What is in a name?
The first election I have a decent memory of is 1997. I remember Tony Blair, beaming and youthful, walking up Downing Street. I remember everyone seeming very happy about this broad grinned new broom. Although I wasn’t really that switched on to the policy agenda of the 1997-2001 Labour government – I was too busy trying to get picked on the school football team despite possessing two left feet – looking back I can recognise a radical, genuinely progressive movement. I can see why, despite the awful mess of the post-2001 New Labour years, there are plenty of people within the party who would quite like to turn back the clocks.
I remember, in greater detail, the 2007 ascension of Gordon Brown, the financial collapse during my late school and early student days and then the last five years of stop start movement to the left, awkward photo opportunities and two steps forward, one step back. Yet for all the post-election pain, there is also still a strong appeal both in the old school, social conscience Labour of Brown in continuing the leftward tack embarked on by Ed Miliband. Labour is, and always has been, a broad church.
The narrative of an impending Blairite v. Brownite, Right v. Left battle in the Labour Party over the next few months seems, less than two weeks after Ed Miliband was driving down from Doncaster to hand in his notice, to be well established. Depending on where one stands, Labour either shot itself in the foot by abandoning the success of the Blair years, or began a long overdue transformations under Miliband that must be seen through if the Tories are to be defeated in 2020. To anyone outside of Labour it must seem like a dull, semantic slogging match. But the outcome will shape the next five years of British politics.
For a long time, the Tories had a similar problem. It might be assumed that the memory of Margaret Thatcher would only haunt the left. However, after her deposition in 1991, the Conservatives spent years in her shadow. Not only the shadow of her success, the benchmark for all future leaders of her party, but also of her divisive ideology. As the Tories suffered successive defeats in Westminster and in the polling stations of Britain, there was constant talk of revitalising Thatcherism and connecting again with the ideas that had brought the Conservative Party their greatest successes of modern history.
But, crucially, by May 2010 the Tories had finally stopped talking about Maggie. David Cameron’s election campaign that year was fraught, messy and ultimately indecisive, but he had succeeded in turning his party about face. The Conservatives, by the large, had their cheeks turned towards the future and not the past when the nation went to the polls.
So, while Tony Blair has often been compared to Britain’s only female Prime Minister for his neoliberal, often presidential approach to government, there is a more nuanced similarity between the two former PMs. Both left traumatic, but often not obvious, legacies on their respective parties. While the controversies of their time in power may draw the most attention from the public, in purely political terms it is the retrospective pull of their success that is most damaging. In the wilderness years of opposition, any party will find itself looking to the past for answers. But the danger is that serious reflection becomes idolatry and a rose tinted view of past successes is allowed to form, holding back reform and new ideas.
Interviewed last week, one of the senior architects of the Conservatives election victory gave perhaps the most deconstructed sound bite yet on the surprise result. ‘Elections are won by parties that look forwards’ he said and, having just won an election he should know. Any party that’s policies and approach seem stuck in the past will never be trusted with the reins of government by the electorate. Labour, more than any other party, should know that.
This is why it is vital that, in the weeks of necessary debate that are to come, Labour drops the Blair and Brown rhetoric. The party has spent five years stagnating in the name of unity and stability and in doing so allowed itself to be defined by the mistakes and controversies of the past. If it spends the next months, and then the next five years, being defined by the figures of its history then a Tory majority in 2020 is all but certain.