The bright side manifesto: why Labour must be optimistic

In trying to protect the people from abusive market forces, both the traditional left and New Labour disempowered citizens from shaping their own destiny. We need a new "people-led politics", says Stella Creasy.

Britain is being held back by the view that our future is a foregone conclusion. Whether the conversation is about deficit reduction or social change, there is a suffocating pessimism about the next decade. Yet the world that generated the financial crisis is also one in which global poverty has halved in 20 years. The world that produced climate change is also one developing house paint that generates solar power. We must never doubt the capacity of human creativity to solve our problems and secure progress.

It is up to the left to restore faith in Britain’s prospects and its people; to champion how and why – even in hard times – change for the better is both possible and desirable. There is no doubt that some are better equipped than others to navigate the challenges of the 21st century. Our purpose is not to fear or deny those inequalities – in resources, or skills, or confidence – but to understand and overcome them.

This is not a matter of more spending or more government. It requires putting members of the public in charge of their own destiny so we can prevent problems rather than just mitigating them. Such people-led politics is the way in which we save money and secure better outcomes for all. Radical and difficult to implement though it may be, it is the progressive future for which we fight.

The coalition’s failures show how the most expensive strategy of all is limiting your ambition to an accounting exercise, setting your goals by the money you have. Three years of salami-slicing budgets has led to increased costs elsewhere, whether through youth employment, underemployment, homelessness or household debt. This is a damning legacy in itself. Yet the travesty is just how many challenges of our generation remain overlooked: an ageing population, sustainable growth, stubborn inequality. Reform has been driven by a narrow focus on current costs, not concern for the future.

The discussion of the reorganisation of our NHS has been dominated by the working lives of professionals who run it, not the changing health needs of the population. Education policy has been defined by an obsession with who is running schools, when our children need preparation for a digital economy where “jobs for life” no longer exist.

Those on the lowest incomes pay the greatest share of earnings in taxes, and so we have a duty to secure value for money. But our aim is social justice, not just efficient fiscal management. We know an unequal society is also a wasteful one. We all lose out when talent goes unrealised, whether in the child who might have grown up to cure cancer if given the right encouragement, or the invention that could cut carbon emissions, had the investment been there.

If we wait for problems to arise before we act, it is those with the least resources and fewest opportunities who suffer the most. Only 20 per cent of public spending goes on preventive policies, with 40 per cent covering the bill for failing to intervene earlier. We cannot afford to keep working this way – financially or socially. People-led politics means rebuilding our economy to help citizens become more resilient and more open to opportunities. It means reforming public services so that they don’t just tackle problems, but avert them.

With the pace of change in the global economy, no one can take his or her job for granted. British businesses are challenged every day by new players in different countries. The main threat to our living standards hinges on our ability to compete on an international scale. “Robosourcing” – machines doing jobs that were once done by people – accounts for more evolution in employment patterns than immigration. Our future prosperity will depend on our personal and national capacity to create and add value.

In this capitalist maelstrom, the potential for progressive revolution resides in human innovation. As the economist Adam Lent argues, the means of production are increasingly in the hands of workers. Starting a business once required considerable capital outlay. Now broadband and a PayPal account will do. Our youth embrace this. In 1998, just 17 per cent of 18-to-29-year-olds wanted to start a business –now it is 30 per cent.

This ethos hasn’t been created just by the rise of the internet. The new enterprising spirit is no more defined by new hardware than the 1980s were defined by fax machines. This is a grass-roots, pioneering mindset – and it can be harnessed by the left. An economy which nurtures that spirit needs a government that invests in platforms for collaboration. Mentoring young entrepreneurs isn’t just about a fortnight of work experience but about giving businesses the incentive to provide courses, encouragement and funding.

By 2015, there will be more Britons over the age of 65 than under 15. We cannot afford to discard their expertise. Nor can we close our borders to innovation. Forty per cent of the Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants. In the future, concerns about immigration or pensions will be less about sheltering industries or countries from change and more about how to benefit from mobile populations. This requires bringing ideas and individuals of all ages and all nationalities together to inspire new growth.

The public is ahead of politicians on this. One in five has worked or studied in another country, lived with an overseas partner or owns property abroad. One in ten plans to move in the next decade.

Studies showing that on average each of us will have seven careers, two of which are yet to exist, are skewed by younger respondents. They move between occupations with curiosity and trepidation, given the risks and rewards such portfolio careers have. They need social security and trade unions that can adapt to this new way of working, so that people feel socially insured enough to exploit change instead of fearing it.

An economy structured to fulfil that goal also needs redesigned services. Only 15 per cent of a child’s attainment can be accounted for by school. Of course we should give priority to investment in early-years provision, but equality requires action on the 85 per cent, too. Stephen Twigg’s work reflects the need to provide pupils of all ages and communities with more pathways to achieve their potential: prioritising gold-standard skills and further education; engaging with parents; looking at models of mutual ownership for childcare and youth services.

Ten per cent of the total NHS budget is spent on interventions following the failure to tackle diabetes, not the diabetes alone. We shouldn’t accept health care that kicks in only when an illness is diagnosed. We should ask how it can keep us well, too. As my colleague Liz Kendall points out, this will entail an end to the false divide between services that address physical, mental, social care and housing needs. In an era of tight resources, we will do little for those with heart disease, cancer or diabetes by simply fighting for empty hospital beds, when we can be pushing for investment in community services. Addressing quality and reducing costs is not just about structures but about professional cultures. Family and friends with caring roles are crucial to outcomes when treating chronic conditions but too often they are not formally involved in planning treatment.

Such changes can occur only when users are asked to be more than consumers. They must also be partners and pioneers. To rely on either the market or existing state structures alone to provide answers excludes the ingenuity of the public. The left has always understood markets as a tool to facilitate social justice, along with other methods that foster collaboration in pursuit of shared ambitions.

Yet in trying to protect the people from abusive market forces, both the traditional left and New Labour disempowered citizens from shaping their own destiny. Both portrayed communities as requiring assistance to “build capacity” – by setting up countless meetings, bureaucracy or predetermined “choices” to tell people what to do.

People-led politics is not about getting better at organising consultation. It is about building the agency and ambition of all to act for themselves and each other. This entails devolving power and accountability to users and communities alike through personal budgets and mutualisation. Feedback forums and choice are useful tools but to empower citizens fully we need to engage them in conversations about the future, not just the present. Saving money in the long term will entail supporting people to become responsible for reducing their own risks; it will also require co-operation between services so that they are built around the needs of citizens and will strengthen the public’s right to participate in decisions about their own care.

Our fate rests not just on managing problems but on asking how we can realise the potential in each of us for the benefit of all of us. Tim Berners-Lee said of the internet: “This is for everyone.” Our mission is to apply the same principle to Britain’s future. Instead of fearing change, we should build one nation where the rewards that flow from embracing change are shared by all.

Stella Creasy is the MP for Walthamstow (Labour and Co-Operative)

Sunshine over a field. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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After the defeat of Hillary Clinton, what should the US left do next?

For disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters and others on the left, the big question is now: should they work within the Democratic party?

For the majority of the US left, Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat came as a surprise. Sure, they’d had doubts about her candidacy from the start. They’d expressed disgust at her platform, history, priorities and dubious associations – not least, at her campaign’s focus on cosying up to wealthy elites, courting the support of billionaires such as slum landlord Warren Buffett, at the expense of trying on to hold on to the party’s core working-class vote – but the general belief was that, however undeservedly, she’d still manage to pull it off.

After all, polling suggested she maintained a fairly consistent lead in key swing states even as Trump somewhat narrowed the gap, and there was reason to think that demographic trends would work against her competitor, who openly courted white supremacist votes.

Hindsight is 20/20, but many now feel they took their eye off the ball.  Leslie Lee III, a writer from Louisiana currently residing just outside Washington DC, argues that people “got so worn down by the polls that we forgot our message, that Clinton was the worst possible candidate to put against Trump”. For him, identifying what went wrong is simple:  “Trump promised people something, the establishment candidate was telling people America was already great. It doesn’t matter if he was doing it in a dishonest, con-artist, racist, xenophobic, sexist way – he said he’d fix people’s problems, while Clinton said they didn’t have problems”.

Leslie isn’t alone in believing that a wonkish focus on polls and data distracted from what was really going on. Everyone I speak to feels that the supposed ‘experts’ from the liberal mainstream aren’t equipped to understand the current political landscape. “We are witnessing a global phenomenon,” suggests writer Amber A’Lee Frost, who first got involved with the Democrats to support the Sanders campaign but voted Obama in 2008. “The UK offers the most clear parallel to the US. Nationalism, racism and xenophobia are festering.” Student and Democratic Socialists of America activist Emily Robinson agrees: “All across the world we’ve seen massive right-wing upswells, from Trump, LePen and May in the West to Modi and Erdogan in the East.” Whatever differences exist between these respective politicians, it’s hard to argue with the contention there’s been a widespread shift to the right.

US left-wingers argue that liberals fail to understand their own role in the current situation. From a British perspective, it’s hard to disagree. Repeatedly, I’ve seen discussions shut down with the claim that even acknowledging economy policy may have contributed to the resurgence of ethno-nationalist ideology amounts to apologism. Nor can faulty data be held entirely responsible for any complacency. In the run-up to the Brexit vote, polls suggested that the result would be too close to call; nonetheless, within the liberal bubble almost everyone assumed we’d vote to remain. The fact the value of the pound rose on the eve of the referendum was seen as evidence for this belief, as if currency traders have some sort of special insight into the mind of the average UK voter. Looking back, the whole thing is laughable.

Over in the US, the disconnect seems to be much the same. “People in the street weren’t following that stuff,” Leslie says of the finer details of both the Trump and Clinton campaigns. “Trump said he would fix their problems, Clinton said they didn’t have any. If we’d stayed focused on that it would have been obvious.” Instead, many of her supporters believed that it was Hillary’s turn and consequently dismissed substantive criticisms, sometimes claiming the vast majority of opposition was simply latent sexism. Even the campaign slogan “I’m With Her” seemed to be about what voters could should for Clinton, not what Clinton would do for them. As polls narrowed, party insiders continued to insist that Clinton was the rightful heir to Obama’s voting coalition, however little she actually did to earn it. 

A lack of message simplicity definitely seems to have been part of the problem. When I speak to Christian, who currently works in outreach and recruitment for the Democratic Socialists of America’s national office, he admits he was barely aware of the platform Clinton was campaigning on. “I’d ask my friends, and sometimes she’d talk about stuff, but it’s so vague,” he explains. “The average working-class person shouldn’t have to go to a website and read a 30 page policy document. It feels like it’s written that way for a reason, it’s muddled, neoliberal bullshit that lobbyists have written.” It’s true that media coverage probably didn’t help, with reporting frequently focuses on gossip and overblown scandal over substantive policy issues, but an effective political communicator must ensure their core messages cut through. Obama managed it in 2008, and however abhorrent we might find it, pretty much everyone heard about Trump’s wall.

It’s also hard to ignite excitement for the continuity candidate when many people don’t believe that the status quo actually benefits them. “I think neoliberalism no longer works as an electoral incentive to voters, especially working-class voters,” argues Amber. Emily tells me that prior to this election she’d worked on two Democratic campaigns, but before Sanders she’d been ready to give up on the party. “When they had the power to, the Democrats failed to implement policies that helped the working class, Hispanic, Black and Muslim communities, and women.”

She explains her disappointment during the early part of Obama’s first term, when the Democrats held the House, Senate and Oval Office. “They jumped away from the single payer option for healthcare, which would have helped the entire American population. The implementation of the DREAM act would have helped immigrant communities. There’s also a lot they could have done on policing and carceral reform, repealing federal use of private prisons, for example, and labour rights, by introducing federal protections for trade unions and effectively repealing so-called ‘right to work’ laws in many states. They did not mandate free, universal pre-kindergarten nor did they even attempt to work forwards free collect – or, at the bare minimum free community college.”

For Douglas Williams, a graduate student at Wayne State University, it was Obama’s relationship with labour unions that caused him to drift away from the party. “In 2013, Barack Obama appointed a union buster to a federal judgeship in the District of Columbia. I started to think, labour gave $1.1 billion to national Democrat party politics between 2005 and 2011, and labour got literally nothing from it.”

One left-leaning activist, who prefers to be identified by his blogging pseudonym Cato of Utica, campaigned door-to-door for Clinton. He explains in visceral detail his disillusionment with the party he’d worked within for roughly a decade: “I was heavily involved in North Carolina in places where the recovery never even touched. These were working poor people, and the doorbells didn’t work. If the doorbells are broken, what else is broken inside the house? What else isn’t the landlord taking care of? I looked at our candidates and none of the people I was pushing were going to address the problems in these people’s lives.”

Much ink has been spilled trying to pin down exactly what motivated people to vote Trump, whose campaign rhetoric was more explicitly xenophobic, racist and sexist than any other recent presidential candidate. Most of his supporters also voted Republican in previous elections, but two other groups are more interesting from a left-wing perspective: those who previously voted Obama but opted for Trump this time round, and non-voters who were inspired to make it to the polling booth for the first time. Overwhelmingly, both groups are concentrated in lower income categories.

“I think people voted for Trump because he acknowledged that there is something very wrong with America,” suggests Amber. “I obviously disagree with Trump voters on what is wrong with this country, and the fact that his campaign was fuelled by nationalism and racism certainly gave it a terrifying edge, but I know why they voted for him, even though he will ultimately betray his most vulnerable supporters.”

It would be absurd to discount racism as a factor in an election where the winning candidate was endorsed by the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan and its former leader David Duke, but Leslie disagrees with those who claim it was the primary motivation for the most Trump voters. His earliest political memory is from around 4th or 5th grade, when David Duke was running for Governor of Louisiana. “As one of the few Black kids in your class,” he recalls, “it really makes you realise how important politics is early on”. One of his closest friends was a previous Obama voter who opted for Trump this election, and the common factor seems to have been a message of optimism.

“Obama offered something more important than these people’s prejudices: hope and change, basically. He didn’t deliver it but he offered it. Romney was seen as the establishment. Obama said, ‘I’m an outsider and I’ll bring something new to the table’. There’s a line between Trump and Obama in that vein – and my friend will tell you the same.”

At a time when many people have a strong desire to kick out at the political establishment, Clinton was the ultimate establishment candidate. Leslie is scathing about the extent to which she actively highlighted this in her campaign: “She talked about being experienced – what does that mean? It means you’ve been part of the establishment. She attacked Obama with her experience in 2008 so I don’t know why she thought it would work. It’s not like being the local dog catcher, you don’t turn in your resume and if you have the most experience you get it. You need to have a message and get people inspired, and she didn’t have it.”

Most of the people I speak to believe that Sanders would have had a better chance of beating Trump, and many poured significant time, effort and money into his campaign. They note that polling showing Sanders had consistently higher approval ratings amongst the general public than Clinton throughout the primaries, and argue that people citing recently released unused opposition research as evidence he’d have lost don’t understand voter motivations. The idea that Sanders’ experience of being poor and unemployed would have worked against him is seen as particularly mockable. Whatever the truth, the more relevant question now is what the left does next.

Opinion is split between those who think working within the Democratic Party is the best approach and those who believe its unaccountable, bureaucratic structures make it a lost cause. Emily is in the first category. “I think leftists should, in a limited capacity, be running within what is now the desiccated carcass of the Democratic Party, rather than naively attempting to build a party from the ground up and risking splitting the left-liberal vote,” she tells me. “They should be prepared to run for elections with a (D) next to their name, even if they refuse to bend at the knee to the neoliberal, imperial tendencies of the Democratic elite.”

Particularly exciting right now is the work of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organisation which aims to shape the future of the party in a leftwards direction. Membership had increased by a third since the election – aided partly by support from celebrities such as Killer Mike and Rob Delaney. “We’re planning on Trump being a one-term president,” DSA representative Christian tells me. “We have a 50 state strategy, but right now we only have chapters in 31 states. It’s not just about elections, it’s threefold: electoral, workplace and community organising to win on all counts.”

Douglas is sceptical about whether it’s possible to restructure the Democratic Party in the way he considers necessary, but he agrees with the DSA’s focus on community organising: “Why can’t an organisation be like ‘we’re going to sponsor a little league team’? Why can’t we open a soup kitchen? We’re making noise, we’re out here, but we heard your aunt is having trouble with her roof. We’ve got guys who can fix that, and then we’ll leave a little sign saying it was us.” Cato of Utica references something similar that happened in Flint, where the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union visited people’s homes to make sure their water filters were properly fitted.

“We need to rebuild the labour movement,” agrees Emily. “Not only to carry out all the normal functions of unions, but also to provide a community, and spaces for education, child care and other forms of support. If we don’t build solidarity among the working class – not just the white working class, but the Hispanic working class, the Black working class and so on – we risk allowing another reactionary movement caused by cleavages promoted by the ruling classes.”

Left-wing organisations traditionally target places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where it’s easier to build support. Christian argues that the Democratic Party, and the DSA specifically, need to “focus on the Rust Belt, where the Democrats lost, and the South, where Bernie lost”. There’s a widespread belief that Southern states which have been Republican for decades now could be winnable in future presidential elections, partly because of demographic trends pointing towards increasingly ethnically diverse voting populations. As for the Rust Belt, it’s hard to argue with the claim that a different candidate could do better than Clinton – who didn’t even bother to visit Wisconsin, which swung Republican, in the months preceding the vote.

The DSA’s 50 state strategy involves creating a national framework, but with devolved power allowing local chapters to focus on the issues most relevant in their area. “In Texas our chapter is really strong and we do a lot of work on immigration reform, working with undocumented communities, whereas Boston obviously doesn’t have to deal with that so much,” Christian explains to me. “In places like Kentucky and West Virginia, coal country, Republicans like Trump will say coal is coming back. We say we actually need to transition to a new economy and create green jobs, and places where people live where they don’t get cancer from coal.”

Christian believes that the unexpected success of the Sanders campaign indicates there’s an appetite for the kind of politics the DSA is offering, and that a similar candidate could gain the Democratic nomination in four years time. “Having a candidate announce earlier than Bernie did, and with a good ground game in place, we could have 50,000 volunteers ready to go. We wouldn’t be scrambling around this time, we’d be ready to go to war with [Trump]”. Like many on the left, he thinks that Keith Ellison’s selection as DNC chair is a crucial part of the puzzle. Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress and is chair of the Progressive Caucus. “He’s a way better politician than Bernie,” Christian contends. “He understands the intricacy of talking about labour, poverty and unions very well.”

Others I speak to argue that focus should be on working from the ground up. “I’m not even talking about state legislatures,” explains Douglas. “I mean city councillors, school boards, things like that. This is going to be a long-term project and has to start at the absolute lowest level and work its way up. People don’t even realise, in some of these cities you can get elected to the city council on 500 votes. We want to start on the big stuff but it has to be an independent, left local movement. We can run all the candidates we want, but unless we’re out here informing people ‘it’s not actually about Mexicans or Muslims, it’s your boss, it’s his fault you can’t afford to save the money to send your kids to college,’ what’s the point?”

Whatever disagreements about strategy exist, the US left seems to be united by two things: fear of Trump’s presidency and a determination to succeed. Many members of the DSA are worried about their involvement with the organisation being publicly known. Unsurprisingly, this is more acute for members of groups attacked in Trump’s rhetoric. “We see apprehensiveness with some of our Latino membership,” Christian tells me. “People don’t want to out themselves because that's risking your own livelihood. We’re a working class organisation and most people have other jobs.”

With Trump associates making noises about recreating the House Un-American Activities Committee, some fear left-wingers could be targeted as dissidents as in previous decades. However realistic the threat of government persecution, there’s already a far-right website, KeyWiki, that keeps tabs on members of socialist organisations. Everyone I speak to agrees that groups particularly vulnerable to being targeted by Trump and his supporters – including Muslim, Latino and African American communities – must be defended at all cost. “The aim of the left should be to make it impossible for Trump to govern,” says Cato of Utica. “Establishment Democrats are already making conciliatory noises. If the Democrats aren’t going to do it in the Senate, the people have to do it in the streets through direct action.”

When I ask Amber what happens next, her response seems to sum up the mood amongst the US left: “To be honest, I have no idea. I’m terrified but I am ready to fight.”