A battle for the soul of the Labour party was in full swing on Sunday as Peter Mandelson tore into what he called the “terrible” mistakes of Ed Miliband’s leadership, which produced the party’s worst election result since 1987.
Tony Blair had warned that Labour could recover only if it reoccupied the centre ground of British politics and his close ally Lord Mandelson said that Labour needed once again to champion the aspirational classes.
“We were sent off in 2010 on a sort of giant political experiment in which we were sent out and told to wave our fists angrily at the nasty Tories and wait for the public to realise how much they had missed us,” the former business secretary told the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1. “They weren’t missing us. They didn’t miss us. Instead they ripped the stripes off our shoulders.”
Blair had praised Miliband for showing “courage under savage attack” and campaigning brilliantly. But in an Observer article the former prime minister wrote: “The route to the summit lies through the centre ground.”
The interventions by two of the key architects of New Labour came as three leading members of the modernising wing of the shadow cabinet – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall and Tristram Hunt – signalled an interest in contesting for the Labour leadership. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, and Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, who are both expected to stand, kept their powder dry.
In a sign of the scale of the challenge facing Labour, the modernising candidates used dramatic language to explain the giant steps the party needed to take to win again. Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, said Labour would only win if the party championed aspirational voters who shop at John Lewis and Waitrose. Umunna, the shadow business secretary, who appeared alongside Mandelson on the sofa on the Marr show, said that Labour had been wrong to run a fiscal deficit as Britain entered the downturn in 2008. Kendall, the shadow care minister, called for a “fundamentally different approach” which would see Labour reach out to Conservative voters.
Mandelson, a veteran from the Labour battles of the 1980s, praised Miliband for showing passion but said that the party lost the election after making a “terrible mistake” in discarding New Labour and failing to revitalise it. The former business secretary, who said that Labour faced a challenge on the scale that Neil Kinnock faced in the late 1980s as he moved on after the challenge from the Militant Tendency, warned that the party could not ignore middle income earners.
“Far from embarking on a short-term beauty contest of leaders what we really need is a very, very thorough debate in the party of the sort that was denied us in 2010,” he said. “We were sent out and told to say things and to make an argument, if you can call it an argument, that said we are for the poor, we hate the rich – ignoring completely the vast swathes of the population who exist in between.”
Mandelson also said Labour must make sure that trade union leaders were not able to abuse the leadership contest as they did in 2010 when they placed large photos of Ed Miliband on ballot papers sent to their members. The current leadership contest will be fought under a new “one member one vote” system in which each party member will have one vote, although Mandelson pointed out that 2.5 million trade unionists who pay the political levy would be given a vote if they enrolled as affiliated members.
The former business secretary told the Marr show: “If we are going to have people declaring that they are Labour supporters in that way, and given a vote, then every single one of those individuals needs to be validated by the party staff and the party headquarters. We cannot open ourselves up to the sort of abuse and inappropriate influence that the trade unions weighed in with in our leadership election in 2010.
“The trade union machines or certain of them, basically Unite and Unison, put Ed Miliband’s photograph on their ballot papers and put his election material in the ballot envelopes. No other candidate got a look in. That is the sort of abuse by trade union machines that we must guard against.”
Mandelson later made an unscheduled appearance on Pienaar’s Politics on BBC Radio 5 Live to challenge Hunt during his appearance on the programme over the failure to include anything in the party’s manifesto to promote economic growth. He said: “It was the big hole in the middle of the polo mint.”
Hunt said the Labour party needed to appeal to the “John Lewis community”, including those who aspired to shop there and at Waitrose, rather than sticking to appealing to its core vote.
“The debate needs to be long and deep and painful for the Labour party because we are in a real hole – a hole in Scotland and a hole in England and there are challenges in Wales as well,” Hunt said.
“The issue in England is this double bind of losing traditional Labour communities often under pressure from Ukip, and not speaking to an aspirational John Lewis couple who we are on their side.”
In his appearance on the Marr show, Umunna demonstrated his belief that Labour needed to break with the past five years when he said that the party needed to recognise that it should not have run a budget deficit going into the economic crash.
He said: “On the economic competence point – going into the crash, should we have been running an, albeit small and historically unremarkable, deficit? Of course we shouldn’t.”
The Conservatives won 331 Commons seats on 36.9% of the vote, giving David Cameron an unexpected 15-seat parliamentary majority and a second term as prime minister. Labour won 232 seats on 30.4% of the popular vote, far below polling expectations and the party’s worst defeat since 1987. Frontbenchers Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander and the Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy were among the biggest casualties. Ed Miliband resigned on Friday morning, plunging the party into a leadership contest.
This article was written by Nicholas Watt, Rowena Mason and Toby Helm, for theguardian.com on Sunday 10th May 2015 11.31 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010