Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

What are the challenges for the next 12 months?

At Progress political weekend, Caroline Flint MP outlines the route back to power in one term so an Ed Miliband government can build ‘an open, aspirational, fairer, more prosperous country’.

Road map to power: What are the challenges for the next 12 months?
Caroline Flint MP | Speech to Progress Political Weekend 2014 | Sunday 16 March 2014

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Simon, thank you.

And thank you, Progress, for everything you do.

Through your magazine, website, events and training you enthuse and empower members to take on the Tories, Liberal Democrats and all the rest.

So thank you.

First, I want to observe that this has been a week of reflection with the passing of two larger-than-life figures.

Whatever you think of Bob Crow, he was a highly effective union leader in a specialised and well-organised sector. But he chose to pursue politics outside of the Labour party.

And without doubt, Tony Benn is one of the giants of Labour history.

Not many of us will fill theatres 25 years after last holding ministerial office.

Yes, he will be remembered for being at the centre of political debate during turbulent periods of Labour history, where Thatcher walked away with the prizes.

Tony served 51 years in parliament.  A rollercoaster of ups and downs.

And this week, much has been said about the need for conviction politicians.

Well, I want to explain why we must match conviction with a determination to win in 2015 and beyond.

Politics today is less forgiving. And we will be quickly forgotten if we lose.  The winners write the history books, not the losers.

I’m proud to be a member of Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet and serve on our general election strategy group. And my eyes are very firmly, unashamedly, fixed on the prize of winning the next election and serving in a radical, reforming Labour government.

For that reason, I want to speak honestly about the challenges ahead.

I have spent this week talking to parliamentary colleagues, to a few of our key seat candidates, and to some of our constituency organisers, and to some people who have fought and won elections before.

After that reflection, I want to set out to you, today, the five biggest challenges I believe we face in the next 417 days.

First, 2015 will not be a walkover election.

It is going to be tough, close and hard-fought.

It is going to be nasty too. The Tories will be ruthless.

That means that organisation is both more difficult and more important.

More difficult because, with marginal seats turning on a few thousand voters, it means going back to the same people again and again. Building that relationship.

In tight races, good organisation alone could be the difference between winning and losing. And the Tories will throw everything and the kitchen sink at us.

Look at what they tried to do on the boundaries.

See their manoeuvres on voter registration and, now attempts to discredit postal voting.

Every trick in the book … to depress turnout, and keep Labour voters away from the polling station.

They will start with backing from parts of the press and a substantial war-chest. Since 2010, the Tories have had 140 donations of more than £50,000 and a quarter of their funding from companies. They will not want for money.

But organisation needs people too.

Their membership has halved since 2010. The average age is 68.

We must use that greater strength and reach in our members and registered supporters to maximum effect. Membership mobilisation and capacity-building is as crucial as manifesto development and messaging.

Many hands make light work.

The second challenge – time.

We must overcome the tendency to overestimate how much time we have between now and the general election.

After four years, the next election may still feel like a long way off.

But it isn’t.

A year and a bit in politics is not long at all.

So we need some urgency.

As one organiser said ‘When people cry off doorknocking because it’s raining, we have to think – if we were a week out from polling day would we stop doorknocking due to rain?’

If not, then why we would stop now?

The time for making a difference is now, not eight months down the line.

Third, and probably biggest challenge:

The overwhelming sense of disillusionment with politics.

The public are fed up with politicians.

They don’t trust us.

They don’t think we tell the truth.

Or that we give straight answers to straight questions

And, yes, they think we’re in it for ourselves, not for them.

There’s no quick fix to this.

But one way to show that we are not remote from the world they live in, is to actually get our hands dirty.

Frank Dobson tells a story about his predecessor as member of parliament for Holborn and St Pancras, Lena Jeger, which is just as relevant today.

In the 1950s, Lena was invited to stand for the Labour party.

The burning issue of the day was the proposed postwar rearmament of West Germany.

Lena, a Manchester Guardian journalist, strongly opposed it.

One night, Lena was canvassing one of the constituency’s many blocks of council flats.

Stepping into the lift, she noticed that it smelt strongly of urine, and she could not wait to get out.

At the first doorstep she introduced herself and launched into her prepared harangue about the folly of rearming the Germans.

The woman listened patiently, and then asked whether she had come up in the lift.  ‘Yes’, said Lena.

The woman asked: ‘Did you smell the horrible pong of piss?’ ‘Yes’, said Lena. ‘So what are you going to do about it?’ she demanded.

Lena explained that she was not a councillor and couldn’t really do anything.

‘Well, dear,’ said the lady, ‘all I can say is that if you can’t do anything about people pissing in the lift, I don’t see how you’re going to do anything about the Germans.’

I think that is as true today as it was then.

Tony Benn told a great story – about the wonder of seeing the Russians when they first landed on the moon and rolled out a vehicle with tracks which travelled along the moon surface.

A woman wrote to him from his Bristol constituency… ‘Dear Tony, I see the Russians have put a space vehicle on the moon. Is there any chance of a better bus service in Bristol?’

Politics begins with the lift, the street, the bus route …

If we get the little things right, the things closest to home, then maybe, just maybe, they will be more likely to trust us with the big things.

This week there has been a lot of debate about ‘conviction politicians’, as though we don’t have them anymore.

I believe that’s wrong.  People also want politicians who are authentic, who are empathetic.

Last year, two women came to my surgery. They had a nightmare neighbour who ripped up their boundary hedges, and menaced local residents. It took me nine months and countless hours but now he is gone. Life in that small cul-de-sac has been transformed.

Some might see that as a waste of my time … but those women wanted someone to say: ‘If I lived here would I put up with this?’

The answer was NO. So for me, the fight was worth having.

It is a different kind of conviction, but no less worthy and no less important.

And its harder than making speeches.

If people believe we care about them, their life, their lift, their bus service, their bad neighbour, they would be more forgiving of politicians when we make mistakes, as we all do.

The fourth challenge  – policy.

Basically, what we are trying to do is to construct a new, post-financial crisis, political economy.

That is what Ed’s conference speech last year was all about.

I would love you to think it was just our pledge to freeze energy prices that mattered, but what Ed was doing was much bolder and far-reaching.

The crucial part of his speech was when he explained how, in previous generations, when the economy grew the majority got better off.

And then somewhere along the way that vital link, between the growing wealth of the country and ordinary people’s finances, was broken.

So our underlying project for government is to refashion a better, more resilient, more productive, fairer economy.

That is an ambitious, challenging agenda for government.

It brings lots of challenges and dangers between now and the next election – most obviously, we are at risk of being unfairly caricatured as ‘anti-business’, even though the places we are trying to emulate, like Germany, are great places to do business and have stronger and more resilient economies than we do.

The challenge for us between now and May 2015 is to find ways of expressing that project, that sense of mission, that resonate with the public and especially with aspirational working-class voters.

We do not need reams and reams – just a few ideas we repeat over and over again that the public can buy in to, like freezing energy prices and fixing the energy market.

And the reason the energy price freeze worked so well was because it brought together an alignment of interests.

Of course, it appeals to the people who have been hardest hit by this government – the people who have been hurt by the bedroom tax, or have been forced to depend on food banks.

But, crucially, it reaches much further – connecting with people whose experience of the economy in recent years has been tough, but not disastrous.

The people who have survived, who have taken on more hours, or a second job.

They have have had to cut back – they might even have started shopping at places like Aldi.

They feel like they have made sacrifices, but want to feel they getting help, or reward, from the government for doing so.

And as the economy starts to recover, they are asking which party is on their side? Who understands their hopes? Who has the ideas to help them realise them?

Whatever finally persuades them to come home to Labour, these are the people whose support we need if we are to win power; and repeal the bedroom tax and a create a country that does not need foodbanks.

Fifth – the final challenge: – beware of doing things in the next 12 months that create problems later on.

In opposition, we cannot actually do anything – all we have is what we say.

So the temptation to say things that will help get us on TV or grab a press headline, win the debate on Question Time, that sound like great tactics to wrong foot the government, is very strong indeed.

In some cases, we do not actually even have to say anything at all – our silences or signals can speak volumes.

But we must remember that everything we say now will appear when we are in government.

I have very good records of what all my opposite numbers said before the last election. But I know they are keeping tabs on every word we say right up to May 2015.

So I’m very conscious of not saying something now, however tempting, which could be thrown back at me in parliament or billed as a broken promise.

And let me clarify how tough we need to be on getting the balance right …

It is too easy to only highlight the injustice, the bedroom tax, the food banks, child poverty. But it is equally important to balance that with our commitment to value for money, to reducing the deficit, to show pay restraint that Ed Balls talked about.

The public do not think we lack compassion … but if we only ever emphasise the caring, and the injustice, the things that cost money to solve … we only tell half the story and we fail to emphasise our belief in responsible economic management.

And we do not help Ed Balls to get that crucial message across.

We must say what is necessary as well as what is compassionate.

Not easy things to ask of ourselves.

We all desperately want to win.

And in a tight election, where every vote will be fought over, the desire is to latch on to every issue or to play only the most popular causes.

We have to resist.

And on promises …

Let’s learn from one sentiment expressed by Nick Clegg. He said ‘always under-promise and over-deliver!’

He has not.

We will.

In 1997, Tony Blair’s pledges on youth unemployment and the NHS had to be matched by pledges on spending, borrowing and inflation.

This time it will be the deficit, taxes and public sector pay.

Finally, defeating a first-term government is tough.

But it is achievable.

There’s nothing I have said today that we can’t do.

Let’s be optimistic, confident about where we are going, about where Britain is going,

Then, in 14 months’ time, we can continue the job of building an open, aspirational, fairer, more prosperous country.


Caroline Flint MP is shadow secretary of state for energy and climate change. She tweets @CarolineFlintMP

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Caroline Flint MP

is Labour MP for Don Valley and a former Europe minister and former home office minister

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