Labour, like Britain, must look to the future

by Ian Austin

I’ve been really worried these past few months. People kept asking me what I thought of “all this Blue Labour stuff”.

I wasn’t sure what to say, but I knew it must be significant because it was creating such a buzz.

You can imagine my relief when they put together an “e-book” setting out the details.

It explained that a series of seminars had been held in London and Oxford to “open up the Labour tradition to new syntheses of meaning, and so to originality and transformation.”

The introduction said it would discuss the “relationship with tradition and modernity, nation and class, labour and capital, community and the individual, society and the market, the state and mutualism, and between belief and empiricism, romanticism and rationality, obligation and entitlement.”

Fortunately, help was at hand in the form of an interview a week or so ago with Lord Glasman, the leading figure behind our new approach.

“There are three poles,” he said, when asked to explain Blue Labour. ‘”First: a conception of the common good. That comes from Aristotle. Second: an impulse to organise labour. That comes from Minsky and Alinsky. And third: decommodification. That means stopping things that were not produced for sale being sold. That comes from Polanyi.”’

Of course we need seminars as well as conversations on doorsteps, but it’s where the theory takes us that worries me, not the inaccessibility of the language.

Elsewhere we’ve been told the new big idea is based on the insight that New Labour’s response to globalisation failed to value and protect local and community services like post offices and pubs and the traditional high street, or failed to recognise the value of the human relationships that underpin our communities.

The danger, as Mary Riddell pointed out recently, “lies in a neverland inhabited by superannuated pigeon-fanciers who like Woodbines and Watneys and don’t think much of foreigners.” She was absolutely right to warn that “Britain is not a museum of nostalgia but a forward-looking country.”New Labour didn’t get everything right. Of course not. No government can be in power for thirteen years without making mistakes. But let’s get off our knees, stand up for our record and proclaim proudly that Britain is a better, richer, more prosperous country than the one we inherited in 1997.

Economic growth in the decade until the downturn saw the UK grow faster than continental Europe and Japan for the first time in around a century. Productivity gains meant higher wages, with the poorest fifth getting a post-tax pay rise of almost £3000 per year.

But that change wasn’t cost-free. Communities like mine bore the brunt of huge economic changes taking place faster than ever before. The great cities and communities that were built in the Industrial Revolution and in turn built twentieth century Britain now face great challenges. Huge forces way beyond those communities’ control.

And when capital, jobs, businesses and whole industries can move right around the world, it’s been Britain’s poorest communities that have paid the highest price for the benefits of globalisation

So in Stoke we’re working to tackle problems caused by the decline of the pits and the Potteries. In the Black Country, the changes in manufacturing. Mining areas have lost the jobs the pits provided.

And faced with this massive restructuring, we have a choice. We could, like the Tories, blame the public sector and say that if we only got government out of the way communities would be free to transform themselves, or we could adopt Blue Labour’s “stop the world, I want to get off” approach, but both would be wrong.

We’ve to be honest and explain that not only can we not turn the clock back, but the pace of change will only get quicker and quicker.

Bookshops have closed because people buy them on Amazon. Record shops shut because we now download music. My town centre has been hit harder than most, but as people go to shiny new malls and huge new Tesco’s we have to find a new economic purpose for traditional high streets, based on specialist shopping, entertainment, culture and the arts.

The workplace has changed too. The problem is that many areas have not been able to attract new jobs and new industries to replace the ones they’ve lost. Britain’s got thousands of well-paid jobs manufacturing pharmaceuticals but they are not in areas that lost traditional manufacturing employment. The computer industry did not generally locate in former mining communities.

These are forces no party can prevent people being affected by. Instead of pretending we can shield people from the effects of technological change, which is, at its heart, what globalisation is, we have to persuade people we have the ideas that can enable them to master these huge changes.

We must recognise the fear of the future in many communities currently ill-equipped to respond to the challenges it poses, but we should answer those anxieties with fewer memories and more dreams: by offering an economic approach which has a chance of making their lives better in the years ahead and which gives them confidence about their place in the future.

Optimism not sentimentality should be our watchword because, as Douglas Alexander pointed out recently, “Labour only wins when it is in the future business.” In 1945 we won with “Face the future”, we captured the optimistic forward-looking mood of the sixties with the “white heat of technology” and our 1997 message was “new Labour, New Britain.”

So let’s show that whilst communities still struggle with poverty, and the economies in areas like mine still lag behind the rest of the UK, we’ve again got the ideas that will equip people to master the challenges of the future.

Things are tough as Britain struggles to emerge from recession, but there’s going to be huge growth in areas like advanced manufacturing, low carbon industries, healthcare and bio-medical technologies or digital media and we’ve got to show how they can transform the lives of people globalisation missed out.

Instead of the Conservatives’ hands-off approach, let’s show that we can get businesses, universities, government and local authorities all working together to bring new industries and new jobs to the areas that have been left behind.

Let’s raise our sights and set some big ambitions. Let’s say we want Britain to be the country with the biggest increase in educational standards and skills in the world. Why not? Someone’s going to do it. Somewhere in Europe will corner the market in new environmental technologies like the Germans and Scandinavians did in the last decade. Why can’t it be us?

The truth is that we’ve actually got no choice about this and the only way we’ll have any chance of opening up prosperity to the people it has left behind so far is by out-educating and out-innovating our competitors.

Let’s show that Labour can adopt new ideas and new approaches and let’s pledge that as our economy grows again, we would not leave any community behind. Let’s show how we’d build a stronger economy and a more prosperous country by exploiting new opportunities and technological change with better skills and more innovation. That way, we can root our new political approach in a better tomorrow, not a half-remembered yesterday which, if we’re honest, never really existed.

Ian Austin is Labour MP for Dudley North.

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One Response to “Labour, like Britain, must look to the future”

  1. Mike Killingworth says:

    Oh dear. Globalisation is not “the effects of technical change” – it is a conscious decision by capitalists to create new markets (which capitalism always requires) and to globalise the reserve army of labour in order to destroy trade unions and their political wings (including the British Labour Party) across the developed world.

    If Austin really believes this garbage I think he ought to go and lie down. According to Wikipedia, he’s 46. I wonder if he were 23 whether he’d see the Labour Party as a sensible career choice.

    As to what “blue Labour” is all about, I assumed the blue was a reference to “blue collar”, and a smack at “new Labour” for being too associated with the “worker by brain”. At its heart is an attempt to devise a politics that will address the (more or less) racist concerns of the “old Labour” core without alienating too many non-white Labour voters. (I take it as read that Austin, like most of to-day’s Labour Party, wishes all the Guardianistas would go away and hang themselves.)

    Well here is the news. Labour was founded as the political wing of the Trades Unions in order to practice class politics within an electoral framework. Now that politics are about race first and class second it is confused and uncomfortable – which also goes for the coalition parties of course. The only party to-day which is at ease with itself is the “respectable racist” UKIP.

    What is to be done? Well, our longest experience of “identity politics” is in the Six Counties. The use of STV there allows class-based parties to flourish within each confessional tradition. Its use on the mainland would relieve parties here from the task of reaching out across racial divides, which none of them can do effectively, and which is in no small measure responsible for the decay of political engagement over the last two generations.

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