Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Book review: What next for Labour?

A more disparate group of authors than found in Blue or Purple books, this collection seeks to throw out an eclectic range of ‘lessons learnt’ plus thoughts for the future from activists and parliamentarians. The book’s weaknesses are: firstly, that Europe, the economy and internationalism get hardly a mention despite the ex-Tory contributor’s urgings;  secondly, that – save for two women writing on equality – only three of the 29 remaining contributors are female (which begs the question of the subtitle’s ‘a new generation’ if this is seen as a male cohort); and, lastly, that while animal welfare gets a chapter, users of services and consumers – the great mass of our population – are notable by their absence.

But what of its strengths?  The refreshing and open questions posed don’t try to square every circle. Just as the editors accept that ‘so much more could have been achieved with less [in public services] if public money was targeted more effectively’, this isn’t followed by an analysis of why we were so unsuccessful in such targeting so as to do better next time. Likewise, while calling on Labour to ‘reach out to disenfranchised votes and listen to their concerns’ and applauding Ed Miliband for saying ‘that the Labour party was too comfortable in government and as a result neglected those who mattered most’, they do not identify how we got into that position so as to avoid it again. Others might be frustrated by this, but it gives permission to start the mea culpas before searching out the causes.

Similarly, the editors allow the contributors sharply diverging views. So Ann Black (who has forgotten more about how party members think than most MPs will ever learn) calls for the leader to appear as a potential prime minister, as ‘politics becomes ever more presidential’, and she writes that ‘members are desperate for visible, hard-hitting, articulate and effective leadership’ all the while also acknowledging that these same members don’t want ‘policymaking by elites’. This is a contradiction not in her thinking, but in that of members who claim to want to be consulted, all the time longing for ‘top-down’ direction of travel from the leadership. Peter Watt (former general secretary) is more explicit, urging that we ‘drop the pretence that that our manifestos are developed by our members’ and let the leader get on with it – as Rupa Huq says, allowing Ed Miliband ‘to fashion a strong manifesto … for the next election’.

Ann Black – a true grassroots activist – and (Lord) Larry Whitty – former general secretary and government minister – diverge on the speed of new thinking, the former wanting Ed Miliband’s sheet of paper no longer to stay blank, the latter content that ‘the party should not by now have defined its position’. He wants a credible, overall positioning – electoral and philosophical – looking hard at the voters lost since 1992 (as 1997 includes many ex-Tories who were never going to stay), especially the two million who didn’t vote at all. He reminds readers that these were working class and social tenants, not simply the ‘southern discomfort’ losses, and include ethnic minorities and white working-class men in addition to liberal professionals. Any new approach must be based, he believes, on an understanding that ‘people need political movements with whom they can identify in terms of style and overall philosophy’ – which Labour currently lacks. Former Tory, but now Labour, (Lord) Peter Temple-Morris goes further and challenges us to a rename the party as the Social Democratic and Labour party, with its wider appeal.

The question of style suggests a need for a Folleting Mark ll. Not just about tones and ties this time (which was important back then as we simply didn’t LOOK the way the electorate expected of their Leaders) but with regard to language, priorities and an understanding – and echoing – of their concerns. Which is why the absence of a consumer focus to the book worries me. People define themselves as parents, shoppers, neighbours, aunts and uncles, football fans, gardeners or babysitters, by where they live or holiday, and by their hobbies, their music and their friends.

Some chapters of the book reflect this dimension, with Irwin Brown on the NHS including patients in his agenda, but there is little drive towards real user/passenger/patient control over the public (or private) services which largely determine people’s ease of living. In an important chapter – nominally on the suburbs but with wider implications – Rupa Huq reminds us how the rising rates of divorce and reconstituted households have massive implications for housing requirements, settled (or otherwise) neighbourhoods, and for child and social care provision. It is perhaps these trends which have left much of Labour’s thinking behind the curve, and which we need to understand and incorporate into any new writing on Mr Miliband’s famous blank sheet of paper.

Understanding what’s really happening in Britain, including in the economy, is a start to a new philosophy – but if we do this adrift from Europe or the wider world, we will fail the country’s needs and Labour’s hopes.

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Dianne Hayter is a Labour peer and former chair of the NEC

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What next for Labour? Ideas for a new generation is edited by Tom Scholes-Fogg and Hisham Hamid and published by Queensferry, 2011

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Dianne Hayter

is the author of Fightback!: Labour’s Traditional Right in the 1970s and 1980s, published by Manchester University Press

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