At first I thought William Saletan’s latest column in Slate, Pelosi’s Triumph, was going to be yet another piece of post-election straw-clutching denial. You know the sort of thing: “It could have been worse!”, “We’ve still got the Senate!”, and so on.
Instead, it turned into a thoughtful and persuasive argument that what matters in politics isn’t winning and losing elections, but what happens between elections. Health care is being blamed for the Democrats’ defeat, but as Saletan points out:
…if health care did cost the party its majority, so what? The bill was more important than the election.
He quotes David Frum, who wrote back in March:
Legislative majorities come and go. This healthcare bill is forever.
As Saletan observes:
Politicians have tried and failed for decades to enact universal health care. This time, they succeeded. In 2008, Democrats won the presidency and both houses of Congress, and by the thinnest of margins, they rammed a bill through. They weren’t going to get another opportunity for a very long time. It cost them their majority, and it was worth it.
This made me consider two Labour governments: the New Labour government of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and the Attlee government.
New Labour took as fundamental the need to win and retain power, and it did so with great success, resulting in easily the longest continuous period of Labour government in history. However, it is undoubtedly the case that New Labour’s focus on the retention of power – that is, winning elections – distorted and constrained its actions in office, leading to a familiar sequence of lurches between populist “eye-catching initiatives” and cautious hedging aimed at keeping Middle England (and the Daily Mail and Murdoch press) on board as far as possible.
As a result, while New Labour achieved far more in office than many of its critics outside and inside the party often acknowledge, it has become painfully apparent in recent months how easy it will be for the Conservatives to obliterate vast areas of Labour achievement from 1997 to 2010. By 2015, one wonders how much of the New Labour legacy will survive at all.
By contrast, the Attlee government only achieved 6 years in office, and in particular failed to win re-election for even one further full term after the 1945 landslide. On the Blairite template this makes Attlee a failure. However, Clement Attlee and his colleagues spent their time from 1945 to 1950 concentrating more on what they did with power than on how they would retain it. As a result, they reshaped and transformed British life in ways that survive to this day, and to which even the Tories still have to pay lip-service.
In short, the Attlee government achieved (and, I’d have to say, New Labour did not) the outcome that William Saletan ascribes to the healthcare bill:
a huge structural change in the relationship between the public, the economy, and the government.
It’s tempting after this year’s election defeat, and especially as we look in horror at what is happening under the new government, to think in terms of how Labour can secure another long period in office. Perhaps, though, we should take a leaf out of Clement Attlee’s book (and, William Saletan might argue, Nancy Pelosi’s), and realise that a single term of radical transformation may be better than three or four terms of cautious hedging and managerialism.