A Labour campaigner during the last days of the 2015 election campaign. Photo: Getty Images
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Labour were beaten, yes, but we're not dead

Labour were knocked back last month, but we can rebuild, and we must. 

I failed the 11+.

To say that it was a blow would be a bit of an understatement.

I was born and brought up in Small Heath. It’s one of the poorest areas of the city of Birmingham and it’s where I still live today. Birmingham then, as now, operates a grammar school system.
My parents are first generation immigrants from Kashmir who ran a corner shop in Small Heath. With four children at home my Dad also worked a day job. Despite the challenges we faced, my parents always encouraged us to aim high and that meant university. As a teenager my heart was completely and utterly set on one thing. I was going to be Kavanagh QC. Well a Muslim, female version at any rate.
To fulfil this dream I thought I needed to win a place at Oxford and for that I thought I needed a place at the grammar school. But I had failed, which is a pretty crushing blow for any 11 year old.

I eventually made it to Oxford where I studied law and became a barrister. The point is that things don’t always work out quite the way we plan and failure is not always indicative of total disaster.
The Labour Party did not plan to lose the election. We certainly did not think that the Conservatives would form a majority government.
But we did, and they have.
Sure there are challenges and I don’t underestimate the scale of the task ahead. We have big questions to ask about our approach to the economy and our relationship with business.

But the narrative that is taking a hold is that the Labour Party is in chaos. Let’s learn one lesson from the summer of 2010; if we allow ourselves to be defined before we define ourselves then it will stick however far from the truth it is.
We are not in trouble. Nor are we in chaos. We are having a perfectly reasonable leadership contest. If we are to be in the race in 2020 it’s important we face up to our failings in an open, transparent and inclusive way. Quite frankly, the next leader of the Labour Party should be up to this level of scrutiny.
Whilst there is no shortage of opinions about why we lost and where to go from here, what we are already seeing is the emergence of some consensus on our approach to the economy and business. Differences between candidates exist on a myriad of other issues from free schools through to Labour’s involvement in the EU campaign. But, on the economy, what is increasingly evident is a collective realisation that our relationship with the business community - big, medium and small – needs to be reset. 

Our economic offer was too narrow. Do I disagree that the minimum wage should be raised or that exploitative zero-hour contracts should be banned? No of course not, these measures should always be part of a Labour manifesto. But should they have been all we spoke about? The Tories cut the 50p rate of tax but they didn’t spend all their time talking about it.
If we want to be the workers party for now, then we have to be the workers party for the 4.5 million self-employed, the business owner, the public sector worker and the low paid. Our policies have to reflect the fact that there are 31 million people employed in this country and most of those jobs are in the private sector. And what do most people actually want? At its most basic, most of us want a good job (for ourselves and our family members), then the opportunity to get a better job and a helping hand or a second chance if things go wrong.

That means as a party we need to push relentlessly policies that focus on economic growth, productivity and the high-tech, high-skill jobs of the future – something we’ve been hearing a lot about as we choose our new leader.
Our policies also have to show an understanding of what it means to live these lives. And why shouldn’t they? For many us in the Labour movement these lives are our lives. My first experience of work was helping in our corner shop; going to the cash and carry, helping with the stock checks and serving behind the till. At home, watching my dad working two jobs and every hour God sent to provide for me, my mum and my brothers and sisters.
The lessons I learnt then are still with me now. I learnt about budgeting and money, about the value of hard work, about the importance of determination and graft. I learnt the importance of obligation and loyalty. These are the values I share and understand. These must be the values of Labour.

 

Shabana Mahmood is Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Shabana Mahmood is Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle