Time for Labour’s Gen X to step up to the plate

The next generation of Labour leaders cannot lean on the achievements of their predecessors.

This year marks the 65th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. As the baby boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1964, moves towards retirement, it's worth reflecting on what that means for British culture and politics.

The baby boomers have always had a clear enough identity. Politically, they fought great ideological battles. Culturally, they stood for rights and freedoms. The big question now concerns the generation that follows: how will we choose to define ourselves?

For my grandmother's generation, to reach the age of 65 was some distinction. Today, it may mark the beginning of decades of comfortable and active retirement. Baby boomers still dominate British society: pop svengalis, journalists and CEOs continue to do their thing, seeing the 65th birthday as an increasingly artificial rite of passage.

Yet gradually we are seeing a new generation beginning to make its mark as it takes up prominent positions in British society. The editors of both this magazine and its biggest rival are now Generation Xers. Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, is 34, Mark Zuckerberg, his counterpart at Facebook, is even younger, and Gary Lineker has long since replaced Des Lynam on the Match of the Day couch.

Westminster faces its own version of this momentous shift as a generation of politicians is set to exit the stage. Of the 121 MPs standing down at the next election, nearly three-quarters belong to the baby boomer generation, born in the aftermath of the Second World War. Their likely successors are younger candidates, those who belong to Generation X, born in the late 1960s and 1970s.

The template. And the challenge

This has profound implications for Labour. For two decades, our party's leading lights have been drawn from the baby boomers: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Jack Straw and Harriet Harman, among others. Today it leans heavily on that generation.

Peter Mandelson remains one of the party's finest political minds and its key strategist. Ken Livingstone has dominated city government for the past 30 years. Jon Cruddas continues to mine Labour traditions for intellectual renewal.

But Labour's baby boomers cannot be expected to win the next election single-handed. Nor should they be expected to shoulder the burden of shaping an agenda for a fourth term alone.

For Labour's next generation, it is a moment of reckoning. Having spent our early adult lives under Tory rule, we have been fortunate to reach political maturity in government. Now if we want a fourth term that makes a real difference to the country, it is time for my generation to step up.

In the short term, that means everything to win the most important election since 1997. Beyond that, it means having the courage to move beyond the assumptions of the past 16 years, and to consider what an energised and intellectually confident centre-left party looks like in modern Britain.

This need not come at the expense of loyalty. The template was set by Blair and Brown during the 1980s and early 1990s. Then, Labour's emerging leaders supported figures such as Neil Kinnock, Roy Hattersley and John Smith with loyalty, but also with new ideas and energy.

They were resolute in their support but showed no fear in asking challenging questions about the party's values and its direction.

The biggest challenge for our generation is to address the shortcomings of the baby boom era. The boomers help to tear down rigid social structures, creating a society in which all of us enjoy hard-won rights and freedoms.

But the liberation of the individual has helped to create a self-centred culture of consumerism and instant gratification. Our task is to help rehabilitate notions of mutual obligation, from parenting and family life to the co-operative and the employee mutual movement.

Mandela's children

Economically, baby boomers have benefited from the proceeds of rising house prices and generous final-salary pension schemes. But this has left younger generations to shoulder huge financial burdens. The question for us is how to spread asset ownership more fairly across social classes and between generations.

Baby boomers witnessed great battles between state socialism and liberal capitalism. But the credit crunch and recession remind us that Thatcherism was far from "the end of history". Our mission is to imagine a more civilised capitalism, with responsible banking but also space for family time, fair pay and decent work.

Gen X should be in a strong position to address these challenges precisely because our political upbringing marks us out from the baby boomers. Where the baby boomers so often saw the world in light and dark, our upbringing has been more nuanced and less certain.

This is the generation that reached adulthood as the Berlin Wall came down. We are the children of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but also of Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa.

Politically, because Generation Xers grew to political maturity in the Noughties, we have a more objective view of New Labour's shortfalls as well as its achievements. Often we are more wary of the tribal politics of the 1970s and 1980s, and therefore more receptive to working beyond traditional party lines. This speaks not just to a need for electoral reform, but also to the need to build a movement of the left that connects with allies and potential supporters outside our party.

In a more secular world, our generation must start forging a more moral discourse that gets beyond pledge-card politics and speaks to people's values and identities. Our job is to move beyond the technocratic language of "what works". It is to lead rather than follow public opinion on issues such as equality and climate change.

Such a challenge demands that we grasp the possibilities of many-to-many communication, understanding that the era of "command-and-control" political communication is over.

Earn your rights

David Cameron's Conservatives serve as a cautionary tale. Their sense of entitlement is barely concealed as they cross off the days to a general election. Yet every day their platform looks thinner.

Progressive Conservatism has given way to tax breaks for a wealthy few. Modern Conservatism has been stamped out by a return to "back-to-basics" family tax breaks. "Vote blue, go green" is laughable, given that Tory candidates rank climate change bottom of their list of priorities.

Whether the Tory leadership ever really believed these things does not really matter; what we should learn is that intellectual renewal is not easy and it takes courage.

For Labour's Gen X, this is a decisive moment and a unique opportunity to shape the political agenda for the next decade. We must seize the opportunity, or we will lose it. No individual or group has an inalienable right to our party's future.

Already, a younger generation of talented, committed campaigners is emerging. PPCs such as Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves and Stella Creasy will be huge assets to a party that may well decide to skip a generation.

The next generation of Labour leaders can no longer lean on the achievements of its predecessors or live in their shadow. Nor can we harbour what is often seen as a sense of entitlement. The right to govern must be earned and won.

We can no longer afford our politics to be bogged down in the minutiae of public-service reform or the finer points of the tax credit system. We need to start contributing to bigger questions about where the country is heading and what type of society we want to live in.

Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and Harriet Harman will all still be there after the election, but they have carried the rest of us for too long now.

David Lammy is the Labour MP for Tottenham and the higher education minister.

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder