No organisational wheeze will rescue my party. But a determined agenda to tackle unaccountable power could win back support—right across our fractured countryby Lisa Nandy / March 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Whatever the future for Labour, it does not lie in backroom deals in Westminster. The breakaway of the Parliamentary Party from the grassroots, as floated by Ross McKibbin, might provide a short-term fix for the impasse over the leadership, but it would do little to deal with the depth of the challenge Labour faces.
Why not? Because the internal tensions in the Labour Party mirror the tensions in the country as a whole. The views and values in those community-minded towns which prize stability and continuity, is increasingly divergent from that in the liberal, fast-paced, diverse cities. This gulf was illustrated most starkly by the Brexit vote, but growing differences over immigration, climate change and LGBT rights are also apparent.
This disjunction is a global phenomenon. In the United States, a handful of dispossessed voters in mainly rural areas propelled Donald Trump to the White House, while in France depressed urban “haloes” on the edge of the cities are boosting Marine Le Pen. It is caused in no small part by globalisation, which has swept away many of the things—shared institutions, distinct local high streets, time with families and secure work—that matter most to those who have been more likely to lose them. It has cut the centre-left political class off from its traditional support base. That severance could not be more serious: the threat it poses is existential.
But while Labour is tugged in two directions, so too is the country. In the face of this, some parties—the Lib Dems and Ukip —have chosen confrontation. Others, like Theresa May’s Conservatives—have chosen compromise, with the two Tory sides living uneasily alongside each other, but with clear unresolved differences. This has left a vacuum of leadership that must now be filled by a programme to reunite a divided country.
That is where Labour’s biggest weakness becomes its great strength. There are clear differences between those Labour-held seats who voted overwhelmingly to “Leave” the EU and those that voted overwhelmingly to “Remain.” But consider what they have in common: Labour.
For decades, people in communities like David Lammy’s inner-London Tottenham, and my own constituency in Wigan have— despite long having lived divergent lives, with cultural outlooks and political priorities—nonetheless both voted solidly for us. In the past, from the creation of the NHS to the building of Sure Start, the party has found ways to unite people from such divergent corners of the country in common cause.
Common causes can—and must—be found again. But on what sort of thing? On both sides of the Brexit divide, there is a shared desire for more local control. On doorsteps across the country there is a clamour for well-funded services, devolution of power, work that has dignity and meaning and more time with our families. These shared aims can, and must, form the basis of the future. Labour will succeed if we seek the common ground shared by the decent, sensible majority, but more importantly, so will Britain.
We must address a crisis in politics affects both those who have benefited from globalisation and those who have fallen victim to it. And we must do so not by embracing populism, nor by rejecting it in a knee-jerk manner, but by taking it on smartly. The myth of a uniform, sovereign people and an unresponsive, homogenous political elite must be challenged. In the face of the messy, often contradictory, realities we need the political leadership that this lazy discourse delegitimises.
Shifting attitudes—and sometimes growing scepticism—regarding the role of the state have given Labour an identity crisis, but they shouldn’t. Our purpose was never—or never should have been—simply to redistribute wealth, but to redistribute power in its widest sense. This is already apparent in many towns and cities across the country where Labour holds power. Across the country, our best councils are rebuilding municipal assets—establishing their own energy companies to raise money to fund libraries, Sure Starts and parks. And in doing so they are creating jobs, cleaning up air pollution and cutting energy bills, putting more power into people’s hands. Regional devolution, if we ensure power is genuinely pushed right down to communities, will allow us to change the country profoundly in popular ways.
This growing consensus in Labour—that addressing the imbalance of power is a pressing political priority—cuts across our many divisions. It is why, from the avowed moderniser Liz Kendall to Clive Lewis on the left, there is now a shared passion for a new approach to the state—not the clunking fist, nor simply a safety net, but a smart state that intervenes early and often, walking alongside people as partners to enable them to change their own lives. All this demands a different approach to a market where a handful of companies own and control our transport, energy, water, data, food and access to medicines. Capital is unaccountable and unchallenged, denying people control over their own lives and inflaming frustration. We need to be able to show the voters where the power that must frustrates them lies, and demonstrate practical ways in which we will challenge it.
It is not impossible, and if we can do it Labour can again build a new coalition that genuinely speaks for towns and cities, the north and the south, both the middle and working classes. To try to remedy the present crisis by taking tactical decisions in Westminster would be a profound mistake. Before anything else, Labour must first think through a new political and economic settlement—a settlement that can only be based on consent.