Back in 2011, one year following the Labour Party's first electoral defeat since 1992, I co-edited a book along with a friend, Hisham Hamid. The book - rather appropriately titled 'What next for Labour?' examined why the Labour Party lost the election, but more importantly outlined what it needed to do to win again. Following Labour's second defeat a few weeks ago, I have decided to publish the introduction I wrote for the book. I am sure you will agree with me once you have read it, it is still very timely and Labour can take the advice and return to office in 2020 by embarking on some of the suggestions within the book from its MPs, Peers and activists. More information about WNFL including the list of contributors is available by clicking here. You can also purchase a Kindle copy and paper copy here.
INTRODUCTION TO WNFL, 2011
We embarked on this project with the aim of bringing together ideas from a diverse range of people within the Labour Party and presenting their thoughts in one place, on what they think the future is for Labour. For the first time in nearly a decade and a half the Labour Party is in opposition and as a result is able to have an open and honest debate. A debate about what the future of the party is ideologically - about who the Party represents, and most importantly - what the Labour Party stands for.
Our humble attempt of contributing to this discussion is by no means comprehensive, but it's a welcome start. Our intention was to try and extend the discourse about Labour's future from beyond the highest echelons of the Party. The concept of collating ideas from those on the left and right of party including essays from Members of Parliament, Peers of the realm, former ministers in government, current shadow ministers and grass roots activists, is a novel way of presenting this debate in an accessible way, which we hope will invite both members and those outside of the Party to engage in the process of Labour's revival. We chose not to present any specific narrative - but decided instead to leave the debate open-ended for readers to consider. Unlike conventional edited collections, for this book we opted for more contributors and asked them to consolidate their thoughts into less than three thousand words. We have been fortunate in securing these contributors; the quality and depth of insight explored in their pieces is remarkable.
Ed Miliband has been the leader of the Labour Party for a year; critics say he has yet to show real leadership and lay out his vision for where he wants to take the Labour Party. Supporters of Miliband say he is making progress slowly but surely. What is clear is that he faces many challenges, such as demonstrating Labour has learnt the lessons from the past and that his shadow cabinet are a credible government in waiting. The Labour leader has a short amount of time to rebuild support among huge swathes of the electorate, and convince them that the Labour Party are a credible alternative to the Conservative led Coalition.
After an historic thirteen years in government, the Labour Party has achieved a great deal. Criticism and mistakes aside - it would be hard to argue that Britain is not a better place for it. Labour has a record it can be proud of - crime down by a third, more police on the streets, the New Deal, the minimum wage, civil partnerships, devolution, peace in Northern Ireland, investment in education and the NHS, Sure Start, Child Tax Credits and the Winter Fuel Allowance. The list of Labour achievements goes on.
However, Labour's time in government was overshadowed by many mistakes, some of which were responsible for alienating many disenfranchised voters. The expectations of what a Labour government could achieve, after an historic landslide victory in 1997 faded during its time in office. The war in Iraq and the war on terror that followed was a significant error of judgement - coupled with Tony Blair's alignment with a neo-conservative US president. The erosion of civil liberties - proposing the introduction of ID cards, the use of stop and search powers - which were often employed for entirely the wrong reasons, and the proposed 90 days to hold a suspect without charge. All of which were an attack on individual freedom and liberty, as a result of a knee jerk reaction to the perceived threat of terrorism. The fact of the matter is that the Labour Party got it wrong on these issues, and any attempt to reintroduce them as policies would be met with great hostility.
Widespread criticism has been levelled against Labour's immigration policy, which has led to a loss of support among a section of Labour's core support. The problem has been Labour's failure in addressing issues important to the white working classes - such as housing, welfare and jobs. Neglecting to communicate clearly with such a crucial part of Labour's electoral demographic has led to a vacuum being created, which is now being filled by extremist right-wing parties, such as the British National Party - who have capitalised on these issues, and have used them as an opportunity to further their own xenophobic ideological narrative, and create racial tensions within our communities. Labour has also failed to communicate the importance of the contribution migrants have made to Britain - specifically to the British economy. Immigration is an important factor in explaining why Labour lost so many DE voters between 1997 and 2010. Indeed, in Lord Whitty's contribution, he defines Labour's core vote as consisting of "three main elements: traditional white working class, liberal professionals, and ethnic minorities".
To understand the challenges that currently face the Labour party, it is crucial to acknowledge the profound contribution made by the New Labour project and its proponents. When Mrs Thatcher was asked what her greatest political achievement was, she responded "New Labour", which is certainly true. New Labour was a response to the seismic change in the British political landscape after eighteen years of Conservative government. What the 'modernisers' in the party understood, was that Labour needed to incorporate this change, by accepting the neo-liberal economic reforms of the Conservatives - embracing and encouraging the role of the market - promising a commitment to low taxation, accepting trade union reforms and adopting a hard line on crime, justice and defence.
Pragmatism has taken on a new meaning in British politics, and to some within the Labour Party it has its negative connotations - to many it denotes abandoning ideals and principles for the sake of power. But Labour has historically been at its best when it is at its most pragmatic. New Labour was political pragmatism at its best. Its centrist approach is why Blair and the New Labour project was left wholly unopposed for so long. If there is one lesson worth learning from the Conservative Party, it is the importance of pragmatism - the twentieth century dominated by a Conservative hegemony is proof of this. The most important aspect of New Labour worth retaining is the notion that Labour is a party of government - not opposition. Adopting a non-dogmatic approach, being flexible with political realities and forming policy respectively, are the way into government - real change can only be achieved while in government. This is why a focus on winning elections is critically important for the Labour Party to move forward.
One year into Ed Miliband's leadership the party has failed to make any substantial progress in developing distinct policies - which is beginning to take its toll. The narrative on the economy is particularly an area where the Labour party has failed to make its mark. There is a sense of complacency from some within the party, who appear to think thsat the Coalition Government will simply hang itself with their deeply unpopular cuts agenda.
There exists a perception that the Coalition will redress the deficit through draconian cuts - and at next election Labour will be swept into power on the promise of re-investment in public services and the economy. With this strategy there is a risk Labour will be punished at the ballot box for having created a situation which allowed the government cuts to take place. Were the Labour Party to have won the 2010 General Election - would a Labour government have been prepared to deal with the enormous backlash from having to enforce similarly deep cuts to public spending in order to balance the books?
The Coalition Government is scathingly critical of Labour's economic record and places blame at the door of the last government for Britain's structural deficit. One of the most prominent critiques is the fact that the Labour Government ran a large budget deficit in the mid-part of the last decade when the economy was booming - as opposed to running a surplus. The rationale is quite understandable; it was not sheer mindless profligacy as Brown's intent was to redress the chronic under-investment in public services and infrastructure left by successive Conservative governments. It is worth noting that David Cameron and his party pledged to match Labour's spending plans, while also calling for less financial regulation when in opposition, whereas the Liberal Democrats were advocating an increase in public spending. This suggests that, either the opposition parties now in government were equally incompetent in understanding the ramifications of Britain's large structural deficit and high levels of public spending, or were just blatantly opportunistic in their promises - either way, it makes their assessment of Labour's economic record look superficial.
A legitimate criticism levelled against Labour's economic record, was the attitude that if money were thrown at public services then standards would improve de facto. This led to huge inefficiency in how public money was spent, with little accountability and poor consideration about its effectiveness. Costly capital projects under Private Finance Initiatives, and the establishment of Quango after Quango are prime examples of this. So much more could have been achieved with less, if public money was targeted more effectively. This in turn, would have meant a lower or even non-existent structural deficit while the economy was experiencing accelerated growth. The underlying weakness of debt in the British economy was exposed dramatically when the structural deficit reached unsustainable levels due to the Government's colossal cash injection into the economy in response to the economic crisis of 2008-09.
Unfortunately New Labour was convinced by the city's apparent invincibility, and believed there would be continued unparalleled economic growth. The fact of the matter is, Labour failed miserably on market regulation, even with the introduction of the Financial Services Authority (FSA). The problem lay in the fact that, after years of expounding the credo of 'no more boom and bust', Labour was convinced it had actually achieved this. Over-reliance on, and congratulatory praise from the city, led to a perception of infallibility which Labour fell for. It overlooked the fact that Labour's role historically has been to temper and redress the excesses of turbo-capitalism - but it totally failed - New Labour worshipped the markets.
The contributors to this book tackle a whole host of issues and include figures from the party's past and present, including former Labour General Secretary, Lord Larry Whitty, who, in his piece, analyses Labour's electoral support and explores the philosophy of social democracy. Professor of Sociology at Kingston University, Rupa Huq, considers in-depth the importance of suburban support in Labour's path back to power. Former First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord Alan West, looks at Britain's defence capabilities in light of reductions in public spending. Tracy J Cheetham outlines the importance of embracing social media as an excellent means of mobilizing support at grass roots level, and utilising its huge potential as a campaigning tool. Bill Esterson MP calls upon the party to rediscover its roots and former Conservative and Labour MP, Lord Peter Temple-Morris, suggests the Labour Party considers changing its name as part of the renewal process.
Former Schools minister, Lord Jim Knight, looks back at Labour's achievements in education and asks how we can gear the system to truly enable social mobility. Former NUS president, Aaron Porter, and Former Labour MP, Nick Palmer, explore options for an equitable approach to funding higher education. Axel Landin highlights the need for Labour to reaffirm its status as the party of the younger generation.
On the economy, Councillor for Elton, James Frith, explains the ever-growing importance of encouraging and supporting small businesses as the engines of economic growth, whereas Matt Pitt puts forward the case for a British Investment bank. On the NHS, President of the Royal Society for Public Health, Lord Phillip Hunt, looks back at one of Labour's greatest achievements in government, transforming the NHS, and outlines how Labour should tackle the Coalition's proposed NHS reorganisation. Women, Equality and Poverty campaigner Baroness Mary Goudie stresses the importance of Britain's role in supporting international aid and development - even through difficult economic circumstances. Labour's future for the green agenda is tackled by Kieran Roberts and Shadow Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, William Bain MP, explains the growing role of green industries in the British economy and how we must harness them.
The new landscape in British politics created after the 2010 general election has dramatically altered the role of the Labour Party. Looking forward, the party must develop and establish an ideological narrative, principles and a set of polices in a new political climate, which reflects who the Labour Party represents, and sets out its vision for Britain.
For Labour to win the next election, it has to reach out to disenfranchised voters and listen to their concerns. Ed Miliband was right to say that the Labour Party was too comfortable in government and as a result, neglected those who mattered most. The importance of reaching out and trying to attract a broad coalition of support in this revival process is crucial.
Not enough effort has been made by the Labour Party to engage with the public, disenfranchised voters, and former party supporters. Failure to reach out will perpetuate the sense of disconnect between many former Labour supporters that feel the party no longer represents them, and its policies no longer address their needs. In general, this apparent disdain towards the political class is only worsened by the arrogance of politicians in the way they interact with voters. If they aren't being evasive, disingenuous or just patronising, they are often talking amongst themselves. Dialogue very rarely extends beyond party cliques and discussions are often unconstructive, as they hardly ever stray from party political point-scoring. If the Labour Party is to be honest it can hardly claim that it is setting the agenda on this issue. As Ann Black explains in her piece, "there are more than 20 shadow cabinet review groups whose membership is hidden even from the National Executive Committee".
Unfortunately, there is a crisis of political engagement with mainstream politics that exists within large parts of British Society - the most important of which includes an entire generation of young people. This crisis is an issue that must be addressed directly by the Labour Party. What is obvious, is choosing not to participate in the political process creates an unfortunate cycle of those not voting being unable to have a say. The relevance of policies made by political parties is shaped around people who choose to vote. Parties tend to focus on attracting support and creating policies around those who engage in the political process - who generally tend to be middle-class, affluent, educated, middle-aged and white.
All mainstream political parties are responsible for failing to make young people feel like stakeholders in the political process, and more widely in society, as we have seen with the recent riots. An effective way for Labour to tackle this issue is to create a campaign to introduce more comprehensive political education as part of the National Curriculum. This already exists to a very small degree at secondary level, through Citizenship Studies. Developing an objective yet rigorous syllabus on the fundamentals of the British political system would bring untold benefit, to not only young people themselves - but for democracy and society as a whole. What many Social Science teachers will tell you is the degree of positive participation that students engage in when issues which are relevant to them and their daily lives, are the subject of discussion. Labour should be at the forefront of this campaign if it is to realistically build support and inspire a new generation of politically aware and active young people.
So much of this disconnect can be attributed to simply being unaware of how the political process works - who the political parties are and what they stand for - and most importantly, what it means to them. Galvanising support is a relatively easy task once young people begin to appreciate the huge number of political issues that affect them. Young people often fail to see the link between the issues they care about and its inextricable link to mainstream politics and government policy. The perception of politicians as remote, alien figures that speak of things they do not understand - let alone care about - needs to be broken. Young people often express their disinterest in politics and political issues - but when asked how they feel about the local hospital being closed due to NHS reforms or EMA being abolished, or tuition fees trebling, the economy and job prospects for the future - they express their passion - they engage in the debate. What must be communicated is that to have any real impact on what is happening around them, they must participate in the mainstream political process, which ultimately means voting.
An emphasis on more comprehensive political education should be coupled with the campaign for lowering the voting age to 16. This would be a great move in empowering young people to participate in the political process. This would allow so many, who often do not get the chance to vote until their twenties, the added window of an extra two years to have their say. The message needs to be made clear - voting is an empowering aspect of being a part of society. It is such a shame that so many young people fail to see the importance of this crucial part of active citizenship. Getting young people to engage in the political process should a central part of Labour's strategy to rebuild support. In his piece, Axel Landin quite rightly suggests, "Young people have the potential to be the driving force behind Labours return to power". Labour needs to concentrate a huge amount of its efforts in engaging with younger people in an easily accessible and relevant discourse - as the Labour Party is the natural recipient of the support from this key, yet so neglected demographic.
There is a clamour for the mantle of 'the progressive party' in British politics - the reality is that Labour is the only legitimate choice - providing that the party reforms. Our view is clear - the Labour Party is the only real alternative to the ideological agenda of the Tories and the Orange Book Liberals. However, simply opposing the cuts will not be enough to gain support and secure votes - it did not work during the 1980s nor will it work now. Failing to develop a credible economic plan will allow the Tories to erode the Labour Party's record on economic competence - which will ultimately cost Labour the next general election if it is not addressed robustly.
Labour has had to work hard during its last period in opposition and throughout its time in government to develop its reputation for economic competence - it risks damaging this by not being more vigorous in its explanation for decisions made in government and, more importantly, providing a credible alternative to the Coalition plan on deficit reduction. The mantra of the coalition of 'we are having to clean up the mess left by the last government', if said enough times, and for long enough, is more effective than one might think. It is clear that the Coalition will fight the next election on its economic record and present the argument that it made the tough decisions on the economy and tackled the deficit. For Labour, there is the imminent danger that failure to develop a coherent economic strategy, which is both comprehensive and realistic, and which robustly addresses Britain's vast structural deficit, could damage their economic credibility for a generation.
Ed Miliband doesn't exactly need a Clause IV moment, but he does need to make his mark - and fast. He has yet to lay out his vision for the Labour party. What is clear is that any development should be gradual - the Labour leader is not reinventing the wheel. Labour needs to focus on being radical in government - not in opposition. That is where New Labour fell short - it pandered to the right too often, alienating and taking for granted its core support, and ultimately failed to live up to its promise. It is clear that Labour's legacy has shifted the centre ground of British politics leftwards - the modern 'compassionate' Conservative Party is testament to that fact.
The task for Labour is threefold - the party has to forensically examine its time in government and identify the failures of the Blair and Brown era, understand and accept what Labour got wrong, as well as what made the party successful - and clearly communicate the lessons learnt to the electorate. Labour must exercise realism in its approach to policy - most importantly on the economy, as the Coalition's argument on deficit reduction is dominating the economic narrative. Its strategy of shifting blame onto the last government is effective and is proving successful in obscuring Labour's response. Most importantly, Labour must set the agenda - planning for the future through investment and a fresh approach to the economy with dynamic new ideas.
Labour's path back to power need not be long; rebuilding support is a collective endeavour that many will choose to embrace if Ed Miliband and the Labour Party are honest, profound and forthright in how they communicate with the people. Consigning the party back to the opposition benches gives an unparalleled opportunity to rebuild the party, and to once again become the party of government. We have entered a new period in British politics, which requires a renewed response from a reformed Labour Party. These really are ideas for a new generation, and it is not so much a blank sheet of paper, more of a turning of the page.