A vacuum of ideas

Labour moderates will not earn the right to be heard until they articulate a coherent, positive vision for Britain that is distinct from Corbynism, argues Ed Jones

Politics has changed since the last Labour leader to win a parliamentary majority stood down ten years ago. Labour centrists find ourselves in the wilderness, both in the party and in politics more widely. Internal election and would-be flag-bearers for New Labour have come and petered-out. While Labour has a significant base of members and more so members of parliament with views on the centre-left, this conceals an ideational vacuum where New Labour once stood.

Labour centrists have spent past two years providing a critique of the mistakes of Ed Miliband and the present leadership. However, we have done so without offering many ideological and policy solutions of our own. While much policy work has been done by Labour MPs over the last few years – Liam Byrne’s work on inclusive capitalism or Lucy Powell’s work on childcare come to mind – I believe it is fair to say that these political ideas have not been brought together in a clear, coherent agenda.

Last summer, Jeremy Corbyn was the only candidate to offer a vision of where he wanted to take Britain, albeit one on issues such as tuition fees, taxation and the economy that has looked to revert to the past, not forge a new future. He won because Labour’s membership believed he stood for something, while Owen Smith only stood against someone. In this respect, Corbyn’s critics must accept that he deserved to win both elections.

Back in the 1990s, thinktanks such as IPPR churned out policies that Labour would push through in government. Gordon Brown fine-tuned tax credit policies that formed the New Deal while Harriet Harman pushed game-changing new policies on childcare, maternity leave, and flexible working. It was a policy agenda the Labour party can be proud of that changed the country for the better, with an ideological coherence underpinned in Tony Giddens’ Third Way.

While Progress readers will agree that this approach is as relevant in 2017 as in 1997, the policy programme of course cannot be the same. Indeed, this argument has been made here in the pages of Progress. However, the intelligentsia of the centre-left are yet to produce a proper answer as to what a Third Way manifesto for Britain today should look like. There is a vacuum on the centre-left, and it is no coincidence that Third Way politics seems so far from power in Britain today.

As Philip Collins recently argued in The Times, all three of Labour’s election-winning leaders ran on modernisation platforms that offered a positive vision of the future. While moderates have criticised the Labour leadership for offering an agenda from the past, not an agenda geared to the future, it is criticism they should also level against themselves.

Labour needs to offer a coherent, positive vision for the future that will address the economic needs of Britain over the next ten years – from the labour market to inequality; from how the labour market adapts to the technological revolution, to completing the unfinished revolution in state childcare to support more women in employment. Apprenticeships have sought to fill the skills gap, but as long as higher education is perceived to be above technical education, we will fall short of level the social mobility we seek to achieve from apprenticeships. Radical thinking is needed about breaking down the traditional siloed thinking between further and higher education.

The centre-left also needs an agenda that addresses New Labour’s failings. A model of redistribution based on taxing the City in the south of England to fund public sector jobs in the north was destined to be undone by cuts to public spending. On tax, we need to look hard at ideas from the left, such as tackling inequality with a new top tax bracket for the one per cent rather and not just earners above £150,000, as well as from the right, simplifying the tax system to crack down on avoidance as well as red tape for employers.

Meanwhile, Labour needs answers on how improving our National Health Service and make it sustainable in the face of the challenge of an ageing population. While the NHS desperately needs more money to cope with demand in the short-term, we need policy change to cope with long-term demand that amounts to more than just turning on the spending taps.

With Brexit impending, Europe is, quite rightly, the dominant issue in the political establishment, but the 2017 general election showed the public have wider interests and a potential government needs to offer more than a position on Brexit (and perhaps not even that). Must fight for policies, not personalities, and work constructively within the party to promote them.

Admittedly, too much energy is spent on standing still. Veiled threats of deselections, efforts to take over the party through not-too-subtle rule changes, and monthly battles within constituency Labour parties have held the party back. Time and brainpower has been spent on procedural battles and internal elections. Unity works both ways. But these excuses will not give the centre-left the ideological revival it much needs.

With the parliamentary arithmetic so close, it is right that the party is on a campaign footing. But over the last few years on the moderate left, perhaps we have spent too long deriding internal debate as ‘navel-gazing’ and along the way neglected to spend enough time thinking where about we want to go next. In doing so we have conceded the arguments. We have given the impression that we have given up on thinking about radical new policies that can address the problems in modern Britain that motivate people to join Labour in the first place.

John Woodcock’s call for New Labour 2.0 has so far gone unheeded. So this is a call to MPs, think-tanks, Labour members and the wider centre-left political world to fill the political vacuum, form a new programme, and offer a positive vision of what Britain can look like in the future. Until we have got out own house in order and we are clear what we stand for, we will not be given the right to implement it.

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Edward Jones is a political consultant and a member of Progress. He tweets at @EJCJones93

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Comments: 6...

  1. On August 21, 2017 at 11:11 am Jed Bland responded with... #

    First thing you need to do is recognise neoliberalism for the sociopathic scam that it is.

  2. On August 23, 2017 at 5:54 am peter carabine responded with... #

    As always with Progress now we see an apologetic tone, sorry to be a pain , in the face of Old Corbynism back to the 1980s dogma. Progress needs more guts for goodness sake. Corbyn lost the GE and lost working class votes and Labour has hardly no seats beyond the M25/M4 with only one or two places like Exeter. Whole parts of the country ignored by Labour and Labour ignored by voters suggesting no winning formula. Corbynism is not uniting in its appeal. It loses parts of the East Midlands , Northants, Beds, Herts, South East, South West and Eastern counties ( even Essex/Kent ) places where it needs to win marginals. and regain its former strength it had with Blair’s three winning elections.

    Corbynism is high risk based on an appeal to Urban educated voters , under 40’s ,and public sector employees and students. Yes its gains in London and Canterbury were terrific but evidence suggests Remain was a top issue and Corbyn’s Brexit position is currently pitiful, backward and vulnerable.

    The centre left being pro-Europe, pro-business, pro-high tech development , not intent on punishing hardworking families, commuters, self employed and others with John McDonnell ‘s old socialist taxes, his high borrowing cots and his growing deficit ,frightening global markets as well as keen to improve schooling and healthcare and opportunities. The Centre Left does what works best= as we see in Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Germany, Belgium and now Macron’s France ( where the old Socialist Left failed under President Francois Hollande)

    The Centre Left is not and never has been Neo-Liberal which is the b*llsh*t constantly fired out by old Corbynite dogma. You develop modern economies with human capital, high tech training , productivity and ‘hands ups’ to ‘the left behinds’ not ‘hands out’ to unemployed fit and able long term jobless guys.

    The centre left is compassion, opportunity but not large scale nationalisation, massive subsidies to middle class kids at top universities while social care and health care collapse. The centre left is not Theresa right wing ‘Mayism’ with its UKIP hugging nationalistic isolationism; its international, EU, socially progressive and seeks to be like Denmark and others far from the Neo-Liberalism of the unequal , divided , dysfunctional Anglo Saxon countries. The UK cries out for a centre left but the middle is just a vacuum of cowering Labour moderates pandering to an old Islington Left Corbynism which lost in 2017 and will lose again in 4 to 5 years time under a different Tory articulate leader.

  3. On August 23, 2017 at 9:03 am John responded with... #

    This is agreed but what is progress doing?

    Surely what is needed is a well worked out set of policies in all main areas. There is no point waiting until Corbyn/Macdonald come up with these, they are not intellectually coherent enough to do so. We need to do the work ourselves.

    This will take serious work rather than the current navel gasing and gnashing of teeth that seems to be the way of the Centre Left at present.

    Where are today`s Anthony Croslands who did the policy work in the 1950,s that created the Wilson government of the 1960,s

  4. On August 23, 2017 at 7:44 pm Elizabeth McIntosh responded with... #

    Seems Progress and its supporters want to continue with the ‘same old, same old’ policies and pretend they are progressive and future orientated. If the best it can do is string a set of clichés together – pro Europe, pro business, pro high tech, for hard working families, commuters , the self employed and others (sic) then all it shows is its intellectual emptiness.
    Sometimes you just have to accept your time is passed and as in Spain, Greece, the Netherlands, Denmark, France and Germany your approach no longer appeals to any significant social group. It is no wonder if all you can say is our politics is about developing human capital and giving hands up not hand outs – oh dear, oh dear. It is not even neo liberal it is empty, meaningless rhetoric posing as left policies.

  5. On August 25, 2017 at 2:12 pm Jeremy Bateman responded with... #

    I’ve campaigned in every election’97 onwards. What strikes me about Labour at the moment is that it doesn’t tell voters ‘labour works’: the single message is ‘the Tories are horrible – look, they’re cutting everything’. We need to remind voters that what they’re cutting is what LABOUR gave them- children’s centres, rebuilt schools, new hospitals… However, the leadership and many activists signal their group solidarity with each other by criticising anything Labour in government did, except the 1948 NHS. We always, and rightly, warn ppl about Tories hitting the NHS, but I’ve never seen this alone winning votes.

  6. On September 15, 2017 at 1:08 am James responded with... #

    The centrists/ centre-left have a world of problems and I think this article addresses a need for actual decent policies, but doesn’t go far enough. In the past the old Blairites were largely focused on middle England because they are essential in fptp and the young and working class were generally taken for granted. This doesn’t work now because the party membership is dominated by the young and Londoners. The Blairites have a tendency to tell this group to get real and be realistic. Most of this group are paying a fortune on rent, have high student debts and often underpaid jobs and it is essential that the Blairites offer something significant on these things, especially housing.

    The main area in which the Blairites are really weak though is on values. They must not only make a much bigger effort to engage the young, metropolitan core of the party on policy, but also on their core values. The Blairites have never quite moved beyond the faults of Blair – being seen as untrustworthy and too interested in foreign adventures. I think they now need to emphasise their common values with those more on the left and tone down their desire to appear strong on defence. I remember when Hillary Benn did his ridiculous pro-war speech on Syria, people on the centre thought he could be a possible leader as a result of this, when of course in reality this speech had ensured he could never be leader. Military adventures such as bombing Syria are toxic within the party membership and only emphasise the differences between the Blairites and the rest of Labour.

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