By the end of London’s mayoral elections both main party leaders could have been forgiven for quietly wishing that their candidate lost. As with the rest of the results, it broke Ed Miliband’s way. Having Ken as a symbol of Labour and its most visible representative for three years before an election would almost certainly have been problematic. But his defeat underlines why the party still has to change.
Labour’s overall performance in this year’s elections was very strong. Just take Glasgow where a revitalised party with a fresh slate of candidates showed how the party’s fortunes in Scotland can be reversed. Only twenty-three of the thirty-nine incumbent councillors stood again for Labour – many deselected to make way for new blood. It shows what can happen when you do things differently.
Miliband’s reward for yesterday’s performance is that he is now firmly established as Labour’s leader going into the 2015 election. While low turnout is a very fat fly in the ointment, he has placed Labour in a position where it is a real contender again just two years after a devastating election defeat.
Nonetheless, there is a danger that Miliband’s Labour party remains manacled to the past and the future may slip from its grasp. That is, unless it can demonstrate that it offers something fresh and relevant in 2015. The real work for the Labour leader starts now.
London’s mayoral election is the flashing warning light. Despite a powerful and emotional concession speech, it can’t be ignored that Ken Livingstone represented much of what Labour has to leave behind – the politics of divide and rule, promising what you can’t deliver and moralising about others when your own house is not in order.
His candidacy divided Labour with significant voices against him in public and private. The way the ‘loyalty’ card was played against those who had doubts was a disgrace. There was reasonable doubt and it should have been respected. Those who gave their all campaigning for Ken deserve deep respect but so do those who couldn’t bring themselves to support him.
The charge sheet Luke Akehurst laid out today is more than enough to justify a decision not to support Livingstone. When you sign up to Labour you don’t leave your conscience at the door. If we ask people to then we become an even smaller clique of ‘true believers’. As it happens, I voted for Ken (first preference!) but more than understand those who didn’t feel able to do so.
The bigger point though is that Livingstone’s defeat shows what happens when a party fails to move on. Too often, voices on the left articulate a language of change while remaining ardent defenders of a social democratic status quo. All that changes is the latest set of events which are claimed as transformative moments – this week it’s double-dip recession. Rather than transforming itself, the orthodox left continually claims that the world has changed instead. This thinking is what risks marooning Miliband whereas if he changes Labour, he can change Britain. He has yet to choose between the past and the future.
So Labour ends up opposing the cuts and accepting them. It moralises about predatory capitalism but simply offers regulatory tweaks around the edges. It talks about a new economy but the manipulation of taxes, credits and benefits will once again be the modus operandi of a future Labour administration. The lead singer is new, the lyrics have changed but the song is pretty much the same. Livingstone’s defeat shows that will not wash come 2015.
Renovation is needed rather than refurbishment. Ed Miliband now has a very short time to make Labour a party worthy of office again. He has to start with the basics and confront a party that has become too narrow and sectional: Glasgow Labour changed and won; London’s mayoral campaign didn’t and lost.
A modern party needs to be open rather than closed. In the manner of the French Parti Socialiste – energised by a national primary for its candidate in the presidential election – an open party would find ways of reaching out beyond its edges. The suggestion floated by Steve van Riel of a primary selection for Labour’s next candidate is a good one. Labour’s relationship with the trade unions should also be refreshed – more focused on trade union members than with trade union General Secretaries. Become a more open, democratic party and straight away you will start to change for the better as new voices widen your worldview.
Organisational and cultural change alone is far from enough. Labour has an opportunity, as neo-liberal Osbornomics palpably fails, to present a radically different national vision. This isn’t a moral question; instead it’s one of collective purpose. The UK needs new inclusive economic institutions if its people are to thrive in the decades to come.
These institutions would expand scientific research and create new networks of knowledge and innovation. We need significantly more investment in infrastructure and innovative business. Democratic power should be shifted to where it can be used to make a local and regional difference. Institutions are desperately needed to intervene to improve wages, security and expand technical, social and cognitive skills in a largely post-industrial economy.
This all constitutes a very different project to mainstream social democratic redistribution but it is ultimately more sustainable – and disruptive of the status quo. The end result will be to enable people to prosper and exert greater power over their lives.
If Ed Miliband dares to leave the past behind then he can prosecute a powerful new national vision. He can create an open and inclusive party whose mission is to innovate new economic institutions to spread power and opportunity. He’s done well to give himself a platform to make an argument for fundamental national change. The defeat of Ken Livingstone shows what happens when voters are simply offered more of the same. Labour has been warned.
Left without a future? Social justice after the crash by Anthony Painter is published by Arcadia Books in July.