A contest for change
Young twenty-somethings flocking to our party. Membership in excess of 400,000 accompanied by a popular fervour we are frankly unused to. I’m not describing the Labour Party of the last few months, but the party I joined as an 18 year old in 1995.
I never like these moments between the close of polls and the declaration. You know there is a result but it is unknown, hidden in the unopened ballot box. However this moment does enable reflection. And this leadership election has been remarkable. We have seen a huge influx of both people and enthusiasm. Whoever wins and whatever path we take from here, we must not allow this enthusiasm to be lost.
That is why I began with my recollections of the party in the nineties. Whatever your views of what we did in power between 1997 and 2010, it is impossible to deny that what took us to that position was a programme of change and a capturing of the popular imagination. A minimum wage; devolution for Scotland, London and Wales; signing up to the European Working Time Directive; investment in schools and hospitals; ensuring work paid; lifting children out of poverty. We were elected with a mandate and mission to change our country. It was an exciting time to be a party member. We had new ideas and a programme for change, and we won because it brought people to us.
The leadership debate has reinvigorated that zeal for change and transformation. The brutal reality is that the party’s direction had become one of incremental difference and amelioration of the status quo. Our general election strategy identified many issues that needed to be addressed with achievable steps to improve them. But it was not a vision for renewing our country. We were punished because we presented a shopping list of changes rather than a vision for government.
This defeat, followed by the surge in supporters and members, has brought with it a realisation. Did moderates and modernisers, Blairites and Brownites relegate their ambitions to simply winning power and assuming that people understood that our motivations were better than the other lot? For both our core vote and the voters we need to win from other parties, this simply is not enough. The mantra of “being electable to do good” went from being a guiding strategy to a political end.
The Blair and Brown governments were not like this. They were about rebuilding Britain. You can argue as to their success, but the mission of rebuilding public services and tackling poverty were clear and at the heart of what we did in government. Blair’s interventions in this contest have been very controversial. But one thing struck me: even now he is talking of the need to lead social and economic change. He talked at length about technology and the economic change that this will bring and how we must embrace this in our organisation and politics. This is an analysis and argument for change that is both bold and under-discussed, despite how important it is. As much as he discussed the need to occupy the centre-ground, Blair always had and clearly continues to have a conviction about the need to transform and change, not just as an end of our politics but applying it to our politics.
Fundamental to our approach to government was not just the need to talk and argue for change, but that our vision for change must constantly change itself. For some who now self-identify as modernisers, the centre-ground has become a place to sit rather than argue from. Which has left me wondering whether the Blairites are really still Blairite anymore. The modernisers have become mundane.
I welcome the fact that our party now realises we cannot simply be different by degree, and that our entire direction must be bold and distinct. But while we should be glad of the refocusing and renewal that the leadership race has brought, there is another aspect of the Labour party which seems to have been reawakened. We cannot afford to allow old divisions to re-emerge and take root.
Over the months since May it has been hard to ignore the animosity and acrimony that has been created. We all joined the Labour party, convinced of the need for social, economic and political change. With a new leader elected, we must work tirelessly to build and articulate this vision together as one.
We must also tolerate the different perspectives within the party on how we best achieve this. The rancour so obvious in this race, is in part due to the presence of social media that documents and publicises discussions that would have been discrete and private in previous contests. New modes of communication must bring with them new ways of behaving. We must discuss and debate as a party but do so constructively and as comrades.
Both the right and left of the party have strong traditions within the Labour Party. Our influences are broad and many. We will take different views as to the best way of realising our collective vision. But we must respect and understand those differences rather than condemn. Our future success is dependent on it.
In my two decades of being a member of the Labour Party, I have seen both stunning victories and devastating losses. I am convinced of one thing: that our party succeeds when we focus on bold and positive change. Our message must be credible; it must reach out not exclude people who voted for other parties in May. But focussing exclusively on winning is not how we do this. To move forward our message must be credible, bold and inclusive.
Thousands of people have come to our party enthused by the possibility of working with us to deliver change. We must build on this, but we can only do so if we work together. Our message of change must be about the future of our country, not editing the membership of our party. We win when we are bold, when we have a message of change that reaches out and when we work together.