Labour must learn ‘the country comes first’

The Labour party leadership contest is a hot mess. What began as a promising debate about the future has now become a political middle that Labour has always been prone to in its century-long history. As the Tories capitalise on their famous victory with ‘tanks on Labour’s lawn’, these are desperate times for the Labour party.

Back in the 1980s, when Labour was just as desperate – suffering successive defeats at the hands of Margaret Thatcher – the right proclaimed victory for conservatism. So when New Labour emerged in 1990s, the left impulsively perceived it as ‘Thatcherism 2.0’ and attacked its advocates for conspiring against socialism.

Yet it was not small-state conservatism that destroyed the socialist left. Rather, it was a rejection of the future – technological advance and globalisation – that prompted the public to ditch socialism. As a result, millions who sought a progressive alternative, or merely a government with a heart, were left stranded in a society defined by Thatcher.

It took the emergence of New Labour to reverse that logical error and for Labour to be trusted to govern again. Today, trade unions ask not how we would reopen coal mines, but how we can work with businesses to create the jobs of the future.

Much of this ‘centre-ground’ rationale has been accepted by the mainstream candidates. To different extents, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall all recognise that, if Labour wants to win again, it can no longer be anti-business and must be trusted to run the economy.

But being credible on the economy is not just about winning elections, it is about putting the country first.

As Tristram Hunt argued in Progress last week, the Labour party, like declining social democratic parties worldwide, is losing that emotional touch with the people.

Our Labour values must connect to a more obvious sense of national identity.

That obvious sense of national identity, I believe, begins with having common sense with the national finance.

Labour lost the 2015 election because it conceded the centre-ground which, as much as the hard left (or the hard right) refuses to believe, is not an ideological construct. It is a political space occupied by those who simply say: You wouldn’t trust a dodgy car salesman with your money, so why should the taxpayer trust a political party that cannot look after public finances?

Labour must present a sensible business plan for Britain if it has any interest in governing. The trouble for some on the left is that they are losing sight of government as they endorse Jeremy Corbyn. Instead, they return to their comfort zone, utter buzzwords that would win applause but never an election, and speak a language of ‘solidarity’ and ‘struggle’ that the country does not understand.

This takes us back to the beginning of the contest – what seems like years ago already – when Burnham said ‘the party comes first always’ in the BBC Newsnight debate, and Kendall quipped instinctively, ‘the country comes first.’

Instincts say a lot about leaders, still more about political leaders. Kendall’s campaign has been by far the boldest and most credible of all so far – the backing of the well-regarded Alistair Darling further confirms that. Yet, even if Kendall fails to win, she will have done the party a service by reminding them ‘the country comes first.’ It is a basic condition for a party of government, one that Labour has forgotten for far too long.

Until Labour puts the country first, the country will never put the party first on the ballot paper.

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Noah Sin is a regular contributor to the Independent. He is currently completing a MSc in International Relations Theory at the London School of Economics and tweets @Noah_Sin

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Photo: Tom Page

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Comments: 8...

  1. On July 21, 2015 at 5:03 pm IAS2011 responded with... #

    What would have been a true wake-up call for the “leadership” contenders of this party – of the results of the previous election were not enough – would have been for these leaders to go into the heart of the community and hold an event – empowering people to highlight their voices in all ranges. This is called “doing something difference, something special… something that the Tory party will never do”. No, I am not talking about an audience similar to that of BBC 1 “question time”, but one that allows real people in communities to ask fundamental question posed at improving social mobility… and productivity.

  2. On July 21, 2015 at 6:14 pm Ray McHale responded with... #

    The suggestion that Labour lost the 2015 election because it conceded the middle ground is nonsense. The Tories had a programme of vicious cuts to public service, wage freezes and attacks on the welfare state created by Labour. That was a lurch to the right – not to the middle. Now we offer them support in attacking benefits for the working poor (the strivers) so they can cut taxes for the rich and big business. This is not putting the country first – it is putting the international and national demands of capitalism first – and selling out the ordinary people we were founded to represent. Tristram Hunt can’t even get a 50% turn out in a solid Labour seat – too busy off promoting his books when he is a shadow minister. Alistair Darling has done little or nothing to defend Labour’s economic policies and spending after the crash – which he presided over – and which were at the heart of Tory attacks on Labour. Perhaps he should have opened his mouth then.

  3. On July 22, 2015 at 4:00 am MrHarryLime responded with... #

    I fear that we (in Progress) have been too complacent in the last two leadership elections. Kendall is a good candidate and she has my vote, but she lacks box office appeal. I think it’s already clear she’ll come last. Meanwhile, Blairite candidates with genuine star quality are not even standing. As George Eaton said in the New Statesman, we tend to turn up for a gunfight with a knife.

    We’ve been foolish in the way we’ve argued against Corbyn. Centrist commentators across the media dismiss him as either a clown or a nasty piece of work. All he has to do is refrain from actually assaulting someone at the hustings and he looks moderate and reasonable by comparison. It’s time to take on his policies and show why they’d be bad for the country. It’s no good pointing out his electoral toxicity because his supporters don’t care about winning.

    We’ve also been naive about the grip that the hard left is beginning to exert on the party. Slowly but surely they have increased their numbers and their influence – on the NEC, in CLPs, in the party organisation. Things have reached the point where I can attend a CLP meeting and hear Progress dismissed as a Trotskyite movement akin to militant tendency. We need more moderates at grassroots level.

    I’m afraid the best-case scenario in this election is that we avoid Corbyn and try to move back towards the centre under Cooper. But that’s no more likely – perhaps a shade less likely – than the worst-case scenario: Jeremy Corbyn as leader, mass resignations from the shadow cabinet, and the dominance of the hard left at PLP and CLP level.

    • On July 22, 2015 at 12:01 pm Oriental Imp responded with... #

      Sadly I agree with a lot of your analysis Harry, though surely we can’t be dumb enough to commit ritual Seppukko by having Corbyn as leader. I’ll also be voting for Kendall but we all know, it seems, that she’s going to come last.

      Who are the Blairites with genuine star quality BTW? It’s going to take the emergence of a pretty amazing leader (clearly not anybody currently running) to get us out of this mess but I just don’t see who or where they are.

      • On July 22, 2015 at 8:16 pm Verity responded with... #

        But surely this was obvious. A candidate whose only career was a short spell as an adviser and then one term of office in parliament has clearly not got the background for a shadow cabinet post, nor Labour Party leader, less Prime Minister. Where is the Labour Party’s duty of care for individuals? Her undoubted exuberant ambition has been cruelly exploited. Some wise heads should think more of the people involved and get her to withdraw before further damage is done to her reputation and future. Far from being bold she has given some really poor displays of understanding of issues and appears a little robotic repeating a rehearsed mantra of Labour moving to an undescribed centre ground that has no stable policy meaning.

  4. On July 27, 2015 at 7:39 pm nana responded with... #

    i have thought deeply about this over the weekend.using my head.am going to change my vote to Liz Kendall.we have to have policies to suit the UK of today,like we did in 1997.please vote with your head.we have to have a candidate to win.coming second is not an option.

  5. On July 28, 2015 at 3:05 pm Nick Draper responded with... #

    I genuinely don’t believe Labour lost in the 1980s because we failed to embrace globalisation. The Tories came up with some smart ideas on selling Council Houses off cheap, and following that the nationalised industries, and they sounded smart and young and persuasive, and Mrs. Thatcher was brave and competent and held her party together (at least at first). I know. I’m so old that I was there.
    Nor do I believe Liz Kendall is breaking the mould. I was recently sent a five-point list of her promises, which included free uniforms for carers. Now I believe in that wholeheartedly, but does it even begin to compare with the lure of a cut-price council house? Come on.
    Strangely, the 5-point plan didn’t include the Country First bit, and I’m quite glad. You see, we aren’t a country, we’re four countries, bound together into a nation. I believe in that nation as much as the next person, but I believe in it because of the people who live within it. I believe in People First. For the same reason I feel that starting up an English Labour Party (another policy that didn’t make the list) is not in the interest of the Union and might even work to the detriment of some of its peoples.
    Sure as eggs are eggs, I don’t want the politics of the hard left to win, but that’s because I don’t care for them, not because I think they’ll make us less electable. What I do want is for us to work together and come up with something smart and young and persuasive, under a leader who is brave and competent and holds his or her party together. That means no hissy fits, just as it means no wobbles. Most of all it means concentrating on the positive, on what we CAN deliver, left and right united under one Labour banner, working for ALL our nation and ALL the people within it. Come on. We can do this.

    • On July 28, 2015 at 11:09 pm Sue Fewster responded with... #

      Well said. I came on to say that surely it is the people of the nation who should come first. Sadly we have been chasing growth for the country – and have paid for that growth with high levels of inequality not seen since before the war.

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