What is Labour for?

Jon Wilson


We, Labour, are doomed unless we recognise that a second election defeat in five years, against a party which no-one has any enthusiasm for, forces a serious debate about what our party is for. Labour faces an existential crisis. As Jon Cruddas puts it, there is no divinely ordained reason why the Labour party should exist.

We have been annihilated in both Scotland and the south of England. We have retreated to a series of strongholds in London and the metropolitan, English north.

The scenario about what happens next too is easy to imagine: a permafrost Tory government, ruling from the right in the interests of the few with enough giveaways for the rest of us to stay in power. The duties of opposition could be divided between a succession of regional, local parties proclaiming leftism and centrism against Conservative hegemony. Labour would then rule the regional powerhouses of the north, the midlands and perhaps London (and that is a good thing), but it abandons any claim to shape the destiny of Britain as a whole.

Because that is what Labour is for. We are not for only the poor, the starving, the vulnerable alone. We are the party of the people as a whole. Labour’s historic mission is simple: to make sure that the institutions of this country work in the interests of the people of this country. Our purpose is not to ‘deliver’ this or that initiative to some or other social group.

Labour’s mistake recently has been to parcel up the population and then imagine we will win by offering free goodies to one group or another. But the people of this country know there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

So what’s the plan? Quite simply, to aspire to lead this country by offering a kind of leadership which includes everyone. We cannot harass from the left. We offer nothing less than full spectrum national leadership, a politics that can win support in Wisbech or Welling as much as Wigan.

How is that different from David Cameron’s recently rebranded ‘one nation’ Toryism? There should be an important difference.

Labour is, like the Tories, a party of the centre. But unlike the Conservative Party we recognise that Britain is made up of different groups of people who have different interests. Deep in their bones, Tories imagine that the interests of elites align perfectly with the plebs they aspire to rule. We, the rest of the people, should be satisfied living under the benign dictatorship of the intelligent few. Those who contest the dominance of those with power are a disorderly rabble of trouble-makers.

Instead, Labour should start by recognising that a united Britain will only exist if we recognise the tension between different interests. We want to be one nation, but we are many communities, many towns, cities, interests. Employees and company owners don’t want the same thing. Neither, necessarily, do doctors and nurses, patients and teachers, migrants and members of settled communities. Our distinctiveness is recognising the tension, and finding a way of accommodating differences. We’re not just interested in recognising diversity, but instead in finding a common good from difference.

What does that mean in practice? First, a politics that makes sure everyone has a voice. Labour leaders, councillors, mayors, activists, MPs need to be pushing forward those excluded from the workings of powerful institutions to have their say. Instead of capping and regulating from the centre, it’s about relentlessly insisting the leadership of institutions big and small is held to account by ordinary people.

Secondly, it is about a practical politics of negotiation and conciliation. Unlike the right, with their fantasy that the free market will resolve every disagreement, we recognise the fact there are win-lose situations. But our politics needs then to be about creating a compromise between different interests. Its not about one side stridently insisting it can get its own way without concessions. It’s about what good Trade Union negotiators do in practice, despite the rhetoric of their superiors – get the best deal for their members in a particular circumstance. Doing that takes respect for both sides.

Britain now is a country which is badly unbalanced. We have a tiny elite that runs our institutions in the interests of the few (Labour included). Our institutions need to be forced to listen to their consumers, members or constituents.

It is this lack of accountability which has caused inequality to rise, massively. Unless Labour gets its act together and offers, properly, to lead the nation, these imbalances will continue. Many current Labour politicians delude themselves still about winning a bare majority and then using the levers of power to crack down on the rest. The record of the 1997-2010 government was that that didn’t happen when we won. May 7 2015 taught us that Labour needs a different strategy, to stand in the centre, to represent business as well as workers, service users as well as providers, the well-to-do as well as the poor, but  always make sure there is a conversation between the two.

Labour is about rebalancing Britain or we are doomed.

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