Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Opportunities for Labour, and why Labour can win

The Labour leadership election is over. Yes, it really is. Jeremy Corbyn has been re-elected, as expected with a substantial majority. His supporters like to call this his 'mandate'. Yet it is doubtful this alone will resolve the problem for the Labour Party. The problem for Labour isn't simply leadership - it is direction and change.

The party conference season has been and gone. It was more noticeable for the renewed statement of the party's multilateralist position on the nuclear detereent. Jeremy Corbyn was crowned, but the problems fester. The issue of anti-Semitism in the party rumbles on, not least because of the ham-fisted response to the criticism from the House of Commons select committee. There are many who remain disaffected about Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. To some, it is a battle for the heart and soul of Labour. As such it is a battle that may destroy the party. But it is also an opportunity - the possibility of a new consensus in the party, and a new way forward, meeting the challenges of today, not the problems of yesterday. It is time to look at the positives for Labour.

The first positive is that Jeremy Corbyn has put together a reasonably effective shadow cabinet. Labour can now take the fight to the Tories in the house of commons and hold the government to account. It has made a good start on Brexit and in demanding parliamentary scrutiny. They put the government front bench on the back foot and helped expose divisions in its ranks.

If Labour can rise to the challenge the country faces, it can still succeed. As the Tories struggle with the economic prospects of Brexit, they have been forced to abandon their old narrative of austerity. They also now talk of investing in infrastructure. The targets for balancing the books have been put on hold, and the strategy wasn't working in any event. This economic vacuum provides Labour with a chance to get its message across, if only it could decide what that message is.

It is often said Theresa May is shifting the Tories to the centre ground. But this is I think a mistaken view of what is happening. The Tory language may certainly be changing, but May's government is potentially more right-wing than Cameron's, and the more dangerous as it cloaks itself in the 'one nation' language. It is a wolf in sheep's clothing.

So how should Labour respond?

Labour must stop believing it can think for the working class. It is no good saying 'we are the party of the working class' if the party simply tells them what to think. Little can be gained by browbeating voters with 'principles' and socialism. Nor will Labour convert millions of voters to vote for socialism.

Labour needs to listen. It needs to listen to the concerns of ordinary working people. Only by doing that can it address the disconnect the party has with voters - and the disconnect with Labour is a growing chasm. This is why UKIP made inroads into Labour territory.

Labour must address the anxieties ordinary people have about their communities and their opportunities. Labour's policies must be seen to have relevance and speak to those concerns.

Electorally, Labour has a mountain to climb. But there are positives for Labour, and reasons to be optimistic, and we should not lose sight of them. Labour must now turn those positives to its advantage.
Labour has now the advantage of a leader who has the overwhelming support of its members. That is a great asset, but only so long as it doesn't simply become a personality cult. Labour must listen to criticism of its leadership and find ways to respond where that criticism is positive and relevant.

Labour is not the only party struggling. There is unrest across the political spectrum. There are problematic issues in all parties. UKIP struggles over its leadership and in finding a role post Brexit. The Tories have yet to get over the hurdles of Brexit and have a leader who is Prime Minister without a mandate.

Labour has a massively increased membership, many of whom are new to political engagement. They are enthusiastic and idealistic. It just is not my experience that these new members are all a bunch a raging leftwing lunatics. They care about our public services and social infrastructure. They believe in creating a fair society in which opportunity is not simply predicated on the accumulation of wealth and privilege. They believe in social justice. They want to make a difference. Above all, they are angry with past failure. They want Labour to stand for something.

The Labour leadership campaign was bruising, but Labour remains a broad church. There will be continued struggle over the direction of the party and its leadership. That has always been so. But there is now an opportunity to refocus and develop a coherent set of policies to address a fractured society.

We need new solutions to address a changed world, and to correct the failures of neoliberalism. We need a new approach to economic growth. We need a new narrative. We need also to address our crumbling infrastructure, a housing crisis, and failing social and health care system.

If it did anything at all, the leadership campaign further demonstrated a paucity of ideas on the left of British politics. The left is stuck, but not without hope. We are stuck with outdated solutions, and where there is a glimmer of a new narrative, it is but a sketch. New thinking is there, but it lacks clarity.

The left shivers in its nakedness. The clothes we once wore have been discarded and gleefully picked up by Mrs May's Tories, as she plays for the centre ground whilst shifting to the right. This is why Labour must not ignore the centre ground. But deciding what that means isn't easy.

Where is the centre ground? It isn't simply found by dividing ideas by half or by using focus groups. Half-baked ideas are not the centre, and nor are they radical. It does mean meeting the aspirations of hard working people - aspiration they have for themselves, their families, and for the future of their communities. Aspiration must not, for the left become a dirty word. Labour will only succeed if it can develop a strategy that can make a reality of those aspirations. The centre ground doesn't really exist as a set of policies. It is a kind of media abstraction. The centre ground can be built. The centre ground is a narrative accepted by voters. This is why Labour must reach out to voters and not simply talk inside a bubble. It must contribute to creating the centre ground - a fundamental shift of voter perception.

So, this is why Brexit and the government response to it gives Labour a chance to stake out a new centre ground.

You don't find the centre ground and shift to it. You define it.

Here lies a problem - new ideas on the left are currently half-baked. Yes, there are commitments to spend on infrastructure, vague notions about changes in ownership and control. There are commitments to spend, but little idea on how it can be funded. There is but one answer: borrowing. Without a coherent narrative, Labour will struggle for economic credibility.

In previous articles I have argued for a new economic approach and a new political narrative. Relying on growth alone, without strategies to achieve social redistribution of the benefits of that growth, is unlikely to be effective.

Growth that destroys the planet is not the growth we need. Nor is growth that increases inequalities.

Yet, we are locked into the politics of growth rather than the politics of fairness. We talk about the engine of the economy as if simply by raving it up it will solve all our problems. Growth becomes a good, an objective rather than a means. Instead of addressing the vast and ever growing inequalities in distribution of wealth and of opportunities, we are lured into a false premise - that if we grow fast enough it won't matter because the poor will benefit even if the rich get richer. But it doesn't work. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. The beneficiaries of austerity have been the rich, with an ever widening gap between the rich and poor. Poverty is increasing along with health inequality as the rug is pulled from health and social care.

But here is the political trick. We are all locked into the system. The consequences of breaking the system are profound. Before breaking 'the system' we need to know how to put in place a new one.

Yet we must break free. Brexit presents Labour with an opportunity to do just that. It must now put aside its problems of leadership and concentrate on seizing that chance.

The old economic certainties have been ripped away. The Tories have had to abandon their balanced budget approach. Their narrative is in tatters as they struggle to develop a new one.

There is a void, and the left must now step up to fill it. The neoliberal myths are exposed.

When the system breaks down we tend to repair it using the same faulty template. We need a new template.

If our objectives are to make poverty history, or to make the world a less unequal place in which to live, then we need something different in the way we do things.

We see a yearning for this here in the UK and elsewhere, but if the left does not get its act together that desire for change will be swept up by the right. Across Europe we can see far right parties in ascendence, and the left struggling for traction. We see it also in the Trump phenomenon in the US presidential election.

We need a new political-economic settlement that puts social objectives and people at the heart of economic activity. This requires politicians, businesses and finance to work together to achieve fair growth. We need growth, not for its own sake, but for a purpose - the purpose of increasing well-being for all, whilst protecting the environment on which we depend.

The question is whether this is possible with Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. I don't know the answer. But for all his faults, he is the leader of the Labour party, and he will be the leader in the years running up to a general election. Labour needs now to put aside the question of leadership and concentrate on the narrative and developing an effective campaign. For this, Jeremy Corbyn needs to build unity, not simply call for it. Calling people into line is not sufficient. This is why how he deals with the PLP is crucial. It requires pragmatism and fairness, not intolerance.

The answer lies in politics, and the will to change the direction of economic policy. It requires an economy harnessed for social and environmetal well-being. It requires Labour to reach out to voters and develop an engaging narrative - one that reflects genuinely their concerns whilst offering radical solutions. Credibility comes not just by appealing to those concerns, but presenting solutions that engage them in the process. Labour must respond to aspirations, not negate them.

This is why it must be pro-business, pro-enterprise, and pro-people. Public ownership should be promoted where necessary, but not as a totem. Labour won't succeed with sterile debate about nationalisation or privatisation. Yes, we need socialisation. Socialisation need not be anti-business, but it needs a new social contract with private enterprise. Business can flourish with a sound infrastructure, but infrastructure is not simply transport or housing. It is also people and communities.

We can no longer simply push the growth button without asking what kind of growth it is, or what kind of growth we need. To achieve the right kind of growth we need a leap in investment. Investment that will push us out of the old environmentally challenging production and consumption - we need a fundamental change in the balance of our economy.

Imagine growth in education. Imagine growth in environmentally friendly farming. Imagine growth of environmentally friendly energy, and of environmentally friendly transport. Imagine the development of communities and their engagement in the fight against crime, building safe environments.

In his speech to the Labour party conference the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell identified one of the answers - a new technological revolution harnessed to creating wellbeing, social justice and saving the planet.

That leap requires investment in the infrastructure necessary to harness it. It requires access for all, and the development of new skills. McDonnell in his speech also quoted Nobel Prize winning economist Joe Stiglitz in saying “we have to rewrite the rules of our economy”.

Indeed we do. And if Labour succeeds in doing that, then it will win. There is a mountain to climb. Let's start climbing!

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