Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

What is left for the left?

Fresh from his trip to Buckingham Palace, David Cameron spent Friday night in his home away from home: Mark’s Club, a Mayfair-based private dining joint. Ah yes, he must have thought, the British people know my rightful place.

For an old-fashioned Tory like Cameron, it is mission accomplished. A tight hold on the reins of public office is all that is needed for political success.

For the left, the political project is so much more ambitious. Because although we believe public office is an incredible vehicle for social change, it is the change itself that we seek. Being prime minister is not the goal. It is what you do with it that counts.

So before we descend into a period of deep introspection, hand wringing, head banging, and soul searching, there is one vital question we have to ask: What can we do over the next five years to make Britain better?

For freshly elected members of parliament, it is an understandably troublesome question. After years of fighting for their seats, they are about to spend the next five years getting trounced in votes about everything from housing to welfare to Europe. It would be easy to think that the only game in town is the long, drawn-out preparation for – dread to think about it – the next election.

It is not true. We absolutely can – and must – use our political energies to bring about change well before the next Labour government takes office. Here are three of the battlegrounds where the war wages on.

First, the battle for local power. One little-reported disappointment from Thursday night was Labour’s loss of 179 council seats across England. Despite the national focus, it is councils that are driving the agenda on the living wage, housing, skills, employment, and even the way that the public sector engages with citizens. We need not only to fight and win local election battles every year from now until 2020, but also to make use of local power to prove the viability of progressive policies.

And, of course, we need to fight for more power for town halls. Some argued that the coalition of Greater Manchester authorities did a deal with the devil when they secured control of health and social care from George Osborne. But it is a deal worth making if it means Labour councils can implement fairer solutions for people in their areas. We need more councils to band together to claim new responsibilities from Whitehall.

The second battle is to mobilise communities. Our best campaigns in this election were those that not only canvassed for votes, but engaged communities for change. Brilliant Labour candidates, like Sarah Sackman in Finchley and Golders Green, have spent the last two years fighting successful battles alongside local residents to reverse callous local decisions, such as Barnet’s choice to end respite care for parents of disabled children and to close popular local nurseries.

The best community campaigns are those that go beyond calling for council action, but enable local people to take control. There is more potential than ever for communities to run services themselves, either on behalf of councils or as independent not-for-profit businesses with a clear social purpose. Hastings Pier,‘the people’s pier’, is one of the most famous examples of a local asset being saved by community action. There are many others, from Coverdale community pub to Friern Barnet library, where communities have taken matters into their own hands.

Finally, there is one epic battle on the horizon that the left needs to start preparing for right now: the battle for Britain’s place at the heart of Europe. That debate could do more to shape our future than almost any other decision over the next five years – and it is a choice that will be ultimately in the hands of the people, not Tory ministers.

Clearly, the most important part of this debate is the winning of it. Leaving the European Union would be catastrophic for Britain and may likely lead to the break-up of our own country. Beyond this, however, the referendum will be a huge opportunity for the left to show unity of purpose while the right engages in an acrimonious internal shouting match that has the potential to bring down the government, or at the very least gum up its final years of parliamentary business.

Mark’s Club describes itself as ‘a private members’ dining club, based in a serene Mayfair townhouse that is discreetly insulated from the hectic pace of the city outside.’ On Friday night, basking in the serenity of his surroundings, David Cameron no doubt raised a discreet glass to five more years of being in charge, the famous car keys of power safely back in his pocket.

His job is to be the prime minister. Let us not forget that our job is to change Britain for the better.


Adam Swersky is a councillor in the London borough of Harrow. He tweets @adamswersky


Photo: Christiane Wilke

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Adam Swersky


  • Talk about class and posh-ness is very cheap.

    Talk about national identity and nationhood wins elections.

    Labour lost because it lost both its northern ‘working class’ and southern ‘middle class’ – voters who in reality want their government to stand up – or at least be seen to stand up – for their country.

    Scotland has turned its back on Labour and Labour will never recover so long as the SNP are socialist.

    England could be Labour’s again – if Labour embraces concepts it is treated as right-wingery for far too long : National Identity. Englishness. Independence from the EU.

  • Good article – agree that the best community campaigns are those that go beyond calling for council action. Labour’s community organising must move beyond being exclusively opposed to government, towards constructively negotiating with power to achieve shared goals.

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