Many things have been written so far about the Labour leadership debate, but one thing that most people agree on is that it has been far from visionary. At exactly the time when people in Labour need to lift our sights and look to the future we seem to be chained to the past, caught debating spending decisions in 2006 rather than mapping out a future for 2020 and beyond. George Osborne’s latest budget pushed the right buttons to ensure that Labour leadership candidates were left treading water in the shallow end of public opinion whilst the Tories sailed off into the distance.
This lack of vision is not just boring, it is extremely dangerous for the direction of the Party over the coming years. Labour’s greatest leaders have all presented a compelling vision, and managed to position the Party as owning the future. Attlee in 1945 had the vision of the modern welfare state and the NHS. Wilson in 1964 had the vision of the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’. This was all about Britain’s ability to compete in a rapidly changing world. Blair had a vision of a modern ‘cool Britannia’.
Wilson’s 1964 victory was perhaps the most remarkable. The years 1951-64 were marked by full employment and unprecedented increases in living standards. Yet Wilson succeeded in portraying the Tories as belonging to the past, an important lesson for Labour.
A key common element of these visions is that they are for everybody, for the whole nation. The offer is not just to a narrow sectarian group of the faithful, as in 1983 and 2015. Labour succeeds when its leaders are seen to grasp the future with a transformative offer and sense of national purpose.
Almost everywhere in Europe, the centre-left is in retreat. This is because it is offering a vision of the past, not the future. Social democratic parties are caught defending an apparently unsustainable status quo rather than offering real change. The Tory message of a collective need to tighten belts in the wake of the crash, whilst far from uplifting, has been plausible in contrast to Labour’s mantra of misery and scatter-gun approach to policy.
Ed Miliband’s attempt to paper over the cracks with the ‘One Nation’ project failed because the slogan was never fleshed out with actual ideas or a real story about how Labour would change Britain. The Tories have triumphantly reclaimed the tagline and are wasting no time in rubbing it in.
Well, as far as I’m concerned that Tories can keep ‘One Nation’. It is a vacuous slogan that will never really grasp the public’s attention. What Labour should do instead is to seize on the idea of the ‘global race’ and turn it against the Tories.
This phrase was popular with Tories at the start of the last Parliament but seems to have fallen out of favour recently, replaced by the more domestic vision of a ‘long term economic plan’ and the infamous ‘Northern Powerhouse’. This narrowing of focus gives Labour a chance that we should not pass up.
The simple fact is that the UK will have to be more competitive on the global stage if we are to create the good, sustainable jobs that we all want to see. To do this we need enable the talent and creativity of our citizens to flourish and make sure they have the capital to unleash their ideas.
The rapid pace of technological innovation in America and in Asia risks leaving the Britain and the EU behind. One of the main reasons is that America has a successful and genuine venture capital sector, where bright young people can get seed money to try and realise their visions. We lack this in Britain. Venture capital is available, but only once you have begun to prove that your innovation works.
This serious market failure presents an opportunity for Labour. Not only can we take the fight to the Tories on the lack of available capital, stealing the pro-business mantle in the process, we can also attempt to reshape the debate about the size and role of the state. The current narrative sees the state as a monolith that crushes creativity and holds business back, but this does not have to be the case. Labour could set out a vision of an entrepreneurial state that invests in innovation to boost Britain on the global stage.
Take the US Defence Department as an example. The Americans use their vast defence budget to pursue pioneering research which then successfully transfers into the private sector where it helps to create jobs and boost growth. GPS is just one example of an invention that emerged from this process. Britain must follow suit, for example by leveraging more of our health budget into ground-breaking pharmaceutical research. The fact that budgets such as health, education or international development are ring-fenced should create an even greater expectation that protected money will put to work in service of the economy.
Seizing the narrative of global competition would open new angles from which to take the fight to a Government which has failed to match rhetoric with results. The Tories have failed on productivity and are on course to miss their export target by miles whilst small business owners are starved of capital and foreign students with vital skills are being told to leave the country.
This may sound audacious, but it is this kind of vision and sense of purpose that we need to see from Labour leadership candidates, not just more cautious positioning and posturing. Labour must be seen to be on the side of Britain in the world, not simply as a pressure group for a certain section of the electorate. If we don’t break out of the straightjacket imposed by the Tories soon, then the 2020 election will be a write-off.