Desperate times call for desperate measures. On the back of big defeat must come big bold ideas for how to turn setback into opportunity. Some will be little more than the stuff of fantasy. Others may have the grains of possibility within them.
So let’s start with fantasy. Last night, back from a short and inspiring trip to Norway and Denmark, which stood in contrast to the long and uninspiring trip through UK politics of late, I had a big bold idea for Labour.
I am afraid that it does – bear with me – involve Scotland leaving the UK. It also involves Wales leaving the UK. But then Scotland and Wales will join Norway and Denmark, and maybe a bit of Northern Germany – there will be a vote between Hamburg and Edinburgh for capital – and we create a new country called the United Progessive Archipelago. I thought if the Scans were to miss out on the capital at least UPALAND sounds Scandinavian enough.
As the designer of this new country I feel that perhaps I should be King but then as a lifelong Republican, this would be an anti progressive stance. Instead we will have an elected executive based in the new Parliament which will be part of the underwater city to be built halfway along the tunnel – funded entirely by the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund – linking Scotland and Norway.
The Presidency will rotate between the five parts of the federal structure we will be creating. In fact, you know what, capital city is a bit anti progressive too. The capitals can rotate too. Yes Cardiff, you shall have your day, but please accept English as the main UPALAND language. It is too much to expect Norwegians and Danes to learn Welsh given they all speak fluent English from the kindergarten days. Also English will remind the former UK countries of an important part of our history. I met Adam Price, creator of hit Danish TV series Borgen, in Copenhagen and, Shakespeare alas no longer with us, he will be the official chronicler of the trials and struggles as this great new country is forged.
Oh ok. Yes, as my former Downing Street colleague Tim Allan said yesterday when I raised this new idea ‘in the old days I had a number to call at this point to summon in fresh medication.’
But why did the impulse come? Well first it is hard to escape the conclusion that, living in England, I am living in a largely conservative, non progressive country, and I do not really want to live in one of those any more. Wales is Labour. Tick. Scotland is not Tory which is not as good as being Labour but it is better than being Tory and I am hopeful of persuading Nicola Sturgeon and Co that though they want independence from Tory England, they would embrace unity with the United Progressive Archipelago especially as the Norwegian Wealth Fund – you can get an app by the way (this bit is not fantasy) which reveals in real time how many millions it is adding to the billions – has made such economic hay out of oil.
Now Norwegians among you may note a snag here and indeed Danes may warn me there is a possible snag just days ahead – namely that Norway is currently Tory, whilst Denmark has a general election a week today and Social Democrat leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt, if the polls of the last couple of years are to be believed, ought to be dead and buried.
So why did I come away from Norway and Denmark so inspired, an re-energised by progressive politics and politicians?
Let’s take Norway first. Well, I got to see 16-year-old football wonderkid Martin Odegaard play in the flesh and I could see immediately we have a new cross between Messi, Scholes, Giggs and Dean Marney (look it up) on our hands. Martin will be captain of the UPALAND national side, we will aim for World Cup victory under the new FIFA in 2034 (you see how big I am thinking here,) and having given up my rightful role as Monarch, I will be team manager.
Back to reality. What I loved about Norway was the answer of Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre when I asked him how he intended to win the next election. Often at times like this, a private chat over breakfast, the politician comes back to a question like that with smart tactical ideas, a good slogan and news of the hiring of a hotshot foreign advisor.
He said this. ‘There are five big issues and give big themes for me and we need to build a campaign and an argument around them.’
– population growth. Oslo alone will grow from 600,000 to 800,000 and that will bring new opportunities for new business investment but it will also mean new schools and hospitals and a new way of dealing with and winning a progressive argument on immigration.
– ageing. How do we see this as an opportunity as well as a threat to traditional welfare models? How do we develop the concept of the family amid demographic change?
– urbanisation and the fact that more and more people will live in towns and cities and what are the questions that arise for the future of our rural areas and our agriculture?
– technology. The waves of change of late have been so powerful and we can expect the pace of change to be maintained. How do we use that for better educational and industrial performance?
– finally he said his personal passion was climate change and we had to win the argument that there had to be huge change to the way we live for us to meet that challenge which he also believed to be linked to the other four challenges above.
When he had finished I just put down my knife and fork and said thank you. Thank you for being a political leader who sees election campaigns as being about big themes requiring big ideas and big solutions.
He, in common with leaders I have met in a number of countries since the election, said he could not understand why the UK campaign was so small and so parochial. ‘You didn’t even debate Europe and now you are having a referendum?’ t think British people would be stunned if they knew how closely other countries followed our politics – I even had a Singaporean taxi driver asking me about Labour’s Edstone when I was there a fortnight ago. They look to us because our politics and our campaigns often shape theirs. Not this time.
Now don’t get me wrong. As I learned from the meetings with his strategy team and his deputy leaders later, they do the detail of campaigning too, not just big picture. But they were striving, two years out, to get the strategic building blocks in place. This is something that I am afraid Labour did not do with clarity or consistency. The Tories had two planks to their strategy – economy and leadership. We did not rebut their attacks on the first and so allowed Labour falsely to be painted as the cause of economic calamity after a decade of growth and prosperity which ended badly not because of spending the Tories supported or bank regulation they said was too strong, but because of mainly American bankers none of whom would vote for a left of centre party if you doubled their bonus.
And on leadership we were behind through the whole Parliament so that when the polls started to show a minority Labour government propped up by an SNP Ed Miliband said he would not even talk to, the Tories had a brilliant tactical storm into which to launch their economy and leadership fireworks. ‘You may not like us. But what is a better form of government? One led by someone who has now done it for five years? Or a minority government led by someone many of you consider to be weak propped up by a tough Scottish woman who wants to tax more, spend more, borrow more?’ Conservative England rose to answer.
But on both of those planks of the Tory strategy we helped put them in place. I like Ed personally but I am afraid the many among the public never saw him as a Prime Minister and though he campaigned well we never got the right economic or electoral strategy in place. A good campaign cannot be called a good campaign without a good strategy.
So now – bear with me any Danes who may be reading, I am coming to you shortly – we have to choose another leader. I for one wish we were having a leadership election at the end of the debate about our loss not as a replacement for it. But there we are and here we are.
I will vote for somebody, of course, but I’m not going to back anybody publicly. Whoever wins I will offer support and advice if it is wanted, as I always have. But if in two or three years time it is obvious from all we see and hear from the public that the new leader is not winning, and it is obvious we are not going to get close to winning an election, I will not bite my tongue and I will encourage others not to bite their tongues and I will happily lead the charge to try to replace whoever is leader. As I said to the Times for the series they are currently running on why we lost and where we go now, it is not complicated. You need a good strong leader, a clear compelling strategy that speaks to the reality of people’s lives, you need a great team and you need to hunt them down and inspire the best to want to join you, you need innovation and you need resilience and you need to fight like your lives depend on it.
Which brings me to Denmark. Two years ago when I was there everyone told me my friend Helle was going to lose. Six months ago they said she was still likely to lose but things were turning a little. This week she was ahead in most of the polls and momentum was with her.
Now polls, don’t we know it, can be wrong. But the momentum point is important. And where did it come from? It came from strategy. She made a speech at the New Year which laid out big strategic themes and a plan to roll them out. It came from resilience. She has been battered by her opponents and the media and she just keeps going. It came from authenticity. It took a long time for the Danes to realise that ‘Gucci Helle,’ as she was dubbed for so long, is a lot more than a pretty face and nice clothes. But nor was she going to stop wearing nice clothes and taking care of how she looked because of a lazy insult thrown her way. And it came above all from the right political positioning. She sees New Labour positioning and Blairite politics combining enterprise and compassion not as ‘toxic’ but as the way to fight and win the power you need to put your compassion into action. We hear a lot about learning the lessons of defeat. It is time to start learning lessons of victory and for all our faults and any mistakes TB and his team made, a three in a row winner might be the place to start.
Helle could still lose. It is close but her main opponent Lars Lokke Rasmussen is uninspiring and mistakes he has made in this Parliament are coming back front of mind. The system is complicated however and it depends not just on how she does – and even her enemies say she is doing well – but how smaller parties do. But if she does win it will be because she deserves to because she made the right calls politically and strategically. I am not sure Labour here can say the same.
So as for the next leader and how the party approaches the next few years, frankly we have to toughen up about what you need to do to win.
As I say in the Times today, we have now gone through the last two elections with deep down many of us thinking we couldn’t win, telling each other we couldn’t win then telling the public we can or kidding ourselves that we could. We’ve got to become as ruthless as the Tories and stop pretending that it’s a bad thing to say that if you’re in politics you have to want to win more than anything else because if you don’t win you end up where we are now – powerless to do anything for the people we claim to speak for and who we know are going to have five years of crap ahead, possibly more. It is evidence of the ludicrous mindset of some of our people that somehow we should look at the most successful election winning leader we ever had as a problem. I am all in favour of learning lessons about defeat. But there are a few lessons from victory too.
The next leader is going to have to be big and bold, inspire the next generation, make the weather, foster talent and find a way to get the big strategic questions right. Rooted in our values but not afraid of new ideas, new people, new ways of doing things.
There will be some who think the idea of someone like me publicly saying before we even have the new leader that we should try to oust them if they are failing is daft or disloyal. But it is not. Politicians are fond of everyone else in top public sector jobs being subject to regular assessment and review. So why not the leader of the opposition ? In my view the next leader should embrace this approach and embrace the idea of a confirmation process in the run up to a general election. It could be a massive opportunity. If the next leader turns out to be good and look like they can win, then great, they get confirmed in a big moment of renewal and energy before the run in to the election. And if the debate shows the party thinks the leader is not up to it, perhaps because we have had had three years of the public telling us so – and they are the boss by the way – then off they go. Sorry but there is it. Football managers have to deal with it. CEOs have to deal with it. If leaders fail, they go. It’s the real world and it is time we got back into it.
So I would love it if the contenders came out and said what is self-evidently true: ‘if I get the job we won’t necessarily know for sure if I can do it well and become real PM material, because it is a massive step up, so let’s have this confirmation process in place down the track and watch me show you I can do it and relish the chance to show it.’ And if they get challenged by someone better and lose then so be it. I am a big believer in unity but not in collective denial dressed up as unity.
This could be a massive opportunity for a good leader and an important fail safe if we don’t get one.
Also remember that David Cameron is going to go. The Tories will have a new leader in this parliament. That is going to give them the chance to be party of change, to have new energy, direction to make the weather again, and we could be rumbling on, grumbling about the new leader but then going out and telling the public things are ok really.
Here is another thing — people said Ed performed much better later on than earlier. He had a good campaign. But imagine if that shift had taken place a year or so earlier in a really open and challenging debate which forced him to pin down and and defend basic strategic positions. He could have risen then. Or he could have fallen.
But having spent the first third of my adult working life covering Labour defeats as a journalist, the next third helping Labour win by doing what you need to do to win, I am not going to sit back and spend the rest of my life watching us lapse into a wretched comfort zone that sees one defeat follow another. The candidates need to see the election as their job interview. But the real interviewers are the public because ultimately only they will decide if someone is up to being PM. we would be wise to bear that in mind at all times. I intend to do my best to make sure we do. We are saying to the public: ‘This is the person we think you should be your next Prime Minister.’ That is a big choice to make.
One of the reasons I wrote the book on WINNERS was to set out the case for the defence of winning as a great objective but also because I was so frustrated that a lot of the things you have to do to win were not really being done. I was fine about Ed’s team saying they wanted to do things differently to New Labour. But what I am not fine about is mistaking doing things differently with not doing the blindingly obvious you need to do to give yourselves a fighting chance of winning. We cannot make that mistake again. If we do, we risk extinction as a winning political force.
Good luck to Jonas. Good luck to Helle. And long live UPALAND. The capital shall be called STRATEGY. The national anthem shall be a bagpipe version of ‘Things Can Only Get Better.’