Following Jeremy Corbyn’s second victory it may be all too easy to assume that ‘things can only get worse’ for the centre-left. While walking past the ‘Cool Britannia’ shops that mark Liverpool’s tourist hotspots, just minutes from Labour’s conference venue, it was difficult not to hark back to an era when Labour oppositions were in the ascendancy. Yet, despite a level of pessimism in the ranks, last week may well have been the time when the centre-left finally found its feet.
With the focus of Labour conference largely on important votes about the make-up of the National Executive Committee, and with many Corbyn supporters gathered at the parallel Momentum conference, the various fringe sessions held in Liverpool lent Labour ‘moderates’ space to consider some of the most fundamental issues now facing Britain and Labour. Even more encouragingly, many of those former frontbenchers who have felt unable to serve under Corbyn have now been afforded time to engage in some of the intellectual debates that the party has neglected for the best part of a decade.
One of these issues is the continuing issue of immigration, now amplified and complicated by the Brexit vote. Fortunately we are now seeing a much healthier debate taking place, one asking whether free movement should necessarily be seen as a key Labour value, and whether there is scope to look at new progressive ideas around ‘control’. Members of parliament Rachel Reeves, Stephen Kinnock and Emma Reynolds each put arguments forward in a Fabian Society publication, and Reeves discussed such views at fringe events hosted by Policy Network and the Resolution Foundation.
Linked to the debate on immigration is the debate around integration and social cohesion. Five years ago few on the left dared to talk about integration, fearing it would be wrongly confused with assimilation, but it is now finally becoming common wisdom among centre-left thinkers that multiculturalism will only succeed if individuals and communities interact and bond, rather than risk division and segregation. Indeed Chuka Umunna, who is chair of the new all-party parliamentary group on social integration, prompted headlines by telling a fringe event that ‘not getting involved in the community is not an option’ and warned against people living ‘parallel lives’.
Perhaps more of a focus on what we have in common, rather than what divides us, could be central to the next big Labour project, which many recognise has been absent for a decade. Keir Starmer and Jon Cruddas were two MPs to raise the existential question of ‘What is Labour for?’ while Kinnock’s comments to Demos outlined the need to use more patriotic language to tell a new story about the values and vision that can shape the next Labour Britain. The notion that we need a ‘patriotic left’ to rival the nationalism of the right is continuing to gain traction. While Kinnock focused on a vision for Britain, John Denham led an IPPR debate on Labour’s relationship with Englishness, drawing on ideas that he and Tristram Hunt have put forward over the past 12 months.
But perhaps the most encouraging trend in Liverpool was the notable growth in the quality of debates on the issue of technological shifts and the changing world of work. The ‘fourth industrial revolution’, or ‘second machine age’, will have profound impacts on jobs over the coming years. The centre-left will need responses to trends such as the rise in self-employment (caused by the new ‘gig’ economy enriched by ‘Uber-style’ apps), the very real threat that jobs will disappear faster than they are created, and the need to skill workers of all ages for new jobs. Yvette Cooper, now chairing the new Changing Work Centre run by the Fabians and Community union, spoke at two panel discussions, while at a Progress event Reeves and Peter Kyle set out some of the challenges we face. Kyle warned that the fourth industrial revolution will take ‘less than a decade’ in comparison to the 300 years it took for the previous three.
Electorally the darkest hour may be yet to come, but while the concept of ‘Cool Britannia’ may feel like a faded memory there should be genuine optimism that a new era for centre-left philosophy began against the backdrop of Liverpool’s Albert Dock.
Joe Jervis is a former journalist, now working in media and public affairs for a charity. He tweets @joejervis89
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