As the crisis continues, Labour just looks tired

If it's safety first and safety last, then the party is doomed to disappoint.

Shhhhhhhh. Quiet!! Labour is sleepwalking to the next election. Don’t wake it up. It might die of fright. Whisper. Don’t rock the boat. It's one more heave but without any heave. If it doesn’t move or make sound – then it might cross the finishing line of the election first without anyone noticing.

Next week, Labour is having its annual conference.  An event where nothing will happen. As I write, G4S or some other outsourcing behemoth will be putting up barriers around the Manchester conference zone to conceal nothing – absolutely nothing.

I’ve never known the run up to a party conference to feel so lame, so uninspiring, so flat and lacking in energy and vitality.  There are no rumours, no conflicts and little life.  Even the unions are silent.  I guess everyone must be happy. The election is in the bag. The next Labour government will sweep all before it and rule for a generation, creating Jerusalem in our midst. Oh, happy days.

Out there, in the wide-awake club, the ice caps melt, the eurozone teeters on the brink of collapse, the Tories rip the hope out of the lives of millions of young people, and the CBI calls for what’s left of the public sector to be privatised.  Neo-liberalism continues unabashed and untamed.

In fairness, Labour did have a half good idea about a British Investment Bank – but it was nicked by The Thick of It and then by Vince Cable. It's still got some other policies, like a five point-plan no one can remember, that would make virtually no difference to economic growth, and a promise to charge students £6,000 fees. Three thousand pounds more then they paid before but hey, £3,000 less than the Tories. Who says politics isn't about real choices? But it's giving little else away – that would be risky wouldn’t it?

Compare and contrast two things. First, Labour in 1994-97, when the party was last in opposition. There are no bigger critics of what became of New Labour than this happy scribe, but at least it had a sense of energy and ambition. Ideas frothed. New think-tanks bubbled up. Tireless work went into strategy and language. The "third way" was endlessly debated.  Of course, most of it turned out to be nonsense but at least the party had a go.

Second, look at the energy in the Tory party. Pushy backbenchers churn out tomes like Britannia Unchained that fizz with new policy ideas. Boris Johnson bounces round the fringes of the government – threatening a right-wing regime that is popular.  And Tim Montgomerie and chums set up Conservative Voice as an alternative government-in-waiting.  They all know where they want to take their party, the country and how. 

Labour, meanwhile, looks limp. Laid low to the level of a coma by an opinion poll lead that merely flatters to deceive. The decline of the Lib Dem vote just helps the Tories. The economy is bound to pick up. Of course, Labour might win – but what then? What do we do about the bond market, the public finances or the euro crisis? Labour is still hooked on the same political economy of setting finance free and redistributing the crumbs from the table. Hence its outright objection to a financial transaction tax (FTT) levied in Europe, making no attempt whatsoever to persuade the USA of its obvious virtue in stabilising markets and supporting essential social expenditure.

The party has nothing to say on public sector reform, nothing to say on welfare reform and nothing to say on climate change. If they have, then I, and everyone else, has missed it. Why not a genuine Green New Deal or an FTT? Why aren’t we pushing harder on a living wage, a German-style KfW environmental bank, real separation of retail and investment banking, new rules on takeovers, a national carers scheme, taxes on land and wealth and so much more?

This accidental or intended strategy seems to take its cue from the Australian Labour Party circa 1998-2001.  It was called the "small target" strategy. The party had almost been wiped out at the previous election and nervous shadow ministers decided the best chance to win was to stop rocking the boat and become a "small target" for Conservative attacks, on economic credibility in particular. If the party curled up into a tiny enough ball no one would notice and it might just win. But the ALP had no credible story that could capture the popular imagination or revive the party’s base. They lost even more seats.

I’m sure Ed will make a good speech – he might even make a great speech.  After all, he’s been right about responsible capitalism – but the age of the speech as a political lever is over. It’s now the age of emotion, action, campaigns and alliance building. Hope is loaded onto Jon Cruddas's policy review, but what if everything is vetted and stripped of any meaningful content? If it's safety first and safety last, then the party is doomed to disappoint.

The serious point is this. Capitalism has done two things – with devastating effect on Labour and the wider left. First it went up and then it went in. It went up to a global level– in so doing it cut itself free from any democratic accountability. Second, it went into our minds – as our identities and aspirations became steadily defined by what we bought.  The combination of financialisation and consumerisation destroyed the salience of class politics. Without a homogenous, organised and disciplined working class base Labour has become increasingly lost. It will stay lost until it finds or, better still, creates a new moral politics, new constituencies of interest and finally accepts that it's no longer 1945. The world has moved on and has become more complex and pluralistic.  Against the backdrop of the biggest crisis capitalism has ever suffered, Labour just looks tired.  

It's not as if the party is even being complacent – no one I talk to from the right or the left is under any illusion that winning will only be a slightly better disaster than losing.  Journalists and campaigners are gleefully calling and emailing me to express their relief that, for the first time in their lives, they aren’t going to conference. And who can blame them? Who wants to spend a week listening to Labour snore?

Sleep tight, my party.

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

Labour's annual conference opens in Manchester this Sunday. Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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