Pragmatic Radicalism: big ideas from Labour's next generation

A bigger state isn't necessarily a better state, argues Mike Harris.

Under Gordon Brown the Labour party went through an intellectual desert in which radicalism of any shade was viewed as highly suspect.

While the Tories took big ideas to the core of their mission - especially Phillip Blond's Big Society (demolished in the London Review of Books here) - Labour went into the last election with an ideology so narrow and statist we may as well have used Hobbes's Leviathan as our manifesto. The public viewed us as the 'big state' party.

As Josie Cluer, John Denham's former special adviser, says:

During 2010, Labour sometimes sounded like we thought all that mattered in public services was increased investment. To any question raised about quality or poor service, every Labour minister and activist had been taught to trot out the real terms increase in spending on key public services since 1997. We resorted to cheap political point-scoring by deploying "Tory cuts vs Labour spending" dividing lines. In fact, they were more damaging to us than our opponents.

In opposition, Labour is undergoing an intellectual renaissance. Sadly, much of it seems to be replaying the Blair/Brown/left dialogues of the past. Even if it isn't, the blinkered media (many of whom made their careers upon spreading each camp's smears) want it to be.

Pragmatic Radicalism, a series of snappy articles by Labour's next generation, attacks the aridity of the past, and attempts to break out from the Blair/Brown rut we found ourselves in.

Luciana Berger MP launches the project tomorrow in committee room 12 of the House of Commons alongside Lord (Stewart) Wood, Ed Miliband's strategic adviser, and the editor John Slinger, who if there is any justice ought to be in the next intake of Labour MPs.

The articles are diverse. Will Straw and Nick Anstead want reform of the party itself. In a brave move they embrace the offer in the coalition agreement to fund open primaries. Amanda Ramsay wants a one per cent football transfer tax to fund school playing fields. Larry Smith wants to 'unsqueeze the middle' with targeted VAT cuts.

One common theme is that the last Labour government felt that more state was better state. Josie Cluer writes: It's a common doorstep conversation: why should I pay my taxes and work hardm when others milk the system?" She adds:

It's the little things. Even though there are five million people on waiting lists for social housing, some people still rent out their council homes... those responsible for the 12.6 million missed GP appointments and the 4.3 million missed nurse appointments are not just wasting millions of pounds, they're preventing people who really need healthcare from getting it...

The more often principles of fairness are undermined, the weaker public support for public services becomes.

It's not just that Labour's bigger state often failed the fairness test; it was given too many powers. I call for the rebirth of liberal Labour - whose heyday under John Smith saw Labour call for the European Convention on Human Rights 'brought home' into British law.

In a lecture to Charter 88 in 1993 he said: "I want to see a fundamental shift in balance of power between the citizen and the state - a shift away from an overpowering state to a citizens' democracy where people have rights and powers."

Smith's 'rights and powers' is so much more uplifting than Blair's 'rights and responsibilities'. Key to a reborn liberal Labour is recognising the importance of the liberal tradition in our party's history - a history that former Stalinist John Reid and David Blunkett did their best to bury. It's a history we need to reconnect with in order to begin winning elections again:

Labour is now perceived as the big state party. Our reckless disregard for the personal sphere lost us 5 million votes between 1997 and 2010: we were the bossy party.

To recognise this history, Labour should call for a Bill of Rights that creates a home-grown privacy law, protects free speech and demarks the boundaries of state intrusion.

Admittedly, in otherwise thought-provoking articles in the collection, the Pavlovian impulse to make cheap points about the Tories sometimes obscures sounder criticisms.

In Tom Tabori's article on housing he outlines some depressing statistics: 1.5 million adults in the UK live in homes with overcrowded conditions; a quarter of overcrowded families have children sleeping in living or dining rooms; the Government classes 250,000 social homes as overcrowded. Yet according to the Government, five million people are still stuck on waiting lists.

Labour failed on social housing, but Tabori is too polite to say so. I would argue that without the ability to criticism the last Labour government, whose record on housing was patchy at best, we're unable to discover our blind spots.

It's been a good seven days for Ed Miliband. He took on the largest media owner in the country - and won. If he is prepared to listen to his vocal membership, Labour has a manifesto in waiting: both pragmatic and radical. The disastrous 2010 election must not be repeated. Never again should 'big' ideas be taken so lightly.

Mike Harris is a Labour councillor in Lewisham Central and Head of Advocacy at free speech organisation Index on Censorship. He tweets: @Cllr_MikeHarris

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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