Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The unfinished revolution

Politics is becoming increasingly polarised, and to get out of this mess we need to start having difficult conversations, writes Sarah Hayward

Read any insider account of Labour in the run up to the historic 97 election win and the thing that will confront you from every perspective was just how rigorous and deep the policy thinking was. Ideas were challenged and pulled apart and put back together. Longstanding positions were challenged for their relevance as we approached the turn of the century. Every policy was tested according to its politics, its cost and its practicability. In short, was it the right policy to solve the problem and could it be delivered? Nowhere was this process and rigour of thinking better set out and defended, than Philip Gould’s seminal Unfinished Revolution.

Politics now, and the problems we face are very different to the challenges of the early and mid 90s. This means we need different solutions. But the processes that Labour’s leaders of the mid 90s went through can be instructive.

Politics feels very polarised at the moment. And in among the shouting matches and platitudes there’s little room for the nuanced textured debate the leads to good policy that improves people’s lives. The contentious nature of the challenges we face have exacerbated the problem – leading to greater polarisation, when what we need is more and more thoughtful conversation.

Take the nation’s housing crisis. Now affecting every part of the country and every rung of the housing ladder. The crisis is so deep it can be a challenge to understand where to start. Do you start by intervening in the private rented sector and the shocking practices of letting agents and poor landlords, or do you try to build more housing? If you opt for the latter, where do you build it, who do you build it for and how do you pay to build it? To start solving the housing crisis you need to make choices. Inevitably these choices will mean winners and losers. But in our current political climate it’s getting ever more difficult to talk about choices and admit that if some people gain from public policy decisions others may well lose.

When you start to try to have this conversation people tend to jump to accusations first and understanding later (if at all). Some people will cry social cleansing or gentrification. Others will cry foul at the priorities you’ve chosen – almost always implying malicious intent. Meanwhile millions of people are left struggling to get housing that meets their needs.

The screaming matches that have replaced policy debate exist on both the left and the right. We’ve seen the exponents of Brexit make outlandish and undeliverable promises in pursuit of their goal to leave the European Union and when challenged they simply scream betrayal. But similarly trying to ask hard and multi-layered questions on the left might spark a denunciation or a pile on.

But that challenge and those that the country faces, simply make it all the more important to try to have the difficult conversations. To try to understand the nation’s priorities and those of our own communities and to start to try to solve the problems that we all face.

It’s for this reason I’ve got involved in a new project seeking to have these conversations. Taking its name and its inspiration from Philip Gould’s dedication to practical and thoughtful policy making that transforms people’s lives, it’s called the Unfinished Revolution Project and will take the form of a series of films in which people with first hand experience of the policy area discuss the challenges we face and some of the solutions to them. Trying to cut through the noise and have a conversation. The films will be made early next year and involve a huge range of people from different political perspectives and experiences. But the project needs funding to help ensure quality films that add to the debate. If, like me, you think we need nuanced thinking about the big challenges we face please donate to the Unfinished Revolution Project. And look out for the debate in the year.


Sarah Hayward is a founding participant in the Unfinished Revolution Project


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Sarah Hayward

is leader of Camden council. She tweets @Sarah_Hayward

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