As the graph shows, two party politics has been slowly dying since the 1950s. However our electoral system continues to make it surprisingly easy for one party to form a Government. But, if this pattern continues, then Government - all Governments - will increasingly lack legitimacy.
But the media likes simple battles and simplistic analysis. It was particularly saddening to hear the BBC election night post-mortem on Ed Miliband. Within a few minutes everyone had agreed that he was too left-wing and perhaps it was time for someone more centrist. Given that the votes that Labour had wanted were in the hands of UKIP, SNP, the Greens or those who hadn't voted, this is an extraordinary claim.
But we do struggle to think outside the categories handed to us by the past. The battle between Old Labour and New Labour continues to dominate the thinking of those inside and outside the Labour Party. But isn't it time to move beyond this increasingly meaningless conflict? The Labour Party has much to be proud of, across its history, but Old Labour and New Labour are ideas that are not fit for purpose:
- Old Labour was rooted in assumptions about the rationality and effectiveness of state control. It founded the welfare state, but failed to modernise the welfare state and its paternalism has left the welfare state vulnerable to attack from those who do not care about justice or human rights.
- New Labour was an adaption to the emerging intellectual and political forces of neoliberalism. Although highly successful as an electoral strategy it is much more difficult to identify its practical achievements. The UK was already leading the way in inequality by 2010 and the dreadful current Government is often building on New Labour policies.
The shared weakness of Old and New Labour is a patronising attitude to ordinary people. One of the founders of the influential Fabian movement, Beatrice Webb said:
"We have little faith in the 'average sensual man', we do not believe that he can do more than describe his grievances, we do not think he can prescribe the remedies."
This negative and anti-democratic view of ordinary people is toxic. Too often Labour has preferred to give power to Whitehall, instead of shifting control to citizens, communities or local government. If Labour wants to inspire people with hope then it needs to have more faith in people themselves and to express that faith much more clearly.
Victory is not dreaming about old successes and wishing the world hadn't changed. Victory is not redefining your goals so you can achieve something not worth achieving. Victory means setting your sights high and working hard to do something really worthwhile. True victory requires work and the imagination to try out things that you've never done before.
New thinking means embracing heresy; and so here are a few heretical thoughts:
- Create an Anti-Austerity pact - If Labour really cares about justice it would work with others who also do. This is an ideal time for Labour to reach out to the SNP and the Greens - it has little to lose and much to gain.
- Embrace constitutional reform - Seek reform, not just of the electoral system, but also of the House of Lords and build a fair settlement for the home countries and for local government.
- Make human rights central - Instead of allowing the Government to treat human rights as if they are only important to terrorists show why they matter to everyone - especially to our universal socio-economic rights.
- Stop finessing policy - Policy-making should be a public process. What the Labour Party needs to do is set out the values and help build consensus for a better way forward - use the energy and ideas of others to create that new consensus.
- Reframe the data - Truth helps, but you need to ask the right questions about justice, the economy, health and wellbeing and the environment and to confidently share the right data.
- Work with your allies - The Labour Party's roots in the trade unions and in the wider interests of civil society are critical to building trust around a new consensus.
- Boycott the BBC and Murdoch - The mainstream media have lost the plot and it may take some radical action by Labour to help get them back on track. Alternative and social media outlets - and existing allies like the Daily Mirror - will help get the truth out, and eventually the mainstream media will want to re-engage.
I am sure there are many other better ideas out there too. But don't give into fear and get boxed into a corner - use this time well. Remember that, if the Labour Party is about justice - not just jobs for the boys - then sacrificing a few sacred cows could be just the ticket.
In a changing world the Labour Party needs to adapt, but not just adapt. More importantly it has to find its true purpose - it's not Blue Labour - but True Labour - that we need.