Beyond Westminster, Labour is rebuilding itself as a movement

In constituencies across the country, Labour is turning itself from a declining party of the twentieth century into a vital movement of the 21st.

If you believe the press, Labour has been hobbling toward its conference. So let me put the record straight: we have had a good year building a politics of One Nation, and we are in a strong position to win in 2015. Three years out of a serious defeat, five years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers signalled the end of an economic era, Labour under Ed Miliband’s leadership is renewing itself in deep and profound ways. We have an intellectual project - One Nation. We have an organisational project – the party as a movement. We are building the political project – One Nation Labour.

Ed Miliband describes One Nation as a country in which everyone has a stake, where prosperity is fairly shared and we make a common life together. That is the goal of our policy review.

Our immediate task is to deal with the crisis in living standards. Not since the nineteenth century have we experienced a decade in which we are poorer at the end than we were at the beginning. Wages are falling, jobs are chopped and diced and poorly paid, prices go up. Whole regions of the country lack a vibrant private sector. Too much of our economy has been about extracting wealth rather than creating it. Too many corporations have put their shareholders before their customers; worrying about the short-term rather than planning for the long-term. And there are too many sectors underperforming and relying on low skill, low waged jobs. Our tax base has been over-dependent on finance and property. As the economy begins to recover, David Cameron’s government is replacing police and nurses with an army of estate agents.

Labour has a real alternative. Not big increases in day-to-day spending; nor simply copying the Tories salami slicing. Our alternative is reform.

We will begin by dealing with the cost of living crisis and tackling the deficit. We will stop household bills rising so fast. We will cap the cost of payday loans, and work to provide people on low incomes with alternative sources of affordable credit. We will introduce workers on renumeration boards to ensure a fairer distribution of reward. There are no magic answers to rebuilding the British economy. Reforming our economy so that it works for working people will require everyone to play a part. Government alone cannot galvanise the creative energy and ambitions of millions of people.

Our state is over-centralised and unable to build the trust we need to develop the economy. It needs fundamental change. We will push down power and resources to combined authorities so that they can begin the task of renewing their regional economies.

In a time of fiscal constraint we will be guided by three principles of government. First, we will support local people taking on the power and responsibility to shape their services and communities. We will help people to help themselves and each other. Second, we will invest for prevention, in order to avoid the costs of failure. For example, we need to be building homes, not wasting money paying for our failure to do so through a rising housing benefit bill. And third, our policy will prioritise collaboration between the public, private and voluntary sectors to avoid silo thinking, silo services, duplication and waste.

Over the last year, the policy review has been making the One Nation political project a reality. We have organised conferences and scores of debates and round table discussion. We’ve published an ebook and at conference on Sunday we will be launching the new book One Nation: Power, Hope, Community edited by Owen Smith and Rachel Reeves.

Effective policy making has to be part of a larger story and movement that gives it meaning and purpose. In the party there is a growing energy to build a new political movement that creates real change in people’s everyday lives. Politics is alive and thriving, it's just not happening around political parties. In the past we drove people away with our inward looking, controlling political culture. We championed innovation and entrepreneurs in society and business but we neglected to encourage them in our own organisation. But Labour is changing.

We are connecting once again with people. In constituencies across the country, Labour is turning itself from a declining party of the twentieth century into a vital movement of the 21st. We are rediscovering our traditions; those periods in our national history when working people joined together to build a better life for themselves, to win political representation and to secure for themselves a just share of national prosperity. The democracy and greater equality they created have been deeply civilising influences on our country. That is Labour’s heritage and we are now modernising our traditions for the digital age. Iain McNicol is embedding these reforms in our organisation.

During the last year, Arnie Graf has been up and down the country meeting hundreds of people. Hundreds have been trained to organise in local communities. Movement for Change are organising campaigns like the community network Home Sweet Home in Cardiff, working with tenants and landlords to improve housing standards. Parties can no longer simply be vote harvesting machines. To attract people’s active support they need also to be social and cultural movements. When people are reduced to votes and votes become transactions people drift away. The thousands of conversations in people’s living rooms, the meetings, the social media based campaigns, the friendships and solidarities that develop around neighbourhood campaigning are not about jolting the old machine politics back into life. They are about creating a different kind of politics; people winning power and building the self-confidence to create real change.

People organising together to agree a common good gives society the power to stand up to the centralising market and bureaucratic state. We need to achieve a balance of interest in the governing of our institutions, in which no one interest dominates over the others. Our politics is about the renewal and conserving of our common life and it is about a deepening of democracy which gives people more control over their lives. Policy grows out of this position and establishes permanent change.

Those who worry about Ed Miliband's determination to change the relationship between the party and the trade unions need to understand that he is right. The millions of working people who are part of the labour movement are our life blood. Without them we are nothing. But we cannot treat them as if they are the Dead Souls out of Gogol's novel. We need a fundamental change in our relationship with them.

Both the Labour Party and the unions have to face a hard truth about our historic relationship. We stopped talking to one another. We need to rebuild our relationship and that means changing it. Working people have everything to gain from a confident union movement contributing to rebuilding the economy. The country has everything to gain from a Labour Party with deep roots in our cities, town and villages.

In the year ahead, the policy review will be focusing on what really matters to people: work, family and place. Work that is fairly paid to support our families. Family because nothing is more important in life, and the place where we live that gives us a sense of belonging. This is the political centre ground: families, where they live and the work they do. Our answers to the cost of living crisis are part of our longer term goal to build an economy that works for all working people and not just the few at the top. That is the task ahead, a new political economy for One Nation.

Ed Miliband delivers his speech on reforming the Labour-trade union link at The St Bride Foundation in London on 9 July 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jon Cruddas is Labour's policy review coordinator and MP for Dagenham

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide