Politics is complicated. And hard. Questions that really matter – whether you have a job, whether you can buy a house, whether your kids are happy at school – are never top of the agenda. Perhaps that is just the way that the news works. But there is a purpose to politics that I do believe people care about. What are we for? What do we want for the country? These are the questions. In order to fulfil our hopes for the country, Labour must win. The central case for change has four parts in my view. They are all simple and necessary: that the Tories are bad for our country; that we must reject nostalgia; find the causes that unify; and fight for hope and ambition.
The Tories are very bad for our country. Never let them forget it.
The Conservatives in office have shut nearly 800 libraries since 2010. All those towns, villages, places around the country that used to have a small building where kids could do their homework and older people could relax and explore the world of books with a librarian to help. Gone. I think it is criminal. And then there is Sure Start. Demonstrable benefits to child health, yet cut by the Tories. Progress down the drain. The same on rough sleeping: even despite the Covid measures, the number of people bedding down on the street is still higher than in 2010. Child benefit frozen for a decade meaning that a family with just one kid is getting nearly £7 per week less than if it had kept pace with prices – £364 per year.
That is the case against them. It is severe. But we cannot rest there. We owe the country we love an alternative. So, we also need the positive case for a Labour UK government. But first, a warning.
There can be an overwhelming tendency on the part of those on the left to look back. I have just done it myself above. When I think of the value of libraries, I inevitably mentally picture the one my mum used to take me to in Bromborough. I think of the orange nylon carpet, of story time, and of the first time I was allowed to take books out myself. I am mainly thinking about my mum, too, of course.
But this is wrong. Children and young people today don’t need the libraries of the 1980s, to state the obvious. They need librarians who can help them with the world of both books and social media, and a world of research and creativity that would have seemed crazy to ten-year-old me in 1991. When I was the same age as my daughter is now, I had used a very basic computer at school and was on the verge of understanding how early PCs worked. Now, she is building whole worlds in Minecraft and regularly designing her own stories and games.
Anyway, there is more to culture than books. As my friends at Get It Loud In Libraries demonstrate, young people need places not just of books but where they can explore the kind of culture that libraries would have sniffed at even in my halcyon days. The point is, with progressive policies, access to the best of new culture should be much easier than when I was growing up. The past – my past – was not better. This is a lesson that we must repeat to ourselves daily. This is what it means to be a progressive. And in my view, if you are not a progressive, you are a conservative. If Labour allows itself to be conservative, the country is faced with no real choice, just two political parties fighting over which bit of our country’s past was better.
Nostalgia on the left is a political disease. Nostalgia is a seductive liar. It is an emotional longing for the past that tells us things were better before, even when that is demonstrably not the case. It is a comforting warm bath in which to hide from the world rather than engage with the challenges that life presents us with. Forget the warm bath. Get on with the job. The only way to win is to focus on the future.
The next step is to work out how to win.
If the 2021 elections tell us anything, they tell a complicated story. What went wrong in Hartlepool that went right in Liverpool? What was good in Kent and Sussex that failed in Essex? Aside from organisational lessons (of which there will be plenty), this picture shows us how complicated English politics is. And then there is the interplay between Welsh Labour and Scottish Labour, and how the approaches to devolution are made different by language, culture and institutions.
It is complicated, alright. But one thing is simple: at the time of the next election we need to be able to win a minimum of 327 seats in the House of Commons. To do that, we need to find the things that will unify across the complex landscape of the United Kingdom. And if we philosophically believe that our people have more in common than that which divides them, surely this cannot be an impossible task.
Not least because the biggest challenges we face are the most widespread. Whether it is the rising prevalence of mental ill health, or the general acknowledgment that how children are supported to deal with trauma will affect them throughout their lives, these are universal causes. Having a job that is fulfilling, a home that is safe and dry and the best for those who carry our hopes: our children.
Unifying causes are sometimes deceptively simple. But it is crucial that we fight on territory that unites people, otherwise we will be forever stuck with a Tory government that launches culture war after culture war knowing that if it divides the coalition against them, it will always win.
Finding the causes that unify also forces us to choose. Remember those Tory failings? Raising child benefit enough to lift 300,000 children out of poverty costs about £3bn. Choose that and you can’t spend that £3bn on something else. At its height, Sure Start cost about £2bn per year. Choose that and you can’t spend it on something else. We have to decide.
There will be many calls on our attention between now and the next general election, but nonetheless, we must be able to prioritise. Our pledge card cannot be the length of a roll of wallpaper. To govern is to choose, and if you can’t choose, you can’t govern. So, priorities must be clear – not just to us, but to the public, too.
Our priorities must spell out our purpose.
Too often we assume that by ‘not being the Tories’ we are somehow better. We cannot afford to make this assumption. We must spell out what it is we want to govern for, so that no one can mistake our purpose. All our actions must drive towards it, and the hard choices we have to make be explained by it.
Keir Starmer has said it: “I want this to be the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in.” We are ambitious for the public’s wellbeing, particularly at the two ends of life, the first of which determines your life chances, and the second of which determines your dignity.
It is this ambition that we must focus on now. What are the changes that a Labour government – and only a Labour government – will deliver to make our country that example of common public health and happiness? What will we prioritise, and which policies will have to wait?