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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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