No continuity Milibands here. Photo: Getty Images
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Let's be clear: there is no continuity candidate in the Labour leadership race

No-one in the Labour party thinks that "one more heave" is enough. No-one thinks the party doesn't need to change. The question is: how much change?

Ok.  I’m getting irritated now.  The very idea that anyone really supposes that Labour can stand still and just wait for the government to fall into our lily-white hands is not just daft, it’s offensive.  Nobody thinks that one more heave will win this tug of war.  Everybody – including every candidate for the leadership of our party – believes that we have to change. Nobody is a continuity candidate.  Everybody knows that we are going to have to be absolutely ruthless with ourselves if we are to stand a chance of returning to power.  

Besides, the whole point of Labour has always been change.  Deep, fundamental change in the way our country, our economy, our democracy and the world is run.  If we can’t embrace change ourselves we have no chance of bringing about change in the world.

But let’s be clear, we do come with baggage.  Every single member of the Labour Party does. We have a set of values and principles.  We believe in equality and peaceful coexistence.  We hold that work is the best route out of poverty and that a civilised society protects the vulnerable and the rights of the minority. We know in our guts that grinding poverty can destroy people and that a more equal society is a happier society.  We have railed at every moment of injustice and cheered on every campaigner for democracy and the rule of law.  We see humanity as essentially social but we cherish the freedom of the individual.  This is our baggage – and I for one have no intention of discarding it.  Not because I fear change, not because I believe that Labour has a monopoly of truth, not because I believed every jot and tittle of our manifesto this May, but because politicians without principles are worth nothing.

We’ve other baggage too.  We were in government for thirteen years – and for all the bitch-slaps our opponents try to land on us, there is so much to be proud of.  Others will have their specific policies we should boast of, but I remember so very clearly those hateful years when some attacked the brave souls in our party who campaigned for gay equality as ‘loony lefties’.  But Tony Blair and Jack Straw, building on the 1960s liberalism of Roy Jenkins, managed to crack that argument wide open.  An equal age of consent, gay adoption, gays in the military, an end to discrimination on the grounds of sexuality and civil partnerships all followed because we were brave enough to change our party so that we could change the country.

We can and must do that again, rebuilding our economic credibility and refashioning our whole approach.  Old nostrums will need new analysis.  Individual policies that made sense in the 1950s or 1990s will need re-examining.  At times we will need to revise some of our most cherished ideas, because the world is changing fast. 

But let’s be clear.  There is no point in trying to rerun the 2015 election.  Nor can we just pretend that 1997 is just around the corner.  None of us knows how the 2020 election will play out and it is neither certain that we will win nor inevitable that we will lose.  But one thing is certain, we shall have to reframe the party so that every aspect of our manifesto runs with the grain of life as it is lived today and will be lived in the future, not as it was in our industrial past. Political nostalgia could all too easily undo us.

So yes, let’s embrace change, but if we try to ditch all our baggage we shall look like shape-shifting charlatans. Better to own our baggage and write our own version of our history so that we can write a different future for our party and our country. 

Chris Bryant is shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport and the MP for Rhondda. 

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt