The Blog

Is Bland Careerism Killing Politics?

Labour lost 16 million votes in the 2010 general election. There are local elections in just under one month's time. This is Labour's opportunity to show people that we are on their side, that we share their struggles and their fears. Too many people feel ignored by the political class.

Much has been written about George Galloway's shock victory in Bradford. This ranges from the sublime "young people refusing to be sacrificed to the logic of austerity" to the ridiculous "if Labour's leader were the Iraq-war-supporting David Miliband we wouldn't have lost."

As Labour activists, it was painful to see the party lose to George Galloway. But whatever you think of him, of one thing there can be no doubt - he is a passionate, outspoken politician. And it's clear that he invigorated the electorate.

Such passion was once the norm in Labour politics but today it's so often lacking. We have lived through a period where looking like and sounding like a bland middle manager was the order of the day. The New Labour obsession with triangulation demanded that no one said anything of much consequence, and - heaven forfend - the touchstone required being careful that nothing was said with which anyone eg the press, might disagree.

This cautious approach to public debate may have ensured no bad headlines, but we are living with the legacy of the fears that generated it. Rather than saying what we really think - even if the heavens do fall - we dress our deepest beliefs up in language that won't cause offence. We hover on a cushion rather than stand on the ground!

There may be good reasons for this approach. Building a consensus in our politics - constructing that mythical Big Tent - is an important way of establishing alliances and enabling the basis for a more socially just society to be constructed.

But it comes at a cost when ideas and policies that have the power to challenge structural inequalities no longer have the space to be tried out, batted about and either accepted or rejected.

We should challenge some of the passionless rhetoric that we all too easily fall back on. Labour might well want to support 'hard working families', we might well wish to speak for the concerns of 'Middle England', but Labour has a mission to speak out for those who have no work, for those who don't vote, for those who are not middle class and who do not live according to so-called 'middle class values'.

We need to reach those who are struggling, those who have no voice. And this involves a strategy that does not tinker at the edges of injustice but that looks it full in the face, exposes it, and puts forward policies that will change the very structures of our society.

We need the confidence and passion with which to express our ideas. And that means allowing space for the kind of anger Andy Burnham displayed in response to the government's NHS bill. It was present in his stance and in his voice.

Injustice should make us rage. Osborne's budget for the rich should make us furious. We should be foaming at the mouth about the attacks on the benefits of the disabled and the unemployed, and the rise in homelessness this winter. We should be explicit about what these cuts mean to individuals. If we don't, who will?

We express delight when Dennis Skinner stands up and points his finger at David Cameron, as though he's taking on the playground bully. He waves his fist and challenges in a way that no-one else does. He dares to show that he cares. John Prescott, likewise, has always been known for telling it how it is. These individuals have the ability to convey passion and compassion. What is their secret? What is the magic ingredient that they evidently possess?

Of course, there are risks in adopting such a full-blooded strategy.

To speak with passion runs the risk of saying something that isn't liked, that challenges powerful vested interests, that confronts us with how difficult the battle is to redistribute the power and wealth of this country. It also runs the risk of being plain wrong.

But to discover if our plans have merit, to discover the range of alternatives open to us, needs debate with others. If we are to reinvigorate our politics we need to be honest about what we think, feel and believe. And not everyone will like that. But would such arguments connect with people who also feel likewise? You bet they would. And if the truth is being told, why should we not speak it?

All of which demands a different kind of politics. We need to hear from a variety of voices. As Billy Hayes of the CWU recently tweeted, politics is too important to be left to the politicians. That's why Labour's link with the trade unions is so important.

A passionate politics demands a different kind of politician. Labour has become too dependent on 'careerist' candidates who have moved from university, to intern, to researcher/adviser, to MP. What life experiences do they bring with them? How many ex-nurses, teachers, military, retailers, police, carers, councillors, community workers, ex-homeless people do we see standing for parliament?

Perhaps we should not be entirely surprised at the lack of passion in a politics devoid of different experiences. We need that magic potion - life experience - not just career experience! Labour has concentrated a little too much on seeking out academically gifted candidates rather than candidates with experience. Now's the time to recognise that we need both.

We write at a time when people are losing their jobs, their homes. Businesses are closing at record rates. Disabled and terminally ill people are being told they must go to work or they will lose their benefits. We have lost our NHS. People are living in fear. If we can't 'show passion and compassion now, when can we?

Our politics must address the times that we live in. Labour lost 16 million votes in the 2010 general election. There are local elections in just under one month's time. This is Labour's opportunity to show people that we are on their side, that we share their struggles and their fears. Too many people feel ignored by the political class.

Ten days ago we learned a vital lesson: that passion strikes a cord with the electorate. Let's not ignore that!