Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Twelve months to get to first base

Welcome and thank you.

Now, I want to be cheerful this morning; in particular, I don’t want to puncture the feel good mood created by Wes Streeting’s wonderful speech at last night’s dinner.

We may be down, we may be feeling lost and friendless, we may even have moments when we feel as though we are unwilling spectators of seemingly endless repeats of a badly written situation comedy.

But we’re not finished. We may be forecast to lose council seats this year under our new leader, as compared with the 1,807 we added to our total in the first year of Tony Blair’s leadership, but we are not finished.

The Labour party was founded to secure progressive change in a parliamentary democracy and as far as I am concerned that’s a mission worth fighting for. We cannot give up on our party.

So, although you may expect me to take you all to the Valley of Despair, because of course where we need to be in 12 months’ time is a long way from where we are now, I’m not going to do that.

Rather, I want to suggest to you the idea of the 12-month deadline as a discipline we can use to place a razor-sharp focus on securing an acceptance in the party of the broad policy positions essential if we are ever to regain the trust of the British people.

In my contribution, therefore, I want to first of all outline what those policy positions are. I then want to suggest what we need to do to secure the change we’re looking for.

Before doing that, however, can I just be clear; what I am talking about here is not building Jerusalem in 12 months. If only. No, I am arguing that by the midterm of this government Labour needs to be at first base in the long and arduous journey back to electoral victory

The broad policy positions that characterise first base will not surprise any of you. It’s not rocket science, after all.

We need to be a party which accepts the UK’s status as an advanced capitalist economy, but which also understands that capitalism can be progressive and can deliver for the many, not the few

We need to be a party that is clearly committed to the defence and the security of the British people.

We need to be a party which understands that protecting the environment, especially in the context of climate change, is entirely compatible with economic development.

And we need to be an internationalist party, which understands the need to engage in the global economy and which recognises its potential to deliver prosperity for all, as well as challenges relating to rapid social and economic change.

As I said, not rocket science. Note that there is nothing there about welfare, immigration or the emerging generation gap outlined by Alan Milburn only yesterday. But until we are trusted on the economy and on the defence of the nation, we may as well whistle in the wind.

No one at the moment is listening to us, however good our ideas.

But how do we deliver a Labour party which has learnt once again the hard lessons on those baseline issues, the economy and national security?

Three things.

First of all, and most obviously, we need debate. We need to win the argument about what the Labour party stands for. As Philip Collins said in the Times on Friday, our crisis is a crisis of the intellect.

I would suggest, however, that if the crisis Philip refers to is one that is nearly a decade in the making, then we must look back at that decade in order to identify not just where our thinking let us down, but also how the way in which we did our thinking let us down.

Even now, as we live through the lowest point in Labour’s history, it is disappointing to find that many of our truly impressive thinkers assume that it is business as usual. That the best way of making an argument is to secure the attention of a thinktank and the media.

There is a role for thinktanks and big presentations, but we must learn to embed the arguments that we need to have in the party.

Progress started some of this work last autumn, with the meetings it held around the country. We need more of that.

Second, we need to reassert the importance of voter representation in the party. The current mantra, that members matter more than voters, is worrying and must be effectively countered with the powerful truth that political parties decline and die if they do not maintain a close relationship with the voters who support them

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, we need to change the culture of the party.  No more hatred and abuse. And it’s not just the antagonism between the different wings of the party I’m referring to.

It’s time, in fact, to drop the increasingly vitriolic nature of our attitude towards others outside the party.

No more Tory toffs. No more bashing of the bankers. A critique of the banking system, yes. But no more populist banker-bashing.

Where did that get us at the general election last year? Nowhere.

It doesn’t impress voters. Indeed, one could argue that it is actually quite arrogant for the left to assume that it has a monopoly on decency and sound moral values.

And there’s something dehumanising about a political discourse which places at its heart hatred of everything that is other, or different.

We must learn to embrace a more positive politics which suggests a confidence in what we believe in and a willingness to engage with perspectives that are different to our own.

So, there we have it. Twelve months from now, a party that has developed a sound policy base because it has worked through the arguments it needs to have and it has changed its culture to something more outward-looking and positive.

I think we can do it.  And if we do, who knows how quickly we might progress after that?


Angela Smith MP is member of parliament for Penistone and Stocksbridge. She tweets @AngelaSmithMP

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Angela Smith MP

is MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge


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  • If we continue politely ignoring it the elephant will still be in the room 12 months from now.

  • No more bashing of the bankers?! Are you joking? The problem is that they haven’t been bashed at all. They have not been held accountable and have got away with it. We are still incandescent? IT WILL NEVER BE OVER.

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