Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

To shape the future, Labour must embrace its past

Labour should not shy away from its historic victories, writes Jasper Cresdee-Hyde 

One of the best political ads I have ever seen was, curiously, produced by Owen Smith’s failed Labour leadership campaign.

Cutting together footage of great Labour figures – Nye Bevan, Clement Attlee, Barbara Castle – to a rousing, emotional score, the film shows us the Britain which once was, stricken by ‘gross inequality,’ as Attlee puts it, and highlights Labour’s vital role in reforming the nation, as Bevan tells his audience (the one before him, and the one many decades ahead): ‘We weren’t born with liberty, we had to win it!’

Of course, Owen Smith did not ‘win it,’ and 2016’s Labour leadership election was resigned to history. Yet, this does not necessarily render the film a useless piece of campaigning. With over 123,000 views on Facebook, it was the most-watched video put out by Smith’s team and has more views than many of the current videos on Labour’s Facebook page. Indeed, it could even suggest a strategy for Labour going forward: to shape Britain’s future, we must embrace our past. To do so would be the antithesis of Labour’s previous route back to power in 1997 – that of rejecting the past outright. Conventional wisdom states that nobody wants to vote for a party which basks in former glory – however, it may be just what Labour needs.

Writing in The Guardian last year, YouGov’s Chris Curtis contrasted the popularity of Labour policies with the relative unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party itself. Judging from both the 2017 General Election and this year’s local elections, this juxtaposition continues to dominate. Despite everything, the BBC’s projected national vote share was neck-and-neck between Labour and the Conservatives at 35 per cent. YouGov’s latest polling reveals that 39 per cent of people still favour Theresa May as Prime Minister, compared with only 25 per cent supporting Corbyn. The Financial Times recently reported on focus groups which showed support for Labour policies, but a lukewarm opinion of the party itself. Evidently, the battleground now has moved beyond policy and into the realm of the party’s image. People simply do not trust Labour to deliver on its promises.

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As electorally daft as it may first appear, the only way to achieve this is by emphasising the party’s proven track record. Without Labour governments, there would be no NHS, no welfare state, no legal abortions, no legal homosexuality, no abolished death penalty, no minimum wage, no tax credits, no domestic human rights, no peace in Northern Ireland, no devolved governments, no modernisation of education, no tackling of climate change, no unprecedented economic growth… the list goes on.

Few would disagree with any of the above. Policies such as the NHS and the minimum wage are now the building blocks of our political consensus, and attempts to overturn them would be political suicide. Time and time again, Labour has proved it can successfully implement new, radical policies with long-term success. Perhaps, in order to go forwards, Labour must go backwards: show Britain that, under Labour governments, the country has always made real progress on the issues that matter.

Most uncomfortably for Corbyn, this would necessitate an embrace of New Labour as well as the party of Attlee. Corbyn’s distaste for New Labour is no secret – which is fine, but only in private. As leader, it is imperative to be proud of the good which Labour achieved in government. Anything else is a slap in the face to every single person who was helped by education reform, NHS funding, the minimum wage, tax credits, and all the rest of it. Complying with the narrative that New Labour was some demonic, Tory-lite parasite, and avoiding mention of Labour governments past, does not attract new voters but merely indulges our opponents.

However, it is perhaps on an emotional level that such an approach would garner the most success. While all of the above are Labour achievements, they were done in government, in service of the nation. Nobody of sound mind yearns for the days we were worse for wear, regardless of party affiliation. Fundamentally, people want to feel part of something bigger; and the idea of a nation moving forward will never not be innately appealing. It is Labour who have always been at the forefront of social change, and Labour who hold the cards once again. We should embrace our rich history, just as Owen Smith’s ill-fated campaign once did, and tell a story of a long-standing social movement, returned to lead the nation into the world of tomorrow. Then, perhaps, we will be trusted with the keys to government once again.

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Jasper Cresdee-Hyde is an online journalist. He tweets @Jasper_CH

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Photo:  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Jasper Cresdee-Hyde

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