Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour’s progressive battle

The Labour government ‘contributed almost nothing new or imaginative to the pool of ideas with which men seek to illuminate human nature and its environment’. So wrote the New Statesman in a 1954 biographical piece about Clement Attlee and the 1945-1951 Labour government. Amazing as though it may now appear, some contemporary Labour figures of the period were lambasting Attlee’s postwar government for its lack of ambition and for it not being ‘socialist’ enough. Sound familiar? Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader we have witnessed a trashing of the party’s many achievements between 1997 and 2010. It is as though we should be embarrassed for what we did not accomplish rather than celebrating and rejoicing in what we delivered for ordinary people.

In fairness, it is not simply the usual suspects who have been lining up to trash what they see as the wasted years of Labour rule. Many ‘bog-standard’ Labour members and supporters like me worried at the time that we had not been radical enough, that we had not made enough of the huge mandate the nation had given to us. The problem with this is that in truth most Labour members and supporters have opposing requirements. We want our party to be both passionately principled and sensibly pragmatic: to be a party that proudly honours its past while it shapes it and the nation’s future; to champion the state while being part of the market; to tackle poverty but to also support aspiration.

When Labour took office in 1997, Britain was suffering from what Tony Blair later described as a ‘progressive deficit’. What he meant was that Britain was far from being a modern social democratic nation. The constitution was failing, with Scotland and Wales denied proper government and hereditary privilege still the foundation of the House of Lords. Unlike many of our European neighbours, Britain lacked quality childcare and universal nursery provision or schools and hospitals with proper equipment and enough well-paid staff. In the years up to 1997, Britain was a country that had spent billions of pounds keeping able-bodied people idle because of boom and bust, where unemployment often exceeded three million, and where the absence of a national minimum wage condemned millions to poverty pay.

Under both Blair and Gordon Brown Labour’s mission in office was to address this progressive deficit. On the constitution, Britain developed as a modern pluralist democracy – devolution for Scotland and Wales, mayors for London and other cities, House of Lords reform, freedom of information and the Human Rights Act. For working people, Labour delivered progressive rights that many other countries took for granted – a minimum wage, four weeks’ paid holiday, better maternity and paternity rights, the basic right to join a trade union. For communities and families torn apart by crime, antisocial behaviour, racial intolerance and drugs, Labour established major programmes of inner-city regeneration, excellence in cities for schools, Sure Start, and additional investment in youth and sport facilities.

All of this modernisation was for a purpose: to renew our public services and keep them faithful to an agreed ethos and set of values while at the same time making them responsive to the individual needs of the people they serve. Labour needed to create a patient-centred NHS and a pupil-centred school system, moving beyond a monolithic NHS and a uniform secondary school system. We needed to do this in order to further extend opportunity and social justice. Many of the changes Labour made while in office – on the constitution, economic policy, the minimum wage and public services – are likely to last. The challenge for today’s Labour party is to develop an offer to the British people that seeks to make an even more progressive agenda irreversible; changes that cannot be rolled back by a rightwing Tory governments that want to dismantle most, if not all, of the things that have been achieved.

However, the main challenge to the progressive wing of the party comes not only from a resurgent Scottish National party or an increasingly ideological Tory party but the defeatists, pessimists and cynics that exist in our own ranks. Labour did not lose in 2015 and 2010 because its message was not sufficiently leftwing enough but because it failed to address the ambitions and aspirations of ordinary people. The fact is – and it is an uncomfortable fact for many Corbyn supporters – that by successfully occupying the centre-ground, by modernising and reaching out beyond its own activists, the Labour party of the 1990s ended up turning the Tories into a replica of what Labour used to be itself – a party with a narrow base, a party obsessed about the wrong things and a party seen as old-fashioned and out of touch.

Today’s Labour party desperately needs to add new and imaginative contributions to the ‘pool of ideas with which men seek to illuminate human nature and its environment’ and the best way to do this is to pursue a progressive not a regressive agenda.


Mike Ion is a former parliamentary candidate and currently sits as the Labour party’s nominated representative on the board of the Centre for Public Scrutiny. He tweets @MikeIon


Photo: Dom Stocqueler

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  • Do you not think Labour would do better not trying to rehash old arguments and “class war” dog whistle politics and seek to refocus the whole economic debate in terms of technology changing the very nature of jobs/careers and work into the 2030s and 2040s ad beyond identifying ways the country (and the world) can manage a transition from traditional seven day a week working to a more fragmented working model that enables the majority to have a decent level of living – now it is clear that the old economic models are fast becoming defunct. With mechanisation and robotisation of the workplace; with the falling away of many middle income career opportunities, surely Labour has its work cut out redefining a new model of a civilised society. Exciting ideas from Japan, who have learned to live with austerity, have excellent ideas such as “Volunteer Banks” where people can bank home help when they are healthy by volunteering and crediting hours to their personal care account when they need that help. Ideas to reduce the value of housing to a fixed ceiling and removing the incentive to create housing bubbles – no 2 bedroom house can be worth more than X; no four bedroom house can be worth more than Y; so that Government can better calibrate pay with the cost of living and models of earning, from jobs which will be fewer hours can be made up as an equation that might consist of: State credits for helping the sick/elderly which can be exchanged for food at Government subsidised food shops; paid work to meet housing costs; transport credits given by the state for socially beneficial work; etc etc. Yes we will have to move away from a purely capitalist society, but that would have to happen if no one could get a job anymore – we would have to rethink the whole model…anyway just a thought 🙂

  • A very good article reminding us what we achieved and of course there was much more as well especially in the increasing pass levels of GCSEs , reformed A Levels , expanding 6th forms and more accessibility to universities whereby we oversaw better human capital, more opportunity, more aspiration most especially for working class kids, all girls and all the ethnic minorities, Graduate teachers and trained medics were proud to enter improving services with reasonable pay and conditions.
    All of this progressiveness and social democracy now undermined by a government which cares little for the people’s services. But we must continue to evolve and correct the dysfunctionalities now appearing in shortages of specialists in science, maths, medicine and well qualified nurses as well as a threadbare, frozen pay system which has destroyed professional morale. That strategy has to reach out to all families of all classes who need to realise they suffer when their kid in 6th form has no maths graduate, or there is no ambulance on time for a family acute illness or too few medics to handle child illness or too few doctors or clinical psychologists. Its re-defining Social Democracy and articulating it- a task neither Ed Miliband nor Jeremy Corbyn could or can do as our ratings and polls slump into 1980s levels.

  • Does this article not contain that very cynicism and prejudice it accuses critics of previous Labour administration’s absence of anything more than the appearance of radicalism. Surely to be dismissing Labour’s strongly elected leader, six months into office, whilst having to simultaneously fight off the PLP malcontents is pushing credibility to its limits.

    I will take just one issue to demonstrate the absence of radicalism of Labour in Office – Child Care. Labour managed to commence with 15 hours free child care and then ‘progressives’ seemed to have get the ‘election programme’ (only) to 25 hours. The Tories have now proposed 30 hours. Do we need these appearances of fundamental change? Will anybody anymore believe this type of ‘progressive’ in the near future? I my opinion the author will do us a great service if was to recognise that there is little prospect of going back to the past with the continuation of this discontent. It will take us longer to outgrow the ‘past-timers’.

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