This isn’t a misery weekend for moaners. This weekend is about ideas, optimism and hope. And that’s what I want to talk to you about today. Because for me it is hope that is so important. Because all the beating ourselves up, the wallowing in self-pity, the gallows humour, actually that holds us back.
Pessimism, negativity, these attitudes suck the life out of politics. If you are looking for proof of that, just look at British politics today. I cannot think of a time when this country has had weaker political leadership. The Tories are ripping themselves apart again over Europe. Ministers are jockeying for position and looking to their own careers when they should be plotting a future course for our country.
There is far too little focus on the challenges that actually face Britain. Or the challenges that face any other country for that matter. Nothing sums up this dismal situation better than our apparent choice of next prime minister. George Osborne versus Boris Johnson? Really? But let’s be honest, the Tories don’t have a monopoly in bad political leadership right now. Labour at times seems to have taken a nap after the election last year, and woken up in the 1970s. We look more interested in refighting the internal battles of the past than on taking the fight to the Tories in the here and now.
Commentators have spoken about the absence of global leadership in recent years. Easy to see why when you ask who in the G8 or the G20 was coming up with serious answers to problems like Syria, global warming or the eurozone economy? They called it G-Zero. Around the globe, no one taking a lead. But I worry that here, we are now moving fast to B-Zero.
A British government that ducks big decisions, on airports or on the steel industry, and that plays political games with our future in Europe. A government with no ideas and no direction, and an opposition that isn’t yet providing a real alternative. We have a Britain bereft of leadership.
And what is behind this leadership deficit? It’s pessimism. Pessimism about our country and its future. These leaders think that we are in decline. That our best days are behind us.
The right look back to a golden age around the 1950s, when they think we were last a great power. Now they say we are just a small island, too insignificant, shackled to Europe. They think we should pull up the drawbridge, retreat from the world and its problems.
We have a different kind of fatalism on the left, but it is still there. People who think that our true values of solidarity from the 1960s and 1970s have been corrupted by individualism. That my generation are Thatcher’s children who never learned to share.
Both of these narratives are nonsense.
The right are wrong, because we’re not just a small island, and we never have been. We’re the fifth biggest economy in the world. We have some of the best schools and universities ever seen, pioneering research, who break boundaries in human knowledge. 4.7 billion people, over half of the world, watch our Premier League. One in eight of all albums sold across the world is by a British artist.
And the hard left too are wrong about our values. Because the truth is that Britain today is a better place to live than it ever has been before. Now, by the time I was born, we’d had 10 years of the Equal Pay Act, and progress on sexism was finally being made, thanks to good people like Barbara Castle and Harriet Harman. Legislation to counteract pernicious racism was newer, and that battle was still being fought. Right now it is being won. But perhaps it is because I lived through the time of disgraceful state-backed homophobia that dogged the life of too many when I was growing up, that I really feel the change we’ve made.
Measure our progress by the way we treat each other and it is certain. Our country is a much better place to be a woman, or gay, or black now than just a few decades ago. But more fundamentally, Britain is a better place to be yourself, whoever you are. This is the freer, more progressive, Britain that we built when we were in government.
We built a country where people are more tolerant and respectful of others. Where people do not feel so suffocated by barriers of gender, race, or class. A country where the law protects a person’s right to be themselves, where schools give people a better chance than ever before, and where our culture is, for the most part, inclusive and diverse.
Nowhere is this seen more than amongst our young people. The people we are supposed to call ‘millennials’ are the ones driving this change in social attitudes. There are big questions about the situation they face in terms of housing and wages, but it is beyond doubt that they have grown up with more choices, chances and control than their parents or grandparents could ever dream of.
We hear so much about how this generation has it worse than their parents, but which of our parents or grandparents would not have traded places with us? Who would have shunned the freedoms and opportunities that we have enjoyed, and which will only increase in the future? Who does not feel grateful?
It is an idea that was put so brilliantly by early feminist Olive Schreiner in her message to future generations. A passage I first read when I was 18.
I should like to say to the men and women of the generations which will come after us — ‘You will look back at us with astonishment!
‘You will wonder at passionate struggles that accomplished so little; at the, to you, obvious paths to attain our ends which we did not take; at the intolerable evils before which it will seem to you we sat down passive; at the great truths staring us in the face, which we failed to see; at the truths we grasped at, but could never quite get our fingers round.
‘You will marvel at the labour that ended in so little—but, what you will never know is how it was thinking of you and for you, that we struggled as we did and accomplished the little which we have done; that it was in the thought of your larger realisation and fuller life, that we found consolation for the futilities of our own.’
She wrote that in 1910 – before women could vote – and how right she was.
It’s no longer the case that working-class parents must have working-class kids. That being born poor means dying poor. And it was Labour that made it happen.
So yes, some people might try to call our next generation individualistic. So-called Thatcher’s children who think only of themselves. But while this weekend we may be in Thatcher’s town, we are not in her Britain.
I say this to the fatalists: the ability to be yourself, to change and improve – surely this is what progressives on the left have fought for?
The freedoms that millennials have now are the result of a better society campaigned for, and brought about by, the labour movement and the government it elected. This generation’s achievements are ours, and they are the foundation on which the next Labour government will be built. So, I am very hopeful for the future and what we can achieve.
Because of this, I love Britain. It is a good and exciting place. There is truly nothing wrong with it that a decent Labour government couldn’t fix. And if we can elect a government with a bit of vision, leadership and resolve. Then we have the power to give British people the country they deserve.
So if this is our Britain, why should we not be optimistic about it? Let’s stop wallowing and give people a bit of hope. Let’s love our country for how it is, how we have made it. Not pine for some imaginary past. Or create a selective history of a country that has never existed.
Let nobody tell you that the best days of Britain passed in the stuffy church halls of the 1950s. And let nobody tell you that the best of British values were last seen on a march in the 1960s or 1970s. It’s just not true.
Now it is a bit of a running joke in my family that I don’t like holidays. And I suppose the reason is that when I go away I can’t help but compare places to home, and find them wanting. I want everyone to have the chance to feel like that. To feel that sense of belonging in their home.
So our first job is never to just be the people that want to solve the questions facing the Labour party: our loss in Scotland, our struggle with older voters, our ‘English problem’.
These are Labour’s challenges; they are not Britain’s. The test for us should never be set from a narrow political perspective. The test must be about the vision we have for our country and the people who live here. ‘Country first’ as Liz Kendall put it so powerfully. And we owe it to the country to be the optimists.
Not to get in our bunkers, always talking about ‘defending’ that or ‘protecting’ this, but talking about building this, creating that. That’s who we are. Progressives. That’s why this organisation is so brilliantly named and so necessary. When you look around Europe, maybe the left seems to be in retreat. But I don’t think that’s because we’re too progressive, I think it’s because we’ve been too conservative.
Stuck talking about defending the institutions we created, not developing our values and building new institutions for the world of tomorrow. So I’m fed up of the misery and the defeatism.
It robs of our best asset, our confidence, and we cannot afford to ever have that taken from us.
We must focus on the future. Be ambitious. And look to modernisation. And it’s because I’m a moderniser that I’m not a Blairite … or a Brownite, not a Milibandite or a Corbynite either.
My values are timeless; they are not stuck in one time and one place, let alone attached to one bloke. Of course it can feel tough right now, but look around you. Nobody is here today because they have made some political calculation, or because they have looked at some opinion poll.
They are here because of their values, because of the beliefs they hold, in their hearts.
So let’s be proud of that. Proud of our patriotism, our politics, our values and our passion.
And more than ever, proud of Progress.
Alison McGovern is chair of Progress
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