by Patrick Hurley and James Noakes
Over the last few weeks, we’ve watched with mounting horror at the farce that the Labour leadership contest has become. We know we’re not alone in this.
But we despair not just because of who is or isn’t in the race, the (yet again) flawed tortuous process or the ridiculous behaviour of some supporters of all candidates. No, our despair is primarily because none of the candidates for the leadership seem remotely capable of setting out a truly radical centre-left agenda for the way we live now.
Corbyn may want to talk about the issues but he doesn’t want to face up to the present day context (too many of his supporters class centre-left as Tory anyway it seems), Cooper and Burnham, solid performers both, are not setting the world alight. A defence of tax credits and commitments on NHS supply chains might be all well and good, but they hardly get the blood racing. Liz Kendall could be on to something with her focus on raising early years funding rather than subsidising university students, but in all honesty, the gruel is thin all round.
Much like the past five years, too often we are faced with tactics rather than strategy – the candidates seem too keen on reacting to events rather than in giving the party some actual leadership. Some may say this is inevitable perhaps given such a public process; a voracious, hostile media; and a PLP leadership vacuum facing buoyed Tory benches. However, that is not good enough for any candidate. Moreover, this appears to be the best that the Parliamentary party has to offer.
It is clear that the world is changing whilst many of the issues Labour exists to address – poverty; ill health; support for working people and the vulnerable in society for instance – remain. So how do we recast Labour as a party that can tackle those issues whilst accepting the change that is happening in the world?
One possible way of doing this is by acknowledging new changes in the working culture of the country, and shaping those changes to benefit working people. For instance, as Matthew Taylor of the RSA mentioned at his recent annual lecture, one of the biggest causes of illness at work is people feeling they have no autonomy. So let’s work out ways of giving people autonomy in the workplace – new rules on flexible working from the perspective of the worker rather than the employer, tax breaks for organisations that can demonstrate decentralised decision making, investment in novel IT schemes that improve remote working. And you never know; this might help improve our country’s worrying productivity rates too.
These might not be all, or indeed any, of the answers, but at least these are the sorts of questions we’d like to see addressed. Sadly, however, there is very little genuinely radical thinking that we can see going on in Labour’s Westminster contingent. They seem unwilling or unable to countenance the closure or reform of out-dated public services to allow us to fund new ones; unable to accept that sometimes we do disempower people through our well-meaning actions; unable to propose pretty much any measure to improve productivity; or unwilling to engage people regarding change rather than merely force it upon them. They appear to want to preserve the shape of society that the last Labour government had a vision to create twenty years ago.
As it has a tendency to, however, time moves on. By 2020, smartphone penetration across the UK is projected to be around 90%; there is expected to be up to 50% of the workforce nominally self-employed, and public sector employment will be at the lowest level in living memory. Those 18 year olds who voted for the first time in May cannot remember a world without broadband, and the Internet is shaping nearly everyone’s expectations from life and public services alike. But we’re hearing nothing from our senior politicians about how to answer the challenges people will be faced with in this brave – and, for some, frightening – new world.
But why not? There is plenty of innovative work being done by Labour local authorities in how to save money. Our own city council in Liverpool has developed an “invest to earn” model whereby revenue is generated through commercial property ownership and other innovative use of assets. Manchester’s Housing Investment Fund is tackling the house-building issue head on. Co-operative councils are pioneering new ways of engaging and delivering. Outside of traditional politics altogether, the Impact Hub movement is showing how a co-working model can be married up to co-operative principles and mutual aid. None of these are the whole answer but they are providing strategic leadership in the face of an uncompromising government and a changing society. Coupled with the approach to smart cities, local Labour is leading where the PLP has chosen to vacate.
Fundamental questions need answering. If Uber, JustPark, AirBnB and other sharing economy behemoths or innovators are to be accommodated should we become protectionist in favour of traditional industry? Or should we – as we would prefer – look to see how co-operatives can be helped to compete on a level playing field, perhaps with revenue going into funding urban regeneration schemes? How do we help those who are at the harsh end of change without defaulting to managerialism or yesterday’s solutions? Should we not be seeking to harness technology, reform and change for a Labour government rather than allow the Tories to assume it as their own?
There are plenty of questions to ask about the shape of the UK’s society and economy in 2020 and beyond, and there are even more answers to be found from those engaged in these discussions. Sadly, there are few answers at all from the Labour front bench at present. Work that has been done lies untouched and unwanted. Tom Watson’s interesting pieces on the advance of technology in the workplace appear to be overlooked by others. There is precious little sign that our senior politicians and leadership candidates are even prepared to grapple with the decisions that will inevitably have to be made should the party return to government any time soon.
So, can we now have a leadership contest?
Patrick is a city councillor and business adviser in Liverpool. James is also a city councillor in Liverpool and the Mayoral Lead for energy and smart city