Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Being progressive in a new era

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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Will Higham


  • ” The only hope we have of the future is that our houses prices will go up. ”

    There is a huge flaw in this argument, as follows:

    If a magic wand was waved and house prices fell overnight, by 50%-60%, then the vast proportion of the population would actually be better off!

    1. Consider those wishing to trade-up. The differential, between the price received by selling their old house and purchasing the new one, is lower. Any residual mortgage on the previous property remains unchanged so there is a net win for this group.

    2. Someone buying their first home also wins out because the multiple of salary required to purchase has been halved, We would move back towards historic multiples – instead of being six to ten times it falls to 3-5X (based on a 50% reduction) – a huge advantage!

    3. Trading-down – would result in a loss of 50% of any equity gain, that had previously accumulated on the property, with regard to the old price values. This would have an impact on those who assumed that the equity released would fund their future lifestyle. On the other hand if one regarded a house as a place to live in, rather than an investment vehicle, then there is perhaps a fair compromise?

    The one sector that could suffer, under this scenario, is the banks and building-societies. In theory if outstanding mortgages were repaid then there are no net losses. However, the outstanding loans are in many cases not now covered by the equity value of the properties, on the loan book. If sufficient numbers of those with mortgages defaulted and no legal action was taken to recover the outstanding loan amount, after resale of the property, then this could be a problem.

    An interesting paradox.

  • Progress needs to put its thinking hat on and William Higham is contributing to that process.

    We need to go back to basics. What is our political vision?

    I put this question to Liz Kendall during the hustings. Her answer was to re-iterate “Labour values”.

    But that is not a political vision. Nor is preparing a balanced budget: that’s an accountant’s vision.

    A political vision is to do with political power (i.e. democracy at the community, local, regional, national, state and international levels). It is to do with the purposes of that power (i.e. the welfare state; the state in a globalised world).

    If Frontbench Corbyn is much the same as Backbench Corbyn (and there is some evidence already that he may not be), then he will not be thinking in these terms.

    Unless Progress helps him to.

  • Jeremy Corbyn has raised the issues and the aims – things all Labour people support. We must support his aims while providing realistic alternatives that will resonate with our new left-leaning supporters and the centre-ground in the wider population.

    There has been too much talk of hope and vision without the details. What we need is a fully worked out narrative of how our country could work in a much better way. As Tom Watson put it “a re-imagination of Labour”.

    It must describe how the different sections of our society would all be better off if we were more giving (of our tax), more willing to change (if receiving benefits), more aspirational for our children (learning new parenting skills), more honest in judgements (from Ofstead, whistle-blowers & government), more trusting in our providers so that over burdening bureaucracy doesn’t destroy the will to work, less pontificating (Mail) hyped tripe (Sun) from our media, more revealing of who really benefits from government decisions (elites & ex-government revolving door cowboys), more truth from the product suppliers, more devolution of responsibilities driven down to the local level.

    I supported Liz Kendall for leader because I felt she would do these things, and I still do, and I still hope she will get there in the end.

    Conversation: “how to” and “what it could be like”. A story: full blown narrative of the country we could have. A plan: who we need to convince and evidence of current success. Strategy: how to lift the hopes raised by Jeremy into realistic policies we can present to the electorate.

    We must give the left their chance but be ready to step in once it is realised it cannot work they way they think it can.

    Vision is more than a word.
    Narrative can give hope.

  • The one thing moderate Labour cannot do is lie down and forget it. Why am I in the Labour party not to belong to a losers club of protest and far too many in the moderate wing are being too soft, too accommodating and too passive. Its a waste of my time, energy and money. What do we do wait until 2020 to see out this socialist experiment created by metro types , infiltrators from the S.W.P and Greens and others who did not vote Labour in May. The Times ( I do not buy the Murdoch thing) says today on its front page displayed in all the local supermarkets that a leading Labour donor is withdrawing his very large amount of money from the Labour party. He feels exasperated and regards Labour as more or less a dead duck. Also The Times reports a survey showing well over 66% of voters believe Corbyn will reduce the chances of the Labour party being elected.

    Lets quote from Mike Smithson’s site following further research on the marginals : “If Labour have any hope of taking power in 2020 they need to stop piling up votes in safe seats and start winning them in Tory held marginal seats. I’m not sure Jeremy Corbyn is the man to achieve that as I expect Jeremy Corbyn will be even less appealing in the Tory held marginals than Ed Miliband was.”

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