Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The Last Word: Hard Labour

Pain, progress and pioneers

The Last Word is back! This time with 20 per cent more intellectual content, a 10 per cent reduction in sarcasm and no mention of Super Tuesday.

Burn after reading

But a word of warning. Before you read further, I’m currently 100/1 on Skybet (I’m told) to become the next prime minister. Those odds are bound to shorten after the bookies read this so get your money on now.

Hard Labour

Labour’s endless discussions about the party’s leadership are as painful as they are necessary. The rhymes, rhythms and requirements of modern politics means that these discussions aren’t the non-conversations of old. These conversations aren’t often conversations at all; they’re paroxysms of delight or despair shared in real time on social media. Political inspiration and intimidation – you can fit a lot into 140 characters.

Norman Tebbit once observed that politicians who complained about the press were akin to sailors complaining about the sea and he was right. But today, there’s no real news cycle, nothing like a print or broadcast deadline. We live in a political age of 24/7 everything and it is here to stay. Like it or not, the spirit of this particular Tebbit maxim remains true, and for those politicians who don’t like it, they have to get on their bikes.

Modern life isn’t rubbish at all. It’s magnificent for many, but by no means enough of us: not in our country and not on our planet. The modern world and its perpetual change and challenge presents all of our political parties with problems. Labour should be uniquely equipped to deal with these: we are a product, potentially the most important product of the industrial revolution. We are at our best and most successful when we understand, explain and lead our country through the challenges thrown up by the modern world. This requires engagement, not retreat. Intellectual curiosity, not ossified ideological certainty. The practices of Britain’s socialist pioneers – removing barriers to political involvement, accommodating difference, understanding the modern world – are equally as important as the conclusions and political remedies that those pioneers developed.

The speed and scale of the technological, economic and social change sweeping Britain and the world is spoken of in cliched terms, but is not sufficiently understood by anything like enough politicians and policy makers. Technological change is set to precipitate some breathtaking impacts: how health services are delivered, how schools function, how businesses operate and how the new world of work functions. This represents an enormous challenge for our politics – one which all of our parties have so far singularly failed to respond to.

Central to this response, particularly for those of us on the left, should be a new understanding of the role of government. Consider how technological change has transformed our society, from the printing press to the Internet; political process has been largely absent from the development of the technological advances that have shaped the modern world. Yet a belief endures – on left and right – in the power of a centralised state to pull ‘policy levers’ to achieve profound political and economic change.

Our history shows that this is a flawed belief: clinging to it can only invite further failure.

The truth is that whichever candidate won the Labour leadership in 2015, a lot of intellectual ‘heavy lifting’ was always going to be required by all sections of the party. This heavy lifting doesn’t simply require an understanding and ownership of modernity, it requires a vision of national renewal in the context of this process.

The reasons for this are compelling. An explicit, positive Labour vision of national renewal is conspicuous by its absence. This matters more than ever because the Conservatives have a clear national vision of their own which they are prosecuting ruthlessly. Market fundamentalism combined with government abandonment. A low wage, insecure economy. A zero hour economy run on mortgaged debt. Collapsing communities, the dereliction of local government and – watch this space – an increasingly compromised NHS. A clear vision, with clear ideas, clear consequences and, tragically, a clear mandate.

If we are to provide the positive vision of national renewal that our country requires, then we need to rediscover our intellectual curiosity in the face of the challenges we face. Reaching for flawed historical remedies in the hope that they will provide the cartography we require is a fool’s errand.

The required heavy lifting may be a noisy, even painful process, but the public expects this to be done, and whether we like it or not, they are watching us and the clock is ticking.

The future owes us nothing. We have no divine right to exist. Our country needs us. It is time for us to acknowledge our historic responsibilities and become pioneers again.


Jamie Reed MP is member of parliament for Copeland. He writes The Last Word column on Progress and tweets @jreedmp


Photo: Christiane Wilke

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Jamie Reed MP

is member of parliament for Copeland. He is shadow minister for health and writes The Last Word column on Progress

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