Labour’s future – yes it is about our politics


One thing has been missing from so much of the comment that has followed last week’s European and local elections results – a debate about Labour’s policy.

People on both sides of the debate in the Parliamentary Labour Party about Gordon Brown’s leadership have claimed the argument is about leadership style and communication, not policy. In contrast to the problems that Labour faced in the decades before 1997, both sides argue that Labour now has a settled consensus. It’s just that one side claims a change of leadership is necessary to convince the electorate about what we are saying, while the other argues that leadership challenges breed fatal disunity.

Both are wrong. We do need to rethink some key areas of policy. Even more important, we need to rethink our approach to the way we do our own politics – and we need to question the role political parties should play in the rapidly changing world of the 21st century.

The truth is that the impact of the global economic crisis has forced a wholesale rethink of so many policies anyway. Two years ago, who would have predicted the same Labour government that preferred to build hospitals through private finance initiatives rather than direct public investment would now be nationalising banks? And on the international stage, Labour Britain has been at the forefront of arguing for regulation of international finance with a boldness that would have been unheard of just a short while ago.

These have been the right things to do. But all too often we have fought shy of acknowledging that they involve a profound break with the policy frameworks to which we – and so many other governments – have adhered in recent decades. Looking back, we got some of those frameworks wrong. There is neither shame nor weakness in our being open about that. We need to do so if we are to fashion a coherent narrative to which people outside the world of politics can relate and support. Our reluctance to face up to the scale of the changes now required can also leave us clinging to other policies that were questionable for a progressive party a couple of years ago and look irrelevant today. When hard choices will have to be made about public spending priorities over the coming years, how can we still countenance spending billions on the Trident missile programme ahead of, say, tackling inequality at home or boosting house-building on the scale required? Unless Labour is clearly the party of social change and of social justice then it is nothing.

And when billions of pounds have rightly been deployed to stabilise the banking system and stimulate the economy, why do we end up still appearing so cautious in our interventions to safeguard the manufacturing base that Ministers rightly acknowledge is crucial to our future economy? And why are we not bolder in the scale and nature of strategic action required by government to transform Britain’s manufacturing to lead the low carbon revolution that the world needs. And why can’t we learn from the experience of other European countries that the partnerships required to react quickly to changing economic circumstances are best built locally and regionally. But they need both the capacity and autonomy to act if they are going to be successful.

So we need to be far clearer about what Labour is for. But we need to go further than that. The anger generated by the scandal surrounding MPs’ expenses underlines a problem that goes much deeper than the issue itself. The disconnection from conventional political parties and political institutions is at crisis level. The European election results showed that all mainstream parties are hit by that, not just Labour. But as we are in government, it is not surprising we are hit the hardest. The problem is now so profound that even if we get our policy framework right, Labour will remain in political quicksand if we are simply seen as a more leftish version of the political establishment. If we are going to successfully counter the anti-politics mood that has gripped the country and which the BNP are exploiting, we also need to reassess how we function as a political party.

All too often, political parties seem to want people to support us in the way they support a football team. In other words our role is to “perform”. The electorate’s role is to cheer us on or to blow us a raspberry at election time depending on how successful or otherwise they think we have been. That may give voters a powerful sanction – as we found out on June 4th – but it still reduces their role to a reactive one. The idea of political parties using their role to empower local communities themselves to have a more active say in what goes on all too rarely comes into it.

This is an area in which we have sometimes dipped our toes in the water, for example in some of recent “community empowerment” initiatives taken by the government. But these have been partial at best. The dynamics of Parliament and Britain’s party system still relegate the role of local MPs as community champions as being secondary to work in Westminster. And for the thousands of people who are active in their community but who are probably neither MPs nor Councillors, the “politics” they see played out in Westminster – or probably even in their own town hall – seems like a world away from their daily experience.

An excessive focus on managing the Westminster machine has not served Labour well in government. All too often it means that as soon as worthwhile government initiatives leave Whitehall they end up being “de-politicised” as their implementation becomes a matter for this or that department, agency or authority. If the result is beneficial for the area – like a new hospital, a rebuilt school or the introduction of Sure Start – people will often not relate that back to the fact that a Labour government has made it happen.

Political parties are key components to healthy democracy, but they are not the only components. Some of the key policy choices that come before Parliament are not easily reducible to party lines – just look at the decision to go to war in Iraq. And many key policy choices are not easily reducible to party lines in other institutions either. Effective government, both locally and nationally requires policy coherence. Effective parties require ideological coherence. But that should bring with it the confidence for party members and representatives to be able to disagree from time to time without an atmosphere of crisis or accusations of disloyalty. A healthy democracy requires forums which allow cooperation between parties where appropriate as well as debate between competing perspectives on key issues of strategic principle. All too often the culture of our political institutions discourages parties to display courage on those issues of principle whilst encouraging party political dogfights on points of detail.

If we are going to stand a chance of reinvigorating our politics we need to be prepared to shake this up. That is why constitutional reform is important. It is why we need a referendum on the voting system that plays such a big role in determining the culture in which political parties operate. And it is why we need a network of citizens’ conventions to bring forward ideas for reconnecting politics with people in ways that are fit for the 21st century.

For all his claims to support the creation of a “new politics” in Britain, David Cameron has shown no real interest in this agenda. A blue presidential style of politics is much more to his taste. Labour has the chance to strike out in a different direction. Have we the courage to do so?

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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