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