Mapping a route to government

We’re on a boat. To reach the destination of government, we must pass between the six-headed monster and the whirlpool.

This classical analogy – taken from the Odyssey – was the starting point for the session entitled Real Change for Britain: What are the Long-term Challenges Facing the Next Labour Government? at this weekend’s Progress Political Weekend. While we should gloss over the fact that in Homer’s original, the destination is Italy (hardly a model of good government), the analogy should help us sail through the key points of the session.

The point Steve van Riel was making with the analogy was that the six-headed monster is the ever-present temptation to bash the Tories for short-term tactical gain. The whirlpool on the other side is the risk of entering the dense swirl of theory, ‘new paradigms’ and ‘new narratives’. The passage to government requires real policies and a coherent plan for what Labour would do in 2015 if elected. Van Riel closed his comments with optimism. For much of our history, government is something that Labour has experienced ‘occasionally and briefly.’ Being Labour meant an unchallenging and unreflecting routine of opposition and marches. But for the current generation of activists and leaders, Labour is the natural party of government. We have the huge asset of experience. We have the captains who have successfully steered the ship into port before.

Caroline Flint MP took over to talk about the navigational equipment needed to safely reach our destination. We need to map out the issues that matter – the cost of living, jobs and growth – and develop the detail to address these challenges. This means developing substantive policy on rail fares, energy markets and the private rented sector. It is also worth pointing out that the government is dithering with a broken compass, damaging confidence and deterring investment. Reaching land will require ‘renewal’ (fixing the ship) and ‘radicalism’ (not relying on the old sails when new technology is available).

Deputy mayor of Liverpool Paul Brant took the helm to point out that, if we look down the telescope of localism, there is an armada of advance boats charting a course before us in the form of Labour councils up and down the country. The captains of these small boats need to be empowered if they are to lead their boats to victory (which means accepting that some boats will inevitably get into difficulty). But the captains of the ships – both large and small – need to learn to say no and manage expectations. If the crew think the journey shorter and less perilous than it is we risk mutiny, and Labour will betray those we exist to serve.

The ensuing discussion centred on which of the small boats are looking most promising. London councils who fit meetings around working life. Newham leading the way on a mandatory landlord register. Best practice on apprenticeships. Those actively developing local private sector economies.

Labour has the best fleet of small boats and there is much the galleon can learn. Just as important as finding safe passage between the six-headed monster and the whirlpool is knowing what the crew and captain will do once on dry land. But the paradox of politics is that it is the plan for dry land that provides the route across the waves. Voters, rightly, value competence. Winning elections both requires and demonstrates this.

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Adam Tyndall is a member of the Labour party and tweets @AdamTyndall

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