Remarks by Peter Mandelson at the launch of Laying the Foundations for a Labour Century, Monday 8 December, Policy Network
This is not a good or easy time to be in mainstream politics, whatever the party. The public questions our qualifications – ‘the politicians screwed it up’ – and our motivation – ‘they are in it for themselves’. Not surprisingly they are turning to untried parties on the margins to teach us all a lesson.
Wherever you look, policymaking is in a jam. European economies are fighting with a new ‘normal’ – stagnating growth and incomes, wrecked public finances and low private as well as public investment. Every policy is made more difficult as a result.
Not surprisingly, old-fashioned Keynesianism does not provide the answer. Nor does old-fashioned monetarism, or old fashioned anything. Politicians are desperately casting round for further alternatives or new combinations of policy.
Where the centre-left is in power, or hopes to be, we are good at criticism but we also need solutions of our own.
That is why I welcome the work that has gone into this book. It is practical, realistic but also original and quite visionary.
And it comes at a time when a new opportunity may be opening up for Labour.
I don’t want to count our chickens but last week’s autumn statement, while good for the Tories in its immediate impact, set off alarm bells about the longer term and the direction the country is taking.
Labour’s chance is to cement this into the pre-election narrative.
The issue of the deficit has been reformulated, or at least readjusted, from a simple ‘How much must we cut public spending ?’ to ‘What will the effect be on society and the economy?’
Of course these are not pure alternatives. They play together in voters’ minds and Labour will only get a hearing on the latter if it is reasonably clear on the former.
The temptation for Labour is to concentrate on the fairness and social justice dimension but the implications for our longer term economic capabilities are just as great and both need to be emphasised.
This is particularly important if Labour’s message is to reach beyond our core base.
I believe it can and that the Conservatives can be beaten by Labour at the next election.
The economy may be reviving but this is on a surface level and the reason why the Conservatives are failing to create a lead over Labour is because people are not at all sure where the country would end up with a further projected £55 billion reduction of state spending.
The public are rightly nervous about such a huge axe being taken to public services and investment.
They know the public finances need rebalancing and put on a sound footing but the Tories are pursuing this too eagerly, with too much ideological relish. This is not where mainstream voters are.
It will cost the Tories centre-ground support. The question is, where does the centre-ground go instead ?
We should bear in mind that voters are more fragmented in their allegiances than ever before and none of the mainstream parties’ core support is quite as core as it used to be.
I am not saying that simple Tory or Labour governments are a thing of the past – they may eventually return – but to win power, parties need alliances of voters from different parts of the spectrum and of the country.
The test will be which party is better able to do this.
The additional voters that parties need most are, in the main, defined by their moderate, progressive thinking not by how well off or not so well off they are.
They do not like the polarisation of politics between the rich and poor.
They want a fairer, less unequal, society and know this must be paid for. But they also want policies that are aspirational and not motivated by envy or resentment of those who are better off.
They want workers to be treated fairly in their pay and conditions but don’t like a ‘them and us’ mentality where you have to be for the ‘bosses’ or for the ‘workers’.
They know globalisation is a fact of life and that it does not offer equal rewards but they do not confuse the importance of protecting people with protectionism of economies and markets.
And they definitely do not think Britain’s national identity owes anything to a Ukip view of the world: isolated, insular and backward-looking.
In other words, this huge swath of voters want policies that they think will work in the long term for the country as a whole and are not about trying to turn the clock back to an era they know is behind us.
They want creativity and originality in policymaking, a 21st century view of how we can run a successful liberal, market-based economy within a fairer, broadly social democratic society that is both affordable and targets its help at those in need.
This is where I see the importance of this book, Laying the Foundations for a Labour Century. I congratulate Liz Kendall and John Woodcock for pulling it together. It is timely and firmly rooted in Labour values and thinking but written from a modern and progressive perspective.
It reflects much of current Labour thinking but goes further in capturing what the more radical centre-ground wants to vote for.
But we are looking at all this at a time when economic prospects have never been more uncertain and, indeed, when we have to think much more deeply about how sustainable economic growth can be reconstructed at all.
Cutting budgets is one thing. Rethinking our economic model in a workable form is quite another and that underlies everything else we can do.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.