We have been told that Jeremy Corbyn represents a radical new leader for the Labour party, that he is a ‘curator of the future‘. I disagree with that view. I do not think that Corbyn’s brand of top-down socialism and reheated Bennism is new or radical, and I do not believe that it will lead Labour to victory in 2020. There is, however, a radical in the leadership election, someone who is truly articulating the new ideas that the Labour party needs if it is to refashion itself for the modern world – that person is Liz Kendall.
Kendall has placed one especially radical idea at the heart of her campaign – giving power away. In her speech ‘Of the people, for the people, by the people‘ she powerfully laid out the case for devolving power ‘to the nations, cities, towns, and counties of Britain’. She returned to this theme in her speech on ‘Realising our values in the 21st century‘, beginning with a paean to the roots of the party in ‘workplaces, town squares and churches the length and breadth of this island’.
This is the tradition that Corbyn ignores with his focus on the old-fashioned tools of the state, his relentless demand for party democracy rather than genuine empowerment of ordinary people. Kendall understands that in an age of globalisation power feels increasingly distant from people’s lives, and that all too often the representatives of the government seem as brutal and faceless of those of multinational corporations. To truly win back support for social democracy we have to restore to people the sense that government is an active and real part of their lives rather than an imposition from above.
It is this feeling of alienation that fuels dissatisfaction with the ‘Westminster elite’ and the EU, that drives the rise of the United Kingdom Independence party and the Scottish National party, that Corbyn is now channelling but lacks a coherent response to. That is not to say that all that the left has achieved before now should be swept away; indeed, in an age of vast multinational corporations it is more critical than ever to use the institutions of the state and power of the EU to defend the interests of workers and the vulnerable. We face, however, a breakdown of people’s trust in these bodies, and as such our challenge is to rebuild a sense of connection not just with our goals but with the means by which those goals are achieved.
This also responds to Tristram Hunt‘s call for Labour to confront the world of identity politics. For this is one of the greatest problems that social democracy currently faces; the rise of national and local identity that is replacing the class politics that are the origins of most leftwing parties across Europe. Devolution is not just about connecting people to power but giving real content to their identities. A frustrated nationalism, a thwarted identity, is a dangerous political force, but an engaged community is an unparallelled means of personal actualisation and collective action.
Kendall’s focus on devolution is therefore radical on two levels. First, it restores to people a sense of real power over their own communities, a connection to the government and the tools of social democracy. This creates the space for real grassroots reform of public institutions, for creating more responsive services that provide a genuine voice to those they serve. As importantly, devolution can channel people’s growing sense of local and national identity into a progressive direction. It confronts the threat to social democracy of identity politics and places Labour on the side of local action rather than against it. It fuses the New Labour desire for modernisation of the state with the blue Labour goal of community engagement. Ultimately it can even mark out a new path for Labour’s campaigning, focusing the party on links with local action and community activism.
This is the truly radical idea in the leadership campaign and Kendall is the real progressive that the Labour party needs. It is her vision that we must place at the heart of the Labour party if we are to win back power and implement real change.
Nicolas Turner is a member of Progress
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