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So, Francis Maude and I were right. Meeting by chance last week in a hotel in Nottingham we old soldiers spoke about how much 2015 felt like 1992. Just like John Major’s surprise victory, when undecided voters finally focused on the choice before them they were swayed by the two most salient factors in general elections: economic competence and leadership. Indeed, despite Ed Miliband doing rather better than his detractors had predicted, the only major new factor emerging during the campaign was the successful Conservative attempt to worry English voters about the consequences of the Scottish National party holding the balance of power. Labour canvassers reported this issue coming up repeatedly on the doorstep.
With Mr Miliband leaving the stage the focus will quickly turn to who will be Labour’s next leader. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are likely to be the experienced runners in the field with Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves and possibly Liz Kendall or Tristram Hunt representing the new generation. But behind the personalities lies a deeper question, versions of which always emerge after electoral defeat.
On the one hand, there is a story of reassurance and continuity. From this perspective Labour’s defeat was a result of one-off factors such as the rise of the SNP and Mr Miliband’s personal unpopularity: elect a more voter friendly leader, wait for the SNP flame to die down, watch the Tories tear themselves apart over Europe and all will be well.
On the other hand, there is a story of self-criticism and modernisation. While the ageing cadre of New Labour true believers exert little or no direct influence over today’s Labour party, this view starts from Tony Blair’s prescient electoral prediction last December: “A traditional leftwing party competes with a traditional rightwing party, with the traditional result.”
From this perspective Labour only wins when it can ally a progressive message on social justice to voters’ personal aspirations and a convincing explanation of why social democracy offers the best answer to the challenges posed by the future. Right now, the space for a future narrative is open ground. The 2015 election was largely a contest about who could make tomorrow better than yesterday, based on the assumption it would be pretty much like today. None of the parties seriously engaged with the major forces — technology, changing social attitudes and the many facets of globalisation — which will transform our lives over the coming decades.
To many observers, a thoroughgoing modernisation of the Labour party: its organisation, message and policies, may seem an obviously better strategy than a superficial makeover. But the Labour party is a profoundly small “c” conservative institution, with substantial power lying with a group of trade union leaders either deaf or indifferent to the people who have just re-elected David Cameron.
The election result poses Labour with some big, perhaps existential, choices. If the party is to face up to them it will take real courage from those aspiring to be its next leader.
The writer is a former Downing Street adviser to Tony Blair