What next for the Labour Party?
Whatever hopes and dreams people may have for a “new politics” or for a different pluralist model in a world after electoral reform, the Truth is there is only one option now for those who oppose government. That is the Labour Party, if the Tories are not the principal party in Government after the next election then they won’t be replaced by Lib Dems, Greens, or one of the plethora of Left Wing Parties. That is the realpolitik.
What should be the questions for Trade Unions and the left is:-
What kind of a party are they going to be? Whether or not they will still be able have a convincing narrative about a better fairer world that will inspire people, and Unions to believe in them?
I would suggest that the answer to these questions are likely to be determined over the next 18 months or so, and big choices about what kind of a Party Labour are going to be moving forward. I suggest that these choices will in effect determine what kind of Party the Labour Party will be forever.
In the media today there are reports that since the election result more than 10,000 people have joined the Labour Party. I am one of those. I left because I had become disenchanted by the public policy direction, because when asked to choose between corporate interest and those of ordinary people the government invariably chose corporate, because of Iraq, because of the authoritarian tendencies of the Government… but most of all because I stopped believing that Labour had any kind of big transformative mission. It seemed to have become a party of autocrats and managerialism.
I rejoined because I believe it is possible that Labour can be the positive, imaginative, transformative party that I had hoped it would be prior to 1997. But more because I think these next few months and years will be crucial in determining what type of Party Labour will be. Therefore I want to be able to have my say, and try and influence that.
So this blog is going to muse on some of the key questions and areas I think need to be addressed.
When assessing the achievements of the Labour Government almost everyone I ever speak to agrees that most of the best achievements of the Labour Government came in the first few years, the minimum wage, signing the social chapter et al….
This is important because the legislative agenda that the first Labour government had came about in a large part due to internal party Democracy, policies voted on and developed over a period of time with the party membership and with stakeholders. It was emphatically *not* a soulless product of Blair’s “sofa government” policy making.
It is easy to forget that our biggest victory came when we still had functioning internal party democracy. It makes the distrust the leadership has for grass roots and Trade Unions that followed all the more difficult to swallow. What happened (in my opinion inevitably) was that as a narrower and narrower group of people within the inner clique of the leadership or the Parliamentary Labour party started coming up with all party policy the Labour Party increasingly alienated its activist base and supporters which in part led to the defeat in the General election.
Watching the rolling news of the coalition formation I was struck by the contrast between the Liberal Democrats with their “triple lock” mechanism of stopping their party leadership doing whatever the Sam hell they please, and Lords Mandelson and Adonis doing their thing on a wing and a prayer.
If the Labour Party is to develop and grow, and recover from the defeat as a better party in needs to listen to, and embrace the idea of internal party Democracy.
For me there were many failures of the Labour Government, but one that grated with me and really undermined my faith in Labour was the attitudes towards civil liberties. The authoritarian tendencies of New Labour were frankly abhorrent to so many of our supporters and activists. Crucially though it played so badly with potential activists and young people, people who the Labour movement in general need to get on board to have a rosy future.
ID Cards, detention without trial, restrictions on the right to protest, the Digital Economy act, The US extradition treaty, the restriction of Trial by Jury, and the sheer volume of new criminal laws passed are a stain on our movement.
A great way for the Labour Party to show a big change is to accept that the regressive, authoritarian policies in respect of civil liberties, were a mistake. That Labour will in future be the party fights for fairness not just in terms of income inequality but also in respect of individual freedoms and rights.
For the left we will want to instinctively say that the reason the Labour Party lost is that they were too right wing, that they didn’t speak enough to the electoral base of the Labour Party, that the Labour Party has lost it soul as well as an election. The fear will be that the narrative the Right of the party have is that “The reason we lost wasn’t that we were New Labour, it was that we were not New Labour enough!”.
Now here is the problem for the left, when the election results are analysed, what they will bear out at least superficially is the Madelsonian/right wing analysis. It will show that in our heartlands our vote stood up, in fact better than expected but we lost the battle of swing voters in swing seats in middle England. That is what the facts are going to show.
If we study electoral history it will further show that parties that swing strongly away form the centre after an election generally do badly next time out. There are a few elections in which the sands shift, where the whole political compass changes and a new orthodoxy and centre ground is formed. This happened with Disraeli in 1867, with the Liberals in 1906, the Atlee government in 1945 and most recently with Thatcher in 1979 and the New Right consensus.
The truth is most of the rest of the time the UK electorate tend to back the party seen as occupying the “centre ground” and as there has been no seismic shift that is likely to be the way the next General Election pans out.
The problem then for the left is that within this context how can the kind of radical, transformative agenda we desire and crave actually happen. My view is that under “First past the Post” it simply can’t. The electoral maths heavily skews the whole public policy agenda in toward a very narrow band of electors, middle class, middle England, swing voters in swing seats.
Many in the Labour party are nervous about electoral reform as they feel it will diminish our influence. For my money changing the system would free the Labour Party and allow us to pursue a more radical and transformative agenda. It is important that we do not use a referendum on AV to attack the government, rather to play “the long game” around ensuring we get a better politics in which we can be true to our values of the left. Changing the system will free the Labour Party from having to appeal to a very narrow band of people and will allow better progressive politics.
Don’t let the Con-Dems corner the market on New Politics and National Interest.
Now this might seem counter intuitive, it will certainly be more comfortable for us to just oppose everything the new government does. In my view that would be a mistake.
I think there is an opportunity to play this both ways. We can be a hostile opposition on lots of things, red lines and things we fundamentally disagree with. But at the same time we would gain credit for supporting some measures, things we can claim are “in the national interest” or things we support for Partisan reasons. This will allow seeming very much more like a Government in waiting and increasing the chances of us winning the next election.
Capture the Imagination.
We need some marquee policies to capture the imagination, and it needs to be something the con-dems just won’t do, something that only the Labour movement and collective principals can deliver.
And as a starter for 10 from me I am going to say Child Care free at the point of use. Childcare is a massive issue for working people. So many of my members in my workplace with young children desperately want to be able to work more to improve their quality of life, to aspire to something better.
But with childcare often costing north of £60 a day it simply does not pay for people to work more, or even at all. These costs restrict choice and opportunities for all but those better off. I think free childcare at the point of use would be a massive enabler for families on low or middle income to improve their lives. It is apsirational, and I think it would capture people imaginations as a big thing that will improve lives.
So there we have it, in my view five areas where I want the Labour party to go. That is why I have rejoined to be able to play a part in what kind of party Labour will be moving forward.