The big ideas of 2014 and what they mean for Labour: summing up

by Jonathan Todd

I might be perverse and deficient to have enjoyed finding time during Christmas week to assess what Prospect’s big ideas of 2014 mean for Labour. I worry, though, that this is all the time that anyone in Labour has spent on some of these ideas. Larry Summers may, for example, be asking big questions about monetary policy but Labour still has precious little to say on this economically central topic.

Labour not only needs to get our thinking caps on in 2014 but convince the electorate that we have solutions to the big challenges that will face the UK of May 2015. This is a divided electorate. Between the 99% and the 1%, global London and the provincial shires, and those that see government as the problem and those that see it as their safety net.

Another division emerges beyond some of Prospect’s ideas. Between the doers and the downers. The doers are collaboratively consuming, popping up everywhere and making new news. In other words, seizing for themselves the opportunities of our times. Public policy appears barely relevant to much of this, except perhaps to the extent that it has facilitated the digital revolution. Certainly, politics feels marginal to the doers, who are too busy doing to have much care for it.

In contrast, the downers – those fuelling the politics of rejection – are angry with politics. As they are angry with much else. As the doers grasp fresh possibilities, the downers feel all their possibilities have closed down.

Successful politicians must make themselves relevant to the doers, while pacifying the downers. These are very different people, best suited to very different messages. The doers are only interested in politicians if they can enable them to do more. Maybe extending access to devices of more measured lives, while tackling the new risks identified by cloud sceptics, are some means by which this might be done.

The downers demand a more central and active role from politicians, reversing the trends that disappoint them about contemporary life. Neither the doers or the downers make easy asks of politicians. Indeed, the demands of the downers, in particular, may be impossible. The politicians face a thankless task.

Nonetheless, if politicians didn’t exist, at least for now, we’d have to reinvent them. Some of the big ideas of 2014 involve issues that largely remain elite pursuits. Monetary and foreign policy, most obviously. But even in these domains, elite rule is being challenged. Bitcoin, for example, in monetary policy. And the elephant in the room during President Obama’s dithering over Syria was public opinion.

Moisés Naím proclaims the end of power. Elites will look at the encroachments on their authority in monetary and foreign policy, as well as their inability to make the downers content, and conclude that he has a point. Yet elite power remains. Bitcoin hasn’t toppled Carney, while the agency of the doers hasn’t so much ended power as changed its form.

Power is more contested – elites being not so automatically deferred to – and dispersed – doers creating power for themselves, as downers feel powerless. Successful political leadership, therefore, requires the intellect to provide convincing answers where power is contested, alongside the humility to recognise where power has become or is more effectively dispersed.

David Cameron’s attempt to disperse power through the big society disintegrated upon contact with the doorstep and his government’s commitment to localism has been consistently betrayed. The big society preached to the downers that they should be doers, as the global race rhetoric also does. This finger waving won’t bridge the divide between doers and downers.

Enhanced national unity is the promise of one nation Labour. Cameron’s failures confirm that such unity doesn’t follow from finger pointing. Equally, though, acquiescing with the downers, rather than pointing at them, isn’t a wise course either. Yet the empty seats on flights from Bulgaria and Romania to the UK in at the start of 2014 attest to the unnecessary dominance of this approach in some parts of our national discourse.

Let us face the future, as Labour’s 1945 manifesto insisted. The innovation of the doers shows that Britain’s best days can be ahead of us. Yet the withering of the big society and the dead end of whistling the downers tune demonstrate that politics has yet to craft this optimism and possibility into a convincing narrative of national renewal.

2014 is the year in which Ed Miliband must find this narrative and be that optimist.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut  

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6 Responses to “The big ideas of 2014 and what they mean for Labour: summing up”

  1. treborc says:

    Does and downers and who the hell cares ers. I suspect if the last meeting I went to is anything to go by the largest group to day is what the difference group.

  2. aragon says:

    Yes, no problem here …

    Most people are angry with politicians for they have power but fail to use it effectively, and concentrate on trivia.

    Or blame the victims:

    “The Prime Minister took a hard line against welfare during the Tory party conference in Manchester, criticising the notion that thousands of Britons conform to a life on benefits.”

  3. swatantra says:

    ‘New Times’ calls for new measures and new men and women to carry them through.
    The biggest threat to world peace in 2014 will be Islamofacism.

  4. steve says:

    “a convincing narrative of national renewal.”

    My goodness! That’s a rather highfalutin call for bumbling Miliband. Even Tony Blair’s ‘stakeholder economy’ fared no better than Cameron’s Big Society.

    But I suppose that’s besides the point. What matters is getting into power. No need to worry about national renewal once the freshly valeted ministerial limousines are lined up outside with engines purring.

  5. Ex_labour says:

    Trite tosh I’m afraid.

    “Between the 99% and the 1%, global London and the provincial shires, and those that see government as the problem and those that see it as their safety net”.

    Has it occured to Labour that the 1% actually account for around 30% of income tax revenue ? What would happen to Labour pet causes i.e. the feckless, feral and workshy if this income wasnt there ?

    The state under the last Labour government became more than a safety net, it became the nanny state where the abdication of personal responsibility and reliance on handouts became the norm. It was a lifestyle choice for some. At least Cameron wants to challenge and change this state of affairs, but what do we hear from Miliband… sweet FA.

    You castigate Cameron for the Big Society and yet seem positive about Wallace’s ‘One Nation’. What on earth gives you any confidence that he has any idea what this means let alone articulated it to the masses ? I suspect ‘One Nation’ means higher taxes for those who are bothered to go out and work and continued handouts for those who dont.

    Your comments reflect the very reasons Labour is doomed. You are still fixated with state power and control. Thats the reason the “doers” are so cheesed off with politics and politicians. They want to live their lives as they want. They want to keep the money they earn whether its 10 K or 100K per year. Its not about the 1%, I dont give a toss what other people earn, but what I do care about is that my pocket was picked regularly by Brown and Blair and Milibean will be worse.

    If the best Labour can come up with is some rant about ‘wimmin’ and Thomas the Tank Engine, whilst saying nothing on the big issues then its all over.

  6. BenM says:

    “They want to keep the money they earn whether its 10 K or 100K per year.”

    This shows how out of touch Tories are.

    The fetishing of tax rates at a time when inflation is relentlessly outstripping pay rises (they real thing ‘doers’ want) shows a Tory creed that remains competely bombed out.

    No wonder Labour lead is increasing again in the polls.

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