Anyone who’s interested in what’s next should read Lewis Goodall’s Left for Dead? though, truth be told, I am not sure what they will conclude from it. That is the fault not of the writer but of us readers who cherry pick anecdotes in order to confirm things that we have always suspected. (That at any rate is what I intend to do below.)
Left for Dead? is probably the best journalist-written book about the Labour party since Andrew Rawnsley’s door-stopping spectaculars. But where Rawnsley relied on his web of contacts to give us insider knowledge about who swore at whom, Goodall’s approach is more analytic and thematic with first hand accounts from his role as a reporter on the road. Like Collins and Peston, he provides a back story: I’m reluctant (because I don’t like this type of labelling) to say that it makes his journalism more authentic though it kind of does – it certainly provides a thread of anger and disappointment which channels Kinnock’s 1985 Bournemouth speech. The Labour party – the Labour party – should do better. This without coming across as partisan. You feel that he is writing on behalf of his family and friends, based in Birmingham’s Northfield constituency, hoping that should they read the book they will trust that he is on their side.
I don’t think that the Labour party will again win office until it has come to terms with Tony Blair, warts and all. There was a time when the discourse about Blair within Labour itself involved a full-throated defence of the 1997-2010 governments, countered with ‘but Iraq’, repeated to fade. This drowned out more nuanced analyses about what Blair’s careful self-positioning in opposition to his own party meant in practice. It’s easy, of course, with hindsight to laugh at the then seriously-held idea that the world would want Britain’s advice on how to successfully part-privatise a major utility such as the London Underground, the encouragement of gambling or the pursuit of a 24-hours cafe culture. Goodall nails it as early as page 6, in which he quotes his dad musing about the collapse of MG Rover
how funny it was that the fate of all his old mates was being decided in a boardroom somewhere, in another language, by people we’d never met, by a company we’d never heard of, in a country none of us were ever likely to visit
Change like this doesn’t affect everyone in the same way. Blair and Brown’s governments had adopted a mantra that change – probably negative change – was inevitable and people had to wise up and take advantage of new opportunities that the government would provide (but which it would not necessarily have the skills to rhetorically defend). At the same time, the development of cities was prioritised over that of towns. Goodall is himself an example of someone who benefited from the opportunities provided by the focus on education; he has not fallen for the conceit that he built his life all by himself, but not everyone in the same boat has similar self-awareness. So Left for Dead? provides a critique that focuses on the muting of social democracy as a moral crusade and agent of positive change and provider of personal agency such that decisions are not made by ‘people we’d never met’. The 2019 Labour manifesto would be possibly unfairly portrayed as a document in which the state once again provided nice things such as broadband and the population became people to whom things were done. The problem was that Labour had not won the credibility to show that it would be able to deliver. And nor could it answer Goodall Senior’s point about his mates being able to decide their own fate.
Whoever wins the next Labour leadership election, the left and centre-left will need to think about what government is for – and to forge an affinity between people and society so that government provides agency and citizens understand that. Left for Dead? provides a comprehensive overview of the landscape in which the new leaders will have to operate. As such, it remains compulsory reading. It can’t provide the answers, although Goodall has a go. But it really does ask the questions. Left for Dead? is just the first of those.