Sorry will not save us
My friend Jessica Asato of Progress has an interesting post on Labourlist saying that Labour should apologise for a range of policy mistakes (http://www.labourlist.org/why-labour-should-apologise-jessica-asato) and that this might help us win the coming General Election.
I beg to differ.
As regular readers will know, I like to look for excuses to quote Morrissey lyrics, so here goes:
"Sorry Doesn't Help
Sorries pour out of you
All wide-eyed simple smiles
certain to see you through
like a QC full of fake humility
you say:"Oh, please forgive..."
you say:"Oh, live and let live..."
but sorry doesn't help us
and sorry will not save us"
So why won't sorry save Labour?
1) We won't be able to agree on what to say sorry for. Jess picks three issues: over kow-towing to finance, Iraq and lack of constitutional reform. I kind of agree with her about the first, if she means that we didn't prioritise regrowing Britain's manufacturing base, but expecting a PM who was Chancellor for ten years to apologise for policies that gave us ten years of economic growth is not a starter, and whilst I accept Labour should have regulated the City more tightly I'm not going to sign up to anything that implies culpability for the current financial crisis, which was caused by sub-prime mortgage lending in America and nothing to do with UK policies. On the second, there are still a great many of us who think Iraq was the right thing to do and that nit-picking about the decision-making process or conflicting legal advice is the last resort of people who have lost a moral argument. On the third, I'm a great enthusiast for proportional representation, devolution to regions and to councils, and a wholly elected House of Lords. But me and Jess are in a minority on this - most Labour MPs and most of our Cabinet are constitutional conservatives. So trying to choose things to apologise for would split the Party.
2) Voters want positive reasons to vote for a Party, not a public reminder of things they disagreed with in the past. We have enough positive things to say about our record and about our vision. We need to get the narrative of the election focused on those, not stuck in the divisions of the past.
3) The issues Jess picked are not actually that resonant with most voters. We won in 2005 when Iraq was a far more resonant issue, despite losing a large lump of Muslim, student and urban liberal votes to the Lib Dems. Now Iraq is ancient history for most voters, and the groups who went AWOL in 2005 are mainly back on board but we've lost a whole bunch of other voters for whom the economy is the main issue. Constitutional reform is of great interest to people like me and Jess who live in London N post codes but of virtually no interest to either our core vote or the swing voters who decide elections.
4) I'm a great advocate of saying "sorry" in politics if you are an individual politician who has made a mistake or changed your judgement on an issue. But for an entire Party to issue a collective mea culpa for judgements that were collectively arrived at after extensive debate is basically to say to the electorate "we're so useless even we can't defend our record. Please kick us even harder on polling day. And you can never trust our judgement again because we can't even trust ourselves to get the big issues right."
5) It's fine for individual MPs and PPCs to distance themselves from unpopular party decisions if they had the moral courage to rebel in the first place. I have no problem with John Denham, who resigned as a minister over Iraq, saying "told you so" or asking his Southampton electors to take his personal stance into consideration. In 2005 I ran as a PPC explicitly condemning two of the three most contentious Labour flagship policies: top-up tuition fees and foundation hospitals. But the party as a whole backing a line, then discovering post hoc it was unpopular or flawed and applying a retrospective u-turn isn't likely to make voters sympathetic - they'll just think we are two-faced and go whichever way the wind blows.
6) The James Crabtree piece that Jess cites claims Cameron has apologised for the past mistakes of the Tories. In fact he hasn't. He's changed the Tory position on some iconic issues but the fundamentals of their economic approach are those of hardline Thatcherism and he has not said anything to indicate contrition for the record of the Thatcher and Major governments.
7) Why focus on one or two things the public didn't like at the expense of the 98% of our record that has been great? There are enough people outside the Labour Party and on our daft wing (Compass et al) highlighting perceived Labour failures without party moderates joining in. We should adopt the slogan (and attitude) of the Swedish Social Democrats which saw them repeatedly returned to power: "Proud but not satisfied".
If we are going to win this year it will be because we, Labour's "true believers", do what our Australian counterparts did to win a fourth term against the odds in 1993, and what Harry Truman did to win a fifth term for the Democrats in 1948: keep our heads high, keep fighting, don't apologise for anything, don't accept the right's narrative about our record, and stick a banner in the ground for our people to rally round.
If we lose then we can either spend four years navel-gazing and debating "where did it all go wrong", which is a strategy guaranteed to split the party and lead us to adopt electorally unpopular policies to make ourselves feel better; or we can establish a narrative that Labour's time in power was great for the party, great for the country, and the sooner we get these Tories kicked out and carry on where we left off, the better.