Chuka Umunna’s ‘The Labour alternative’ essay sets out broadly the right direction for Labour, but there are several glaring omissions, writes Renie Anjeh
It is a great shame that Chuka Ummuna is no longer a member of the shadow cabinet. The telegenic and talented member of parliament for Streatham was a rare voice of sanity during Ed Miliband’s failed leadership. As shadow business secretary, he understood the need to connect with wealth creators and regain economic credibility. In 2014, he publicly called for reform of European Union freedom of movement but his advice fell on deaf ears. If the Labour party paid more attention to him over the last few years, it probably would not be in the dire position that it is in today. That is why it was a pleasure to read ‘The Labour alternative’, an essay he wrote earlier this month, where he provided an interesting account of the party’s recent history and a prospectus for the future.
Contrary to the alternative facts peddled by the hard-left, the Labour party is not in rude health – far from it. If the current situation continues unaddressed, the party will never again be a party of power, let alone a party of protest, but a party of the past. That is why deep thinking from the best players in the team should be welcome. While the general direction that Umunna sets out is broadly the right one, it remains to be seen whether it is sufficient in order to transform Labour into a viable party of government once again.
In his account of Labour’s recent history, Umunna lauded New Labour for its successes but rightly shone a light on its shortcomings. New Labour was in awe of globalisation and insouciant towards its downsides. Growth was too reliant on an overheated property market and the economy was not rebalanced away from the south-east. Economic policies were based on indefinite growth and when the financial crash hit and the deficit ballooned, the government was left exposed.
Umunna’s excellent prospectus for the future is rich with ideas that ought to be explored, especially those based around family, work and place. Too often the left gets distracted by abstract notions while forgetting what really matters to ordinary people. People value the dignity and security they gain from work, they cherish their family and relationships, they care deeply about their community and they possess an unselfconscious love for their country. They also prioritise reciprocity over absolute equality – although when voters think about this issue, they are more concerned with levels of immigration and the proliferation of non-contributory benefits as opposed to the terrible cuts to disability benefits that Umunna mentions.
One issue where Umunna falls short is when he levels the charge at New Labour that they continued with Margaret Thatcher’s ‘neoliberal free-market consensus’ even though he praises them for their ‘socialist achievements’. This is inherently incoherent because socialism and Thatcherism are the antithesis of each other. No neoliberal free-marketeer would introduce a national minimum wage and trade union recognition rights, deliver record investment in public services and oversee the biggest redistribution of wealth since Clement Attlee. It is right to say that New Labour could have done even more (for example, reform of corporate governance) but to argue that it is proof of latent neoliberalism is like arguing that Thatcher continued the post-war consensus because she did not abolish the National Health Service.
If Umunna’s argument was that New Labour should have returned to the failed policies of the past – high taxation, state control of industry, corporatism and lax union laws – then it would be easier to understand his argument but he clearly does not believe that. This is probably the result of mistakenly attributing many of the economic reforms that took place in the 1980s to Hayekian liberalism rather than the structural changes in Western societies and economies. Moreover, the fact that Thatcher’s erstwhile dauphin, Michael Portillo, was forced to accept the minimum wage and that George Osborne accepted Labour’s spending plans before the crash, shows that, if anything, New Labour ended the Thatcherite neoliberal consensus.
As part of Umunna’s attack on New Labour’s supposed neoliberalism, he singles out their choice agenda in public services for criticism. This ignores the fact that choice was not only popular with the public but it was also responsible for many of the improvements in public services. It was also right in principle. Why should the poorest be forced to accept what they are given when the rich can use their power and wealth to get ‘better’ services? By extending freedoms that were only restricted to the richest in society, New Labour’s choice agenda was socialism in action.
However, the real problem with Umunna’s ‘Labour alternative’ is not really what it includes but what it omits. An example of this is his analysis of the Miliband leadership where he gives appropriate praise and criticism but does not thoroughly address the deficiencies of those five wasted years. Although he ended his career in ignominy, David Cameron was the first prime minster to increase his majority of seats and voters since Lord Palmerston – a feat that not even Thatcher or Blair achieved. This was not because of any great love for the Conservatives but because Miliband simply refused to address concerns over economic credibility, immigration and welfare and instead pandered to the party’s base instincts. It is no surprise that the veteran Bennite, Jon Lansman, told the New Statesman in 2015 that ‘there had been enough of an opening of debate under Ed Miliband that Jeremy would do well if he got on the ballot’.
Another example is that while Umunna rightly mentions failings of the Iraq war there is a conspicuous elision of the Syria debacle and the party’s role in it. In September 2013, the House of Commons decided not to intervene when Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons to slaughter his own people. That decision weakened Barack Obama’s resolve resulting in no action being taken. The consequences have been dire. A murderous, fascist tyrant was permitted to flout international law with impunity and since then hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed. The far-right in Europe have been bolstered by the growing refugee crisis that ensued. Moderate pro-democracy forces have been depleted while Daesh have filled the vacuum. Britain’s allies in the Middle East have been destabilised but the Kremlin and Tehran have grown in strength. Unfortunately, Miliband is partly culpable for this sorry state of affairs because of his decision to withdraw support for action at the eleventh hour. Just as another Yorkshire Labour MP, Arthur Greenwood, spoke for England in 1939, Miliband could have spoken for Syria but instead he failed to show moral leadership. It is the world’s loss that the great internationalist Labour party betrayed its proud traditions in order to appease its hard left.
In his prospectus for the way forward, Umunna recognises that Labour’s electoral coalition is torn asunder, but there is a glaring omission in his diagnosis. There is an urgent need to reunite its urban liberal supporters with its blue-collar, communitarian supporters but that is not enough. The inquiry, led by Jon Cruddas, into Labour’s defeat in 2015 found that Labour lost the election because it lost with ‘Prospectors’ – voters who are aspirational, acquisitive and pragmatic. They felt that Labour was profligate with their hard-earned taxes, opposed to their aspirations, unable to competently govern and therefore unworthy of their support. Yet Umunna neglects to mention these voters in his essay and frankly they are absent in a lot of the wider discussion about Labour’s future. If Labour is to deliver a meaningful agenda rooted in family, work and place then it is imperative that it seeks to win over the so-called Prospectors that Cruddas identified.
This leads onto Umunna’s declaration that there must be no return to New Labour. In a way, this is palpably obvious. Its founders have departed the stage and times have moved on. It would ironically be very un-New Labour to attempt to turn the clock back twenty years. However, that should not preclude Umunna and other Labour moderates from adopting the New Labour approach – seeking to expand the party’s electoral coalition past its comfort zone so that it becomes a home for aspirational and communitarian voters and ensuring that it is resolutely in tune with the views and values of the British people so that it can deliver its agenda. The approach where its creed, as RH Tawney said, is not transcendental doctrine nor rigid formulae but a common view of the life proper to human beings and the steps required at any moment more nearly to attain it. It is only when Labour adopts that approach that it can win power, unite Britain and stand up for the labour interest. I wish Umunna and his colleagues the very best in making this happen – not just for their sakes, but for the sake of the country we love.
Renie Anjeh is a member of Progress. He tweets at @renieanjeh
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