The Labour party should be disappointed, deeply so; but not disheartened. We lost. But there is nothing preventing us winning next time other than ourselves. This may seem odd to say but we have a huge opportunity. The country defaulted to the Tories. It didn’t desire them. That explains the difference between the polls and the result. We should be energised, not depressed.
All of us in the party now have a responsibility: no comfort zones, no confusion between tactics and strategy, no believing we have avoided division when we have only avoided decision, no refuge in complexity because we won’t recognise simplicity.
Defeat is bitter; but it can also be instructive. Choosing a new leader is important, but not nearly as important as choosing direction.
As someone who supported David Miliband for the leadership, I want to say this about Ed. He showed courage under savage attack, resilience under a pressure few can understand unless they have experienced it, and put his heart and soul into the fight. He campaigned often brilliantly in the election. I came to admire and like him. He may blame himself for losing. But no one else should.
The defeat, however, was severe; and the boundary changes that will be a Tory priority to put through will make the hill so much steeper.
There are three things that should govern our approach. The first: the route to the summit lies through the centre ground. Labour has to be for ambition and aspiration as well as compassion and care. “Hard-working families” don’t just want us to celebrate their hard work; they want to know that by hard work and effort they can do well, rise up, achieve. They want to be better off and they need to know we don’t just tolerate that; we support it.
We have to appeal to those running businesses as well as those working in them. We need to persuade people that we will run the economy well and efficiently and that must contain a measured defence of our economic record when in government which correctly describes the impact of the global financial crisis of 2008 but also acknowledges where we could have done better. We have to conduct the big argument on the wealth-creating potential of the macro-economy, not only the targeted campaign on the injustices of it. So we were proud in 1997 to put forward the case for Britain’s first minimum wage. But we could never have won an election on it unless set within a broader framework. The same is true with zero-hours contracts.
We must fashion a role for government that is strategic and empowering of individuals; which understands that today people will not trust or want the state to do everything for them, but who do want to know that government is at their side, ready and, as important, effective enough to deliver for them when they need it. If we aren’t the reformers of public services and the welfare state, the Tories will be the destroyers of them.
The centre ground is as much a state of mind as a set of policies. It means that we appreciate that in today’s world many of the solutions will cross traditional boundaries of left and right. We need not just to be comfortable with this; but actively to seek out the alliances to embrace those outside our tribe as well as within it. Leading the debate over why Britain should stay in Europe offers a great chance to do so.
Second, the centre is not where you split the difference between progressive and conservative politics. It is where progressive politics gets the breadth of territory to allow it to own the future. The Labour project must always be one oriented to the future. We win when we understand the way the world is changing and make sense of how those changes can be shaped for the good of the people. We have to be the policy innovators, those seeking new and creative solutions to the problems our values impel us to overcome.
The world is an extraordinary market place of new thinking right now. We should be searching out the ideas we can learn from and develop. But this requires real thinking with an open mind, not an attempt to find our way back to hallowed ground which represents a dead end.
So, for example, technology alone should be revolutionising the way we deliver public services. We would never design our health and education systems as they’re presently constituted if we were starting them today because technology offers so many ways of doing things differently.
There is great work being done around new forms of civic engagement and community delivery. Some of the best ideas are to be found in the leadership of our own local councils. Housing, infrastructure, modern industrial policy, social impact investment: there is a riot of interesting progressive analysis and thinking going on out there. We have to access it and lead it. Ed was absolutely right to raise the issue of inequality and to say that Labour should focus anew on it. This will stand as his contribution to the party’s development. In so far as this was an implied rebuke to my politics, I accept it. But we still need ways relevant to today and tomorrow – not yesterday – to tackle it.
Third, good ideas with poor organisation or strategy fail. We need to reflect on how to build a party, how it is organised, run and decisions made. I was impressed with the party machine in the election. Our people were fantastic on the ground. But I mean something different. How we build new constituencies of support, how we interact with them, how we open ourselves up to new energy and people: that is a task all in itself. This is the time for fundamental party renewal. Strategy and tactics must align. So if we’re going for the centre strategically, be careful of an accumulation of policies, even if individually popular, that, taken together, contradict that strategy and send us too far left. If we’re open-minded and appeal to the future, then of course we should control immigration, but we should be the standard bearers against Ukip politics and hammer the Tories’ indulgence of them. We’re for rules, not prejudices.
Scotland is a vast challenge. But we will never win it back by being more “Scottish” and more “left”. We will win when we confront the whole ideology of nationalism, which is a reactionary philosophy masquerading as progressive; and when we present the people of Scotland with policies that are forward-looking, progressive and not based on the myth that Scotland’s problems will be solved by a different relationship with England, any more than England’s problems will be solved by leaving Europe.
The Tories are not reformed. That is why they’re beatable. But we have to resolve our own challenge of reformation. We didn’t in 2007. We didn’t in 2010. This is not about arguing over the past or returning to it. It is because understanding the past is the key to the present and the future.
The path to the top will last five years and will be arduous. But it should also excite us. We can do this; but as ever, our destiny is in our own hands.
Tony Blair is a former prime minister and founder and patron of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.