To reconnect with the British people and rediscover our governing purpose, Labour needs to do three things: understand afresh the values of our politics; articulate a new vision that tells the story of our policy; and upgrade the Labour Party vehicle itself.
Turning first to values, under Ed Miliband’s leadership it is becoming clear that the party can embrace three distinct sets of values which, in another time, might have led to irreconcilable conflict: left liberalism, economic egalitarianism, and communitarianism (all of which I write about in my contribution to The Shape of Things to Come).
First, Labour can and must remain the party of social and political liberalism: tolerant, open-minded, comfortable with difference, impatient when institutions fail to be representative or in tune with modern Britain, champions of political reform, and instinctively internationalist.
Second, there is the party’s historic prioritisation of the fight against inequality, best articulated in the 1950s by Anthony Crosland. Today Labour has an unprecedented opportunity created by the combination of economic stagnation, and the public’s revulsion with the consequences of neo-liberalism. The party can push for radical economic restructuring built around the interests of low and middle income families, not just growth for growth’s sake.
Third, there is the politics of community, responsibility and identity; ideas rooted in the semi-dormant Labour traditions of mutualism, cooperation, self-help and guild socialism. At the Fabian Summer conference Jon Cruddas argued that Labour people need to own and continually use words like duty, hope, solidarity, community and country. Part of his challenge as Labour’s policy cooridator will be to authentically integrate this ‘Blue Labour’ strand of our values, alongside our liberalism and egalitarianism. His project will fail if there is a ‘zero-sum’ trade-off between our three clusters of values.
The challenge next is to translate our values into a vision for a different Britain that strikes a chord with the public and sets the political weather. To put it simply, we need a winning story so that Labour defines the national conversation, as it did in 1945, 1964 and 1997 (and as the coalition briefly did, when it came to office, on the necessity of austerity). So far Ed Miliband has developed some big political themes – like responsible capitalism and the squeezed middle – but he hasn’t yet told the story of how his Britain will look and feel different in a way that gets people talking amongst themselves. On Saturday Cruddas also announced that ‘Rebuilding Britain’ will form the plotline for that story, in order to encompass both economic and ethical national renewal. Now we need plain-speaking language to bring the story to life.
To win Labour must not simply aim to seem less incompetent than the incumbents. It must frame the election as a momentous choice, built on competing visions forBritain. At the conference speakers from all wings of the party spoke of their hope that the terrible economic times might enable Labour to sow the seeds for a ‘1945 election’, where the party is able to lead and shape the national conversation while also offering a decisive change in direction.
Values and vision will not be sufficient, however, if the vehicle for our politics, the Labour Party itself, fails to change. Saturday’s conference revealed near-universal support for organisational and cultural transformation. We need a party that is united but not fearful of disagreement; open, listening and welcoming to the outside world; reflective of Britain at large, in terms of class, gender and breadth of professional expertise; democratic and transparent in the way it conducts its business; that nurtures networks of activism and entrusts local leaders; a party of conversations not just campaign slogans.
It is clear that Labour’s new leadership believes passionately in this transformation. But there is a huge journey to travel. Inertia, institutional resistance, competing priorities and the beleaguered starting-point from which so many parts of the party begin are all roadblocks to rapid turn-around. To achieve anything by 2015 and to win-round sceptics who have ‘heard it all before’ some big symbolic reforms are needed in the next twelve months.