Harriet Harman's wake-up call roused Labour to anger

Harriet Harman

It is hard to think what, if anything, has gone right for the Labour party since 9.55pm on election night.

Its hopes of slipping into Downing Street were dashed in one brutal exit poll.

Ed Miliband refused to remain to oversee a postmortem into the defeat. Within a fortnight, the scale of the reverse was absorbed and then un-absorbed, leaving all sides in the party to draw their own predetermined conclusions as to the causes of the loss.

Labour headed into an inward-looking personality-driven leadership contest. The dynamics of the campaign rapidly acted like an ideological magnet, pulling the party away from the electorate to the party’s selectorate.

The interim leader, Harriet Harman, made a brave attempt to get the party think about the meaning of the election result, asking Margaret Beckett to conduct a “lessons learned” review. Leadership candidates were sent to the marginal seat of Nuneaton for the first hustings and a potentially chastening meeting with a disillusioned middle-England electorate.

But it did not work out like that. The first question at that meeting was: why had Labour not done more to distance itself from Tony Blair, even though rejection of Blairism had been the leitmotif ofMiliband’s leadership?

As the contest wore on, there were occasional eruptions of despair. Jon Cruddas warned the party was in the death zone if it did not come to terms with Blair’s legacy. Lord Mandelson claimed the party had gone back to sleep within two days of the election result.

No big analysis of the crisis facing the party or social democracy in Europe had appeared, just a dispute about whether the party had spent too much in 2008.

This weekend, however, the torpor has finally been thrown off, surprisingly by the acting party leader herself.

Harman had been struck in the election that two issues kept coming back to her on the doorstep to explain why voters could not back Labour. There was no love of David Cameron, but unless Labour changed on the economy and on welfare, and was seen to change, the party was not going to get a hearing.

Harman is no Blairite poster child, so her decision to express these views was not taken on spur of the moment, but after much thought. She feared the summer months had the potential to do irreversible damage to the party. In 2010, as the party focused on the Miliband v Miliband election contest, the chancellor, George Osborne, carefully persuaded voters to blame Labour for the banking crash and for overspending. Labour, arguably, never recovered.

Before an interview on the BBC’s Sunday Politics, Harman won the backing of Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary and a supporter of Andy Burnham, and Chris Leslie, the shadow chancellor who is a supporter of Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary. There were also more direct consultations with the candidates.

But in retrospect, the whole enterprise was foolhardy. It was unlikely Labour MPs would want to to think afresh about welfare when the party was in such a raw mood, her own authority so temporary and the candidates could do nothing to risk alienating a party that had moved to the left.

Nevertheless, Harman decided to lead and gave the starkest message in her BBC interview. “We’ve got to wake up and recognise that this was not a blip. We’ve had a serious defeat and we must listen to why,” she said.

As a result, she said, the party would not oppose the welfare bill, nor the cap on household benefit nor the plan to stop families claiming child tax credits for more than two children. The acting leader thought she could rely on the support of the leadership candidates.

The briefing following the interview was more nuanced than the 15-minute appearance on BBC. The party would vote against the budget due to the tax cuts and the party did not support the abolition of the child poverty target. It was already party policy to support the benefit cap, it was pointed out.

But the briefings did not matter.

The backlash was nearly immediate, as one by one the candidates deserted her. It started with Corbyn, followed by Burnham and then Cooper, a response described by Frank Field as dismal. Inside the Burnham camp, the anger was palpable since there had been no shadow cabinet discussion on how to vote on the welfare bill. Only Kendall said Harman had been right to reflect on the public mood.

By mid-afternoon, the Harman team were in retreat, briefing that the vote on tax credits for a third child would not come until the autumn and so would be a decision for a future leader to make, a point missing in the BBC interview.

What had been intended as a big signal to the public resulted in disarray. But in the present debris, Harman may have achieved one thing. The 2010 leadership contest left much unsettled and undiscussed, she felt. Miliband’s famed party unity turned out to be largely bogus. At least this time, the long delayed cathartic debate can start.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Patrick Wintour, for The Guardian on Monday 13th July 2015 19.41 Europe/London

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