Rip it up
This article was originally published onLabour List on 12th May 2015 and can be found here.
The scale of Labour’s defeat last Thursday was catastrophic. In 2010 we suffered our second-worst defeat in a century. Last week, after five years of unpopular Tory-led government, we went backwards. There can be no rush to a quick leadership decision in these dire circumstances; we need time to properly understand what went wrong and how we need to change. The voters have overwhelmingly rejected the same Labour prescription twice in a row. We have to rip it up and start again.
Voters believed we could not be trusted with the economy and lacked a vision for the country equal to the challenges it faces. While taking on ‘vested interests’ in the media and business we failed to challenge backward-looking instincts in our own party that alienate the aspirational, the successful, wealth creators and people working in the private sector. I lost count of the number of times I was asked to vote on the Bedroom Tax – a regressive measure that certainly needs to go, but how many times do you have to make the same point? No wonder voters felt we cared more about people on welfare than people creating the wealth that pays for it. No one doubted we had a heart, but they questioned whether it was connected to our head.
Before entering Parliament in 2012 I’d been one of a group of Labour council leaders grappling with the financial crisis by finding new ways to improve public services that cost less. In our town halls Labour proved that our party can deal with the deficit in a way that’s both fair and responsible. We’d also learnt that trusting people with more control pays dividends. I saw how making housing managers accountable to the tenants they serve improves housing estates. I saw young people improve their own youth services with more control through a community trust. I saw personalised care budgets transform disabled people’s lives because it put decision-making about their own life back in their own hands. All this at a time of funding reductions.
I learnt there’s an inequality of power that holds people back. When people lack the power they need to make change for themselves they become over-dependent on decisions taken by others. Over time, that can crush them. People need direct control over the decisions and services that shape their lives including housing, youth services, care, welfare and education. Do that, and people will instinctively try to stop problems before they grow rather than try to manage them afterwards in the way our public services tend to operate. It’s not only better, it costs less. Power to the people is a battle-cry we need to reinterpret for today.
The digital revolution is changing our world, but it’s barely affected our democracy. There are new ways to bring people together, to let them participate regularly in decision-making that affects their lives, to connect people to services, support and others who share their challenges or interests. The same transformation is affecting our economy, but instead of trying to insulate people from the changes this means for the world of work we should be showing people how education and training can equip them to seize these new opportunities for themselves and create the space for innovation and enterprise in both the public and private sectors.
Trust in politics is broken, and Labour must make the first move in restoring it by showing that we trust people more than the Tories do. That means radical devolution to the countries, regions and cities across the country, and a localism that goes way beyond town halls and hands real power to individuals and their communities. We should never have let George Osborne steal a march on us with the Northern Powerhouse agenda that should have always been Labour’s.
Labour failed to show we properly understand either the Scottish or the English psyche. This isn’t about romanticised notions of the past, but today’s modern, tolerant, diverse, exciting nations that make up our United Kingdom. I’m proud of being English as well as British, and pride in our national and cultural identity is part of progressive politics because it’s part of what makes people who they are. Alongside a more federal, devolved Britain we must shape a more federal Labour Party with a separate English identity that speaks for England and can win a majority in England working alongside Scottish Labour and Welsh Labour doing the same for their countries within the United Kingdom.
Add all of this together and there’s a big vision about the renewal of our country. It’s about opening up power to the people and ending top-down control, harnessing the digital revolution and embracing our distinctive national identities, showing that we have a head as well as a heart. The future won’t be like the past; it’s more open, more democratic, more networked, more diverse. The world has changed and if Labour wants a future we must change too. I’ll be supporting the leadership candidate who best expresses how we make that change happen.