Ten years ago, when Ed Miliband was elected leader, Labour’s soft left found its moment in the limelight again. A decade later, with Keir Starmer as leader and Ed Miliband its most popular senior figure among members, this remains a soft left party.
But ask anyone what our agenda looks like and you get blank stares and confusion, if not derision. For the past decade, we tried to split the difference between warring factions: rejecting Blairite indifference to neoliberalism, civil liberties, welfare cuts and foreign policy mistakes; but equally unwilling to accept the SWP/Stop the War agenda.
It only led to paralysis. And it led to Ed Miliband’s defeat. For those of us in Labour’s centre, this is an intellectual and political failure. We need to define our own agenda based on our principles. Let’s start that conversation.
I’ll kick off with three key principles that should define the soft left. Then, three areas we should focus on. And finally, three difficult debates we must have to win power again.
Here’s what I believe makes us different.
Pluralism. Our political coalitions will have to be diverse. This is a boon and a curse. It means we have to accept a diversity of views and approaches in our coalition. We don’t operate by driving out dissenting views.
Pragmatism. To accept diversity of views will require compromise. We don’t always get what we want and we don’t demand ideological purity. We win voters over by engaging them, not dismissing them as sellouts or Tories.
Competence. A leader must be good at setting out a clear agenda, effective at holding the Tories to account, and look believable in what they want to achieve.
Where do we stand on the big questions? Here are my proposals.
Full employment through a jobs guarantee. Neoliberalism created an economy that prized capital over jobs; where financial instruments are conjured up by private equity firms to asset-strip companies and destroy livelihoods. We need a focus back on an economy where people have stability and the government prioritises job creation – and guarantee them if necessary. On the economy, there should be only one mantra: jobs, jobs, jobs.
Electrify everything. The climate crisis is the biggest threat facing our country and we have to rise up to this challenge. The problem isn’t the cost of clean energy anymore, it is how little we rely on it. Labour should end all subsidy of fossil fuels and aim for full electrification of heating, transport and energy sectors. The technology exists or is within our grasp. Investing in them would create more jobs.
An ethical foreign policy. We stand not for Labour remaking Britain into an isolationist or imperialist power, but for defending democracy and human rights against genocide and authoritarianism around the world. That includes not just Russia and China but Saudi Arabia too. Just as Iraq was a disaster, our shameful inaction over genocide in Syria illustrates the dangers of doing nothing. We need to go back to the principles espoused by Robin Cook.
Three debates to win
But we still have far to go to win an election.
Communities. A Labour Party is nothing if not rooted in communities: geographical, racial, religious or just social. But we have stopped talking the language of community, what it means and how it empowers people. This goes all the way from patriotism and nationhood to talks at the local mosque. We need to rediscover communities and deeper engagement.
Towns and villages. As our activist and voting base becomes more concentrated in cities, we have lost our connection to Britain’s towns and villages – a point Lisa Nandy repeatedly made during the leadership election. We need to rediscover and reconnect with those areas.
Culture wars. The Labour leadership may have learnt to ignore the ‘culture wars’, but our MPs and members certainly have not. Labour doesn’t understand identity politics. It’s not in its DNA. It understands class politics but not identity. Avoid the culture wars on Twitter like the plague.
The soft left agenda
My aim here wasn’t to lay out a manifesto for Labour but a blueprint for the modern soft left. If you disagree, say why. But it’s worse to pretend that we don’t need to show some leadership. We need to get our act together. We should have the confidence bring out the best of our traditions so Labour can win and transform our country again.