Far from lurching to the left, Labour continues to modernise

Market failure in tough times should not simply be shrugged off. Our political opponents’ scaremongering is a sign of our strength.

In his last speech to Labour Party conference in 2006 Tony Blair said this:

"10 years ago, I would have described re-linking the basic state pension with earnings as old Labour. By 2012, we aim to do it. 10 years ago, if you'd have asked me to put environmental restrictions on business, I would be horrified. Today, I'm calling for it. I would have baulked at restrictions to advertise junk food to children. Today I say that unless a voluntary code works, we will legislate for it."

He was right then and we are right now. Market failure in tough times should not simply be shrugged off. What’s needed is a hard-headed dose of common sense, not ideology that lets the British people suffer. I’ve not seen many British commentators describing Angela Merkel’s interventions in the economy as 1980s socialism.

The great, late Philip Gould would tell us that the modernisation project is a constantly evolving beast. If we are to 'own the future', we must adapt to the changing concerns and aspirations of the British people. As well as leading opinion and reaching consent, governing is also about listening and taking on the concerns of voters. That is exactly what this week has been about.

'Hard-pressed families' is not just a sound bite - it’s a reality for so many of my constituents in Liverpool West Derby. Prices are outstripping wages, energy prices continue to rise and childcare costs mean that some parents are paying to go to work. David Cameron’s cost of living crisis has come about, as Ed said, because of a race to the bottom. Time and again, David Cameron has shown that he is strong at taking a stand against the weak but is weak when confronted by the powerful vested interests- whether the banks, the energy companies or the Murdoch press.

But under Ed Miliband, Labour has shown this week that we are on the side of hard working families and, crucially, that we will not duck the tough choices to make a better Britain.

Freezing energy prices, lowering tax rates for small businesses, extending universal childcare for three and four-year-olds to 25-hours a week. All diligently costed policies. But we are not surprised at the response from those quarters better off with Cameron’s status quo. That must not detract us.

So while Conservatives peddle the myth that Labour is lurching to the left or going backwards, we should take comfort in the knowledge that this is far from the truth. That it is in fact the case that our political opponents’ scaremongering is a sign of our strength. This week’s conference in Brighton delivered a raft of policies showing how a future Labour government will support hard-pressed families. I know from my conversations with members of the public I met in Brighton and on my way home that people are awake to Labour’s offer. It is now the job of all of us in the Labour Party to take this message out on the doorstep and in our communities.

Delegates walk past a banner outside the Labour Party conference on September 23, 2013 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution