Where next for Labour?

At the ripe old age of 15, I was a Labour Party activist and a pretty left wing one at that (for example I was all for the nationalization of industry and key services for the common good). No one encouraged me to be one, although my parents, especially my mother, did influence me on the matter. She had seen real poverty growing up in London’s East End and was determined there would be no return to it, something she felt more likely under Labour. By the time I went up to university my interest in politics had dwindled and that had something to do with my coming under the influence of Christian fundamentalist types who felt politics, especially when of the left wing variety,was not something that should occupy the attentions of young Christians, and we should focus on the world to come.

By the time I left university and embarked on a career as a teacher, only to leave teaching a few years later, any political leanings I had was more of the Conservative variety. Around that time, I recall having a conversation with an old friend, who was also a political sparring partner in my mid to late teens. He had been as much a Conservative as I was Labour and yet had at least for a period become more sympathetic toward Labour and disillusioned with Conservative. He made the profound yet correct observation that my change of heart was because I perceived that Labour were less supportive of the rule of law and respect for authority and his change of heart was a result of the shenanigans he observed in the City (where he worked) that the perpetrators were allowed to get away with. Thereafter I became a political neutral come floating voting and only in recent years have my political interests been re-awakened, and this as a result of my community activism. Theologically speaking, I came to see the Bible neither endorsed Labour nor Conservative but there were principles both stood for found in the Bible even though neither party was Christian per se.

Going back to my childhood, I grew up on a council estate, one of many that shot up soon after the War. My parents were working class. They had both served in the armed forces during the War. My dad was a laborour and my mum worked as a home help in order to supplement the family income when my sister and I got older. I was well aware of their perception that the Labour landslide of 1945 was a turning point in national history. The NHS, such a debating point earlier in the election campaign just gone, although later somewhat overtaken by other issues, was one of the consequences of that victory, which saw the emergence of the modern welfare state. My parents were quite adamant that while Churchill was a great wartime leader, he was not the one to lead the peace, and the nation agreed. In my growing up years my mum used to pour scorn on the Conservative boasts (when they did get in) that they ended rationing, with the comment that when they did prices rose such that the poor couldn’t afford what was on offer. Later she picked up on the fact that while the Conservatives may have been the party of lower taxation, it was more specifically direct taxation (e.g. Income tax) and that indirect taxation (e.g. the VAT equivalent) rose and it was again the poor who lost out. Fast forwarding to the present day, it seems to me that in principle not much had change on that score.

During my teenage politically active years, there were five Labour politicians that particularly stood out for me, whose political careers continued for a long time after, and who I looked up to. Even now, looking back on events, I still hold these in certain esteem, despite not being able to fully articulate why. These were Barbara Castle, Jim Callaghan, Dennis Healey, Tony Benn and of course Harold Wilson, whose memorable phrases included – “thirteen years of Tory misrule” and the “white heat of technology“. I have written blogs about Dennis Healey and Tony Benn, which if nothing else was my coming to terms as to why I regarded these two men as I do – one day I may also do the same for Harold Wilson who was my boyhood hero. Moving the clock forward, following the Labour victory in 1964, it seemed up to the 14 years of Conservative dominance under Maggie Thatcher and later John Major from 1979, that power oscillated between Labour and Conservative and especially between Wilson and his Conservative rival, Ted Heath.

To an extent, the years just after 1979 represented a watershed for the Labour party, for it was around this time it was at a particularly low ebb. The Labour demise paralleled the Conservative rise and there was the ascendency of the Left led by Michael Foot along with the defection of some more right wing members to the SDP, to later merge with the Liberals to form the Lib Dems. Then it was out with the old guard and in with the new, with the view to make the party electable. I recall that part of the early new guard was led by John Smith, who I for one was drawn to, although his early death put an end of what might have been. What turned things around was the advent of New Labour under Tony Blair, appealing to “Middle England”, winning three successive elections from 1997. Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, was then to be replaced by the Conservative, David Cameron, in 2010 (albeit having to go into coalition with the Lib Dems), and now Cameron has just won an outright majority, which brings us up to the present day. Most of the above can be found in the public domain but this has a personal slant. However, like all history, understanding the past helps us to come to term with the present, and that is so for Labour now.

In a sense, I feel somewhat of an interloper, in my attempts at pontificating where Labour should go now. But I am, nevertheless, an interested party that not only has insights that are relevant but an interest in making Labour once again electable. Like many, while I am fairly philosophical about the Conservative victory announced a few days ago, and have got over that initial shock, it is with some foreboding, given I don’t have confidence that “compassionate” and “one nation” Conservatism is one likely to prevail in the present paradigm, other than I know individual members where both terms might apply, and what I sense is being cried out for is an effective opposition that will make the government accountable and win over the hearts and minds of the British people. One of the things that needs to happen soon is to consider the direction the party needs to take if they are to be fit for future government and to elect a new leader, to replace Ed Milliband, who like Michael Foot of old is honourable with many personal qualities, but is probably not cut out for leadership in the way that people like Wilson and Blair were.

This brings me to two articles that if nothing else give us much room for thought. The first was by Tony Blair and the second by Frank Field (more of which later). Blair’s article had the title “Labour must be the party of ambition as well as compassion” and in it he argued that some of the aspirations of hard working people who want a good life for themselves and their families seemed to have been overlooked in the Labour rhetoric, with its pre-occupation with issues like the NHS that preceded the last election. Blair argues that in order to become electable in the future Labour needed to attend to such matters. Blair received inevitable backing at the weekend by such as Peter Mandleson, one of the architects of New Labour, and will no doubt take note of the defection from the party of Lord Alan Sugar for their appearing to be anti-business. Ask me though, who I would choose if it was a choice between Wilson and Blair and it has to be Wilson each time. I still associate Blair with spin over substance, opportunism over principle and not doing God.

An alternative thought came from Frank Field. His article had the intriguing title: “Yes, Ed, we DID spend too much money. And we should say sorry: Miliband must explain why Labour lost so badly”. While Field is less well known than most of those mentioned above, what he says is still significant. I was drawn to him when under Blair he was tasked with thinking the unthinkable and reforming the welfare system, which at its heart was to encourage work and discourage waste and abuse. The changes that ensued were negligible and one wonders if part of his legacy is the harsher regime we are seeing now under the Conservatives. Field was more scathing than Blair in forecasting years in the wilderness if something wasn’t done and fearing the worse given the lack of solid ideas in the manifesto and from the lips of those who might be expected to throw their hats in the rings for the Labour leadership contest. Many things that matter, according to Field, Labour have not addressed, including their not apologizing for the overspend when they were in power and allowing too many immigrants into the country, and doing little to encourage the hard working middle class, probably the key element as to why Labour did lose.

Those looking to rebuild Labour after their disastrous defeat will do well to heed what Tony Blair and Frank Field have had to say. It is possible to rebuild as they did under Blair and because my reading is people want and expect something better by way of opposition to the Conservative government and with the best will in the world I don’t see it coming from the Lib Dems, Greens and UKIP. Given many have joined Labour since the election is a pointer to what can be. I think Labour should also take heart that they are a lead partner in the administration locally in my own town of Southend, and some of those involved and what they have done and hope to do I have been modestly impressed with. I have given reasons why I can’t support neither Conservative nor Labour in my earlier blogs. Given I voted for those whose chances to gain any power in government were nigh zero was not just a protest vote but rather in chess playing parlance preparing for the end game. Putting aside Labour are likely worse than the Conservatives on some values issues I care for (marriage, abortion, conscience) there are still many other issues where we can make headway. Some of the huge social justice issues, such as housing and homelessness and other forms of poverty, in particular with the poor bearing the brunt of austerity measures rather than the rich, cannot wait until the economy is sufficiently healthy for these matters to get resolved. I believe Labour have the potential to deliver on all these matters. I for one hope they will be able to do so.

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