Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

We need to take a lead

Come along to this weekend’s conference, Governing for Britain: Local answers to national questions – get your ticket here

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Julia Langdon, former political editor of the Daily Mirror and Sunday Telegraph, said on Radio 4 recently that she did not want to predict what was going to happen over the next week as it would not be possible to do so accurately. To hear that from somebody with a long career in political journalism is extraordinary, but it captures the sense of turmoil and change we are all experiencing.

In a post-referendum world, where national political leadership is unclear and many in Labour feel unwelcome or are the target of abuse, it is important to remember that we are not a protest movement but a broad-based political party that seeks power in order to deliver change which is inclusive and represents our values. It has been a great pleasure to guest-edit this ‘Governing for Britain’ special, commissioning articles from some of the outstanding individuals in power and delivering Labour values.

But the uncomfortable truth is that our electoral record has been poor for more than a decade: besides victory in Wales in 2011, Sadiq Khan’s election as mayor of London represented Labour’s first major advance at the polls since 2005. As a consequence we have fewer resources, less experience in our cadre of politicians and advisers, and, as is inevitably the case when parties spend a period in opposition, a greater tendency to stake out political positions in an ideological way rather than through problem-solving pragmatism. For this reason, the party needs to draw on the expertise of Labour representatives up and down the country.

All of us charged with leadership know that we will not win as a party if we allow our politics to be defined by what we are against rather than what we are for. Whether local or national, politics is about having a vision for people and place and a strategy to deliver it. In articulating what we are for, we have to remember why we were created as a party and then look at what has changed – the internet, globalisation, the Uber economy. Put simply, it is about applying our values to the world as we find it rather than as we might wish it to be.

It is a tragedy that as a party we have allowed the Conservatives to present themselves as the party of devolution when it is Labour politicians that have been its pioneers across the country. It is still the case that the party does not always recognise the capacity, experience and ideas that Labour currently in power has to offer. As a party we are not sufficiently ambitious for non-Westminster elections – the fact that expectations for the local elections in May were set so low is a good example of this.

As the leader of a borough that has historically been known for the wrong reasons I am proud of the fact that with my 47 Labour group colleagues we are changing Haringey for the better. We have moved from a place that too often made excuses for why our children did not succeed to a borough delivering among the fastest improvements in GCSE performance in the country and where all of our secondary schools and well over 90 per cent of our primaries are good or outstanding.

Above all else we are about tackling inequality and improving life chances. We see ourselves as the future of London and we believe London must be a growing, liveable and affordable city. That is why we are building 20,000 new homes. As Steve Bullock sets out on these pages, if we believe in an affordable city, our actions must speak to that belief. That means we have to build on our land, at greater density, and make the case for a changing skyline. It is also why over the next 20 years Haringey is set to create thousands of jobs and have the fastest-growing economy of any borough in the capital.

In many of the areas where the party is struggling to build trust with the electorate, Labour in local government has a much stronger story to tell. Take economic credibility, where we still trail the Tories. We need only turn to the renaissance of cities like Manchester where economic growth has outperformed much of the country. There is a risk that, in our own party, local government continues to be misunderstood. Too often we are congratulated on managing the eye-watering cuts in our funding, but that ignores the reality that we are doing so much more.

One of my mantras is that we cannot be in the business of managing decline – even in a time of financial austerity, we must be delivering a positive vision for our people and places. Across local government, we continue to refuse to allow the job of local leadership to be reduced to simply managing diminishing budgets. After all, we are politicians, not administrators.

Fundamentally, there must be a parity of esteem between those of us in local government and our parliamentary colleagues. Why is it when we have leaders of the calibre of Richard Leese, Steve Bullock, Judith Blake and Sarah Hayward does the party only put up members of parliament on the big political shows?

I say all of this because more than anything I want us to win again. Local government leaders manage billion-pound budgets. It makes sense that distinguished economists are invited to Labour’s economic forum, but why no local leaders? To win again we need to out-fight and out-think the Tories. That means changing the terms of debate on welfare and immigration rather than fighting on their chosen battleground. It means developing a coherent narrative on public service reform – and our leaders have much to say about how public services should be reformed. More than anything, we need to apply our values to the modern world. Only by doing that will we present a compelling, credible and winning proposition to the country. We have a duty to the millions who elected us. We need to take a lead.

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Come along to this weekend’s conference, Governing for Britain: Local answers to national questions – get your ticket here

Governing Britain graphic

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Claire Kober

is leader of Haringey council

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