If Labour is to win the next election, we must answer the big questions that Tony Blair posed over a decade ago

by Tom Clement

As good as our result was last week, we cannot lose sight of the fact that we did not win. Earning the trust of 41% of the population is a magnificent achievement but it still leaves us sixty seats short of being even the largest party. Our choice now is to either complain about the unfairness of the voting system; or we can equip ourselves to win an election.

And to do this, we must claim the future.

It is the only way we win. In 1945, Atlee realised the need to win the peace following the Second World War and led our most transformative government so far. Wilson won in 1964 after embracing the ‘white heat’ of the technological revolution and liberalise our country as a result. And through facing the Millennium, Blair was able to win in 1997 and deliver the longest period of Labour government to date.

So how do we do it today?

We must face the future and embrace the difficult questions that we have avoided for so long. In fact, if you go back to Tony Blair’s final conference speech as leader, he poses some clear questions that we have still yet to answer.

The question today is … how we reconcile openness to the rich possibilities of globalisation, with security in the face of its threats.”

We live in uncertain times. The recent election result only serves to highlight that. With Brexit, Trump and the chaos in Downing Street, it is impossible to predict what will happen over the next five years.

But that doesn’t mean that we have no control over it. Quite the opposite. The future is very much in our hands but only if we reach out and embrace it.

Our test, put simply, is Brexit. It is no good to just wait for the Tories to make a bad deal and then complain about it afterwards.

We have to lead. We have to be bold about our decisions now and fill the vacuum that Theresa May’s insipid leadership has left.

Corbyn should announce the formation of a cross-Party convention to decide our negotiating strategy for Brexit and invite all parties to it. We should force the debate to be about priorities, not process. We should make clear how a Labour Brexit would be different to a Tory Brexit and we should shame them into sharing their priorities.

We should lead Britain in deciding what future we want outside of the European Union. We should pursue a Brexit in the national interest which promotes:

  • Protection for workers.
  • Protection for the environment.
  • A fair and equal immigration system that works for Britain.

And then we should invite the public to share in what our priorities mean to them. This will allow us to seize the initiative and show that we are ready to govern.

Millions of people are ordering flights or books or other goods on-line, they are talking to their friends on-line, downloading music, all of it when they want to, not when the shop or office is open.”

This is the reality. We live in an ‘on demand’ society that desires everything when we want it. And for the last decade we have benefited from this. Amazon, Netflix, Uber, all of these have enabled the individual to plan their lives around themselves.

And this is great.

But what we are experiencing now are the consequences of this. This instability has had a profound impact on low-paid workers and it is starting to permeate the rest of society.

There are two easy responses to this: say it’s inevitable and allow the market to take its course; or we could try to hide from it and become a protectionist state. But neither of these are acceptable if we really want to lead Britain.

Instead, we must embrace our values and use them to shape the world that we want to see.

Take zero hours contracts. Allowing their unregulated use damages the worker; leaving them cut adrift unsure of whether they will be given enough hours to keep on top of their bills. Simply banning them, however, will cause all sorts of other problems. Businesses employing fewer people as they can’t guarantee work or small businesses closing under the weight of contracts they can’t afford.

Our plan must instead look to another, more collective way that combines security with flexibility. Of course this is no easy task but it must be our ambition. Because if we don’t face these challenges then we are simply vacating the field to the Tories.

So, our challenge is to provide a coherent and sustainable plan that allows people the security and freedom that they need to thrive today.

A collectively funded social care service that neither soaks the rich nor leaves all the risk with the individual. An education system that focuses on high standards of numeracy and literacy to give our children the best chance of success. A welfare system which allows people to avoid the benefits trap and supports them into work whilst providing a safety net in case of hard times. A business strategy that rewards businesses for investing in their staff and in their environment.

Only by truly facing the future can we ever hope to shape it.

“Who comes first … the patient, the parent.”

This final problem is one that we have often struggled with. Do we, like Blair, champion the consumer? The patients, the parents, the businesses? Or do we follow Wilson and favour the worker? And put their rights above the services they deliver?

The only real option for us is to empower both.

Of course, the Labour Party must be the guardians of great public services that allow a high class health service for those that need it, a superb education for all and transport that is both efficient and environmentally friendly.

Sometimes that will require us to challenge our comfort zones. Academies and free schools should be embraced as providers in a great education system. Subcontracting some services to the private sector can help to create a great health care system from the point of delivery. We have choice but to put the consumer at the heart of what we aim to deliver.

But we must also remember that to deliver great public services, we need great public servants. We must offer incentives for employment, rewards for innovation and freedoms to deliver what the consumer needs in the best way without fear of criticism.

Look at education. Is it necessary that schools are inspected to ensure high standards are maintained and allow all students to progress to the next stage of their lives? The answer can only be yes. But does that same inspectorate have to create a climate of fear that, without any acceptance of context or anomalies, leads to head teachers living in fear of their jobs and consequently demanding an impossible amount from their staff? Of course not.

A Labour solution would be to use Ofsted in a supportive capacity. Pointing out failings where they exist. Celebrating strengths where they are found. But most importantly linking schools together to support the collective improvement of all schools. Use local authorities to create support networks that are used and usable.

Only through doing this – embracing the consumer and the worker – can we truly create a society that is fair and supports everyone.

The British people will, sometimes, forgive a wrong decision. They won’t forgive not deciding.”

It is clear that we are at a crossroads in our politics. Old certainties are no longer true. Conventions aren’t likely to remain. But what remains is the desire, and the demand, of the British people to be led.

Whilst you might not agree with the solutions above, we must start thinking about the big problems that we face. We cannot be a party of government again unless we start to embrace the big decisions.

We have to be honest with the voter and explain what our priorities are. We must be clear what our values are and how we will use them to shape our country.

We will not be elected to govern again until we are trusted with people’s finances and services. And we cannot be trusted until we embrace the big questions that will shape our future.

Tom Clements is a history and politics teacher in Leeds

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4 Responses to “If Labour is to win the next election, we must answer the big questions that Tony Blair posed over a decade ago”

  1. Anne says:

    We can’t just sit back and say well yes we had a good result and stand still – we have to move the Labour agenda forward and begin to find solutions to today’s problems. For example, I understand that Ed Miliband has done a lot of work on climate change – would it not sensible to put him in the shadow cabinet opposite Michael Gove. I have always said that Kier Starmer is a good Brexit negotiator- he understands the legal aspects. Chuka should be brought in to the shadow cabinet. Some discussion with Francis O’Grady on workers rights would be helpful to formulate policies. We have some good talent in The Labour Party – we should use it.

  2. John Wall says:

    @Anne – The message some have been trying to get across is that the way to get another 60+ seats to form a majority government – and remember that’s a government that would be relentlessly chasing backbenchers to vote – is to get Conservative voters to switch. As Rob Marchant http://labour-uncut.co.uk/2017/06/14/reality-check-a-winning-party-needs-to-win-you-know-seats/ points out:

    “And don’t forget the simple maths: a Tory vote converted to Labour is worth twice that of a non-voter converted to Labour, towards a win in a particular seat.”

    It’s not easy for a lot of metropolitan “progressives” who tend to look down their superior noses at those who vote differently to try and understand why the untermensch don’t behave like good sheep. If the prevailing view is that Conservatives have horns and should walk around in sackcloth with a bell crying “unclean, unclean !” there isn’t a hope.

    I know that Blair is a dirty word, but he reached out, like Thatcher, beyond those he could take for granted. He convinced business that he wasn’t a confiscatorial leftie with a chip on his shoulder – something that Miliband failed to do and Corbyn/McDonnell haven’t got a hope of doing. He was quoted as saying that he didn’t mind people becoming filthy rich – but this was qualified with, as long as they pay their taxes.

    Largely thanks to Blair’s open door immigration policy Labour lost a chunk of the working class. The most recent data suggests that May did better amongst blue collar workers than Corbyn. A middle class, grammar school educated vicar’s daughter did better than a middle class, grammar school educated metropolitan marxist!

    To get the support of these their concerns have to be identified and solutions proposed. The white working class are concerned about immigrants taking their jobs – May, et al, have aspirations – which is a start – to control/reduce the numbers. Corbyn believes in unrestricted immigration and would rather change the subject.

  3. Anne says:

    I understand that both Kier Starmer and Francis O’Grady have said that immigration has to be controlled – but we do need some immigrants – for example in the NHS. The number of nurses coming from the EU has reduced significantly. Should it not be that immigration should be cut from countries outside of the EU. I still believe our future lies with stronger ties with Europe – in terms of trade, security etc.

  4. John Wall says:

    @Anne – immigration was one of the major concerns from the referendum and the white working class do not see Corbyn/Labour sharing their views.

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