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 TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.