Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Back to what works

New Labour must remain true to its founding spirit to beat Cameron’s challenge

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Tony Blair and John Reid used their respective New Year messages to state that our future political success depends on us remaining new Labour. Naturally, they are right that we must always seek to be the party of economic prosperity as well as social justice, individual aspiration alongside community solidarity, opportunity and compassion.

However, new Labour must also now demonstrate a willingness to change if we are to govern for a generation and truly build a Britain rooted in our values. A philosophy which claimed to be about what works has for some become a religious creed to be pursued with a missionary zeal more usually associated with the hard left. Modernisation, reform, choice, are the mantras of a group which once derided ideology but is in danger of adopting a rigid inflexibility of its own.

Some of these who claim to be new Labour’s greatest champions seem to be in denial that many labour inclined voters – both long standing and 1997 converts – have fallen out of love with us. Being the party most able and willing to face up to the challenges presented by a rapidly changing world is very important, but the electorate are also looking for values, policies, competence and leadership which demonstrate we are on their side and willing to learn lessons from our period in Government. Our change of leadership will provide us with an opportunity for renewal and a fresh start. This shouldn’t mean a distancing from Tony Blair and our proud record of achievement, but an honest recognition there are things we should do differently.

Our style of governing must change in ways which demonstrate we view ourselves as the servants of the people not their masters. People didn’t vote for change in 1997 to replace one elite with another. MPs and Ministers should be reminded that making a name for yourself should be through making a positive difference not filling column inches which elevate profile above delivery.

On the economy we must continue to ensure the dividend generated by unprecedented growth impacts on the quality of life and the standard of living experienced by hard working families. We must constantly explain that national and personal prosperity cannot be taken for granted and hasn’t happened by chance. Change and insecurity may be inevitable but having government on your side is more necessary than ever in a global economy.

On public services – personalisation – whether for pupils, patients or people using social care services is an expression of our values as it offers the prospect of excellence and quality to all. Choice and control have a part to play but this has to be alongside advocacy, mentoring and community capacity building which are often best led by the voluntary sector. Otherwise individual and community power will be confined to the most articulate and confident.

It is time for a national citizen’s advocacy and empowerment framework to develop a more appropriate balance of power between state and citizen. Crucially, we have to reach sustainable conclusions about where responsibility for policy development, strategy and delivery sits between central government, regional bodies, local councils, PCT’s and police forces with an unambiguous target and regulatory framework. Here, leadership, management, ethos, training and staff morale are all factors at least as important as choice.

A major priority has to be a renewed and authentic effort to rebuild our relationship with those we ask to deliver public services, often in very challenging circumstances.
A Government that has invested record amounts and increased the pay of many workers should find its most powerful advocates on the front line of public services. Instead we have a gap in understanding and respect which can no longer be ignored or simply attributed to a resistance to change. It is also worth pointing out that some of our most generously rewarded high status professionals who enjoy the privilege of self-regulation need more, not less accountability. Meaningful reform seems to have passed them by.

On security and crime the state’s first responsibility is to protect the security of its citizens. It isn’t authoritarian to ensure we use all reasonable means to fight the real and unprecedented menace of fundamentalist terrorism. Equally, it isn’t liberal to accept that sending more and more people to prison represents national failure not success. Violent offenders and those who are a threat to children should serve full, sometimes longer, sentences. The rest require a fresh approach. Policing has to be more rooted in and accountable to neighbourhoods, working with local authorities, other agencies and citizens adopting a zero tolerance approach to crime and anti social behaviour.

On identity and community cohesion the starting point has to be defining core British values for existing and new citizens and seeking a new sense of national pride. People must always have the right to live according to their religious and cultural beliefs but no one can be exempt from playing by the rules. Managed migration is good for Britain and offering asylum to those fleeing persecution is morally right. But public support depends on their conviction that the system is fair, transparent and competently managed.

The strength of feeling on all sides about Iraq and the real human tragedies mean many people now view foreign affairs as being of equal importance to domestic issues. Our leadership role on aid, debt relief and now education for the world’s poorest countries should be a source of pride and a catalyst for positive engagement with faith groups and NGOs across the country. Who governs Britain is crucial to some of the poorest people in the world. We should resist the short-term attractiveness of joining the Liberal Democrats and some on the left in pandering to unhealthy anti-Americanism. We should be an assertive ally, but still an ally, because it is in our national interest and the interests of world stability. On Europe, we must argue for a clearer definition of policy areas where action is most effectively taken jointly, collaboratively and at a nation state level. The EU as a vision and in practice can only progress if it reconnects with citizens so they accept its relevance to their aspirations.

We require our new leader to make it clear that renewal of the Labour party is one of his personal priorities. Recruiting and retaining new members and supporters through community engagement is essential. Our local councillors should be given a more significant role. It is they, who in many areas have transformed communities more effectively than central government ever can. The vast majority are no longer the nightmare represented by the rotten boroughs of the 1980s and deserve a greater level of respect and engagement.

Whatever the outcome of the current party funding review we should never play fast and loose with the Trade Union link. We can’t live in the past but nor should we ever seek to deny the past in the form of the Party’s origins. Equally, Trade Union Leaders should accept the need for change to conference decision making rules in the aftermath of mergers.

On values we must lead with a renewed idealism and passion appealing to the best instincts of the mainstream majority in our country. Stepping up to the mark on climate change, eliminating child and pensioner poverty, and ensuring every child and every disabled child matters are all great causes. Alongside continued economic prosperity they should be the catalyst which refreshes the coalition which has uniquely given us the opportunity to serve our country at three successive elections. We must attack the myth that “you are all the same” and use the power of our values to undermine the dangerous notion “it is time for a change”.

Gordon Brown can renew new Labour because he understands we have to apply the same principles of change to ourselves as to the policy challenges we face. 2007 can be a turning point. A renewed new Labour Government or a nice smile masking the same old values. Bring it on Mr Cameron.

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Ivan Lewis MP

is MP for Bury South, shadow secretary of state for international development, and a chapter author in The Purple Book

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