat and tears. Neil Kinnock and his team were the start of the turnaround. The long road, continued on by John Smith and the two future prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, seemed to have few quick wins and genuinely involve heavy-lifting. What is more, the act of governing demanded a daily battle with the small ‘c’ conservative bureaucracy, a relentless media, an unchanged and then resurgent Tory party, Liberal Democrats as opportunist as ever, and, all too often, battles too among cabinet colleagues.
As I wrote last month, ‘Had we admitted the mistakes that actually led voters to remove Labour from office, Labour could have returned to government within one term.’ Not only is this no longer available as a path to victory, if it were it would now be wholly insufficient to meet the challenges Britain will face in the 2020s.
The last Labour government should, therefore, be the inspiration to be in government again, not the inspiration for the next government.
There are two factions inside the Australian Labor party: if people are a member of either because of a policy outlook it normally comes down to their view on the Hawke-Keating Labor governments of the 1980s and 1990s. One side believe the big reforms were welcome, successful and still serve Australia well, the other – the so-called left – believe it was a betrayal. Both factions, however, seem to agree that, either way, it was all too difficult and its not worth doing reforms on that scale again. This accounts for a lot of their recent difficulties. The British Labour party can continue to debate the record all it likes, but, whatever happens, unless it is satisfied with the prospect of decades of Tory rule, it cannot decide that government again is just too difficult.
Bedtime it might be, but only so the Labour movement – modernised and credible – can awaken as a party of government again.
Richard Angell is director of Progress.