Change in politics is over-predicted and then when it finally comes, overwhelming. The Labour party with its new rules, new members and new leader it is a different beast. The one thing that is the same is the ultimate mission: to form a government that advances progressive aims and makes life better for people.
It would be easy to cavil about Jeremy Corbyn’s victory from the centre of the party. Maybe it is true that many new members and supporters are young London liberals (though not everyone who voted for him rides a fixie bike). He certainly has been a greater rebel even than Iain Duncan Smith was for the Tories, so some will question his right to expect loyalty. However, this is all utterly besides the point, mere grumbling.
The rules of the game were different. There was the ability to open up the party and draw in new people through enthusiasm. Do we believe that this can only be done from the left? Did not Bill Clinton and Tony Blair manage it in their era a generation ago? The truth is that the centre in ideas and people had become tired: the field had been abandoned. Yvette Cooper, by common consent broke through to the public a few weeks ago. I immediately warmed to her, became interested. But her political generation has had 10 years in the public eye to make emotional eye contact with the public. Who can remember what any of them has said or what they stand for? Corbyn’s team understood the rules, understood what was needed and played a blinder.
The real question is how do we play and triumph as a progressive party in the new era? There is one critique of Corbyn that holds. He is an unlikely candidate to win a general election. The challenge here is to create a coherent progressive platform and to use that to excite first the party and then the country. No one is interested in plotting or briefing. If Labour goes down that road it will become a kind of permanent rump party of discontent, like Charles Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats, a windsock containing ever changing members with a national or local beef. We need, in a matter of a couple of years, to have a positive vision for Britain.
It is worth looking briefly at Labour’s 1997 manifesto. It is far more radical than anything Ed Miliband said. It does not fiddle around the edges of surplus or deficit or put at the centre important but niche ideas like zero hours contracts. It is a profound and politically mixed agenda constitutionally, economically and socially. A bit did not happen. Most become our new reality as a country. Give it to those who say politics does not matter – with a hearty booyah. But let us not dwell on the past any longer than needed to correct misconceptions. When Blair took up the labour leadership he was closer in time to Wilson’s last reelection than we are to Blair now. How often did he mention Harold Wilson? My count is never. There are a lot of people around now talking about winning elections like it was doing press-ups, a matter of practice. But not a lot of talk on how exactly to do it now, from here.
George Osborne has a plan. It is just that it is not quite the one we hear about. He is not the anti-debt Chancellor. He is the chancellor who is privatising debt. More debt on those buying houses, to shoot some monkey glands into the veins of a flatlining economy. More debt to the young, always the young. A shift from a family-based welfare system to a wage and tax allowance based system that makes no difference between a single young man living with his parents and hitting the town each Saturday (and why not) and the mother of three young children. All is privatised and atomised. Over the last five years the US student debt has doubled. It has now reached the same amount as the whole of the UK national debt, sitting the backs of just 37 million people, of whom almost a quarter are in arrears. This is where our road leads.
Osborne has spoken about national debt like the hellfire preacher speaks of sin. But let us look beneath the old-time religion. There is ‘bad’ debt, the payday loan, the unplanned national deficit, and the robo-signed mortgage. There is also the debt that built the London Underground, rebuilt Europe after the second world war, built Google and so many other great companies. Sometimes debt is hope. The hope that we will make a return, build something new, have a larger economy in the future. Debt is how new money is created, when we have a costed plan for the future: a business plan. Almost all new UK debt, 80 per cent, is mortgage. In short, we do not seem to believe that we can build the companies of the future, the products of the future, the infrastructure of the future. The only hope we have of the future is that our houses prices will go up. Our national plan is to shackle our kids with massive private debt so they can buy themselves an education and then buy our houses from us.
It would be ridiculous to write a manifesto for Labour at this point. Even if, by a miracle, we hit the nail on the head, there is the process of talking with people and subscribing them that is at least as important. But my bet is that the space is would be in would be between arid generalities about systems and the detailed policies like zero hours. It would be in the area of significant national challenges: how to get the housing market right for the next generation; how to attract and nurture more global clusters in the productive tradable sectors (and spread outside London); how to make employment in the non-tradable sectors decently paid; how to get resources to children who need it; what a positive relationship in Europe and transforming Europe looks like. It could be those or others. I hope you disagree and say your own. The challenge for the centre of the party is to stop telling about election winning and start showing how it is done – with bold plans. Not to grumble about the new open politics and instead to plan to bring in two million new labour supporter and members, around the country, through the strength of our ideas and in our hope for a better future.
William Higham is a member of Vauxhall CLP
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