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These are new times - we need a new style of leader

These are new and challenging times for the Labour Party. We need new ways of thinking says Jon Trickett MP.

It is odd that the Labour Party didn’t have a debate  about the central question of what kind of Leadership the party and country needs before setting off on the current leadership contest. If we had done so we might have concluded that three tasks face us.

The first is to offer clarity of vision as to the kind of place we want our country to be.  The second is to find a path through the new political landscape, given the rise of insurgent political parties to the Left and Right, as well as Osborne’s attempt to camp out on what he have always thought was “our territory”. The third task is to create a party which is adapted to the new times which have come with the new century.

A leader who represents the old ways, a ‘good Westminster performer’, will not do.

Labour cannot go on in the same old way.  We  need a fresh set of policies for 2020.  Because the country has  changed. But we will also need a new way of working. We need to start from the premise that no successful movement started in Westminster and was rolled out from on high. This is the lesson of Podemos, Syriza and even the SNP. But it also the lesson of our own history.

Tristram Hunt made exactly this point in his recent lecture. But his prescription of a politics of triangulation combined with an insurgent new movement will not work. He was right about the need for a new movement, but people are not looking for a politics of fudge and mudge. They want a new vision for these new times.

The election results reveal that things need to change. At the core of our problem is that the party has never really resolved its central purpose.

2008 was not the first time that Labour was in office when there was a crash. Ramsay Macdonald’s government was faced with a crisis too. The leadership then capitulated to the demands of the financial markets. The Labour party split and had to be rebuilt.

Thanks to the leadership of Ed Miliband the party has not split this time. But the truth is that our current leadership election debates  show  that we have not as a party come to a settled view of the 2008 crisis, its causes or its aftermath.

Commenting on Labour’s plight after 1941, R H Tawney didn’t mince his words. He argued that ‘The Labour Party is hesitant in action because it is divided in mind. It does not achieve what it could because it does not know what it wants.”  This lack of a clearsighted vision he goes on to say leads to “intellectual timidity, conservatism and conventionality “.

Listening to much of the current debate about Labour’s future, one can hear Tawney’s words echo down the generations.

We need a leader who will speak with clarity and act with boldness. Our economy is not working for most people. The Tories simply offer more of the same. But no one who looks closely at Osborne’s recent budget could argue that he lacks boldness. His central purpose is no less than to redefine the centre of gravity of British politics for a generation.

Electing a leader who occupies a variant of the of the current cosy consensus world view will  not deliver a majority to the party. And this is because a party of the centre-left cannot reconcile the needs of its electorate with the desire for continuity.

Therefore we need to offer a clean break with the recent past. But simply changing our policy orientation will not work either. We need a new kind of leadership. It will not do to ask the party to back the candidate who looks, sounds like the rest of the political class.

If we look back to the Labour Party leadership after the collapse of the MacDonald government, they were faced by an overwhelmingly strong Conservative party. The temptation at that time might have been to concede the ground ideologically to the Tories as some are arguing that we should do now.  But in the 1930s Labour’s leaders remained steadfast in their beliefs and our values.

But Labour in opposition during those years did something else as well as holding true to our values.  It also became a wide movement. The party renewed itself and its connections with the communities they sought to represent. With the left book clubs, the Clarion Cycle movement, discussion groups, rank and file mobilisation on the questions of war and peace etc., the Labour movement began the task of intellectual and social renewal.

All of this energy meant that by the time of the Second World War, Labour had recovered and the ground was prepared for entry into the war time coalition and then Attlee’s transformative government.

Some of the current leadership candidates appear to have accepted the old model of politics.  This presupposes a single leader who is almost omniscient and who holds all the reins of power in their office.

This is a profound mistake based on a false understanding of our party, our history and our country. In the first place, no one person can have all the answers to all the problems. Strong leaders, with mistaken ideas can lead us in the wrong direction. In any event, everyone saw the vitriolic attacks which were launched on the person of Ed Miliband. This will happen again and again to radical Labour leaders. The only way to respond is build a movement which is wide and deeply rooted in our communities to counterbalance the pressures of the British establishment.

Labour in opposition and equally in office will need to become a crusade again to put right the many mistakes of the old order which David Cameron and George Osborne represent. The new times we live in require us to build a new kind of social movement capable of creating, sustaining and renewing our party both in the opposition years, but also in government. This means changing the party’s vertical structures which were designed just after the First World War, into a more horizontal, networked, cellular shape fit for the Google age.

It is in the interests of both the leadership and the ordinary members that we end the present huge gulf of mistrust and mutual suspicion which exists between the two.

Two of the leadership candidates have said that they would not serve in a shadow cabinet if the party membership elect someone they disagree with. This is a profound mistake. It seeks to de-legitimise not so much simply  the winning candidate, but all those tens of thousands of members who voted for him.

I conclude therefore that style of leader which the Labour Party needs will make it clear that they will:

  • End the command and control relationship with the party’s grass roots by recognising that top down models do not work in an age when deference rightly died long ago
  • Build strong relationships at branch and constituency level with local communities, and establish new ties with other progressive movements in the country, including adopting fresh ways of organising developed by innovative social activists
  • Change the processes of decision-making so that policies are no longer parachuted from on high out of the Leader’s office with little prior engagement with the wider movement. This means for example restoring rights to the Annual Conference.
  • Develop new ways of allowing the membership of the party to select more local candidates from backgrounds which remain unrepresented in council chambers and the various Parliaments, with no further manipulation of short lists by the centre
  • In a 24/7 media culture it is inevitable that we will give our leader scope to act with rapidity and agility, but the leadership candidate who ought to win is the one who will create new structures of accountability by the leader to the shadow cabinet, PLP and the wider party.

 

The party needs leaders, but it also needs to be a movement. In order to modernise our country we first need a modern style of leader, emerging out of a wider political movement to whom they will hold themselves accountable.

Jon Trickett is the shadow lord president of the council, shadow cabinet office minister and MP for Hemsworth.

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The government's air quality plan at a glance

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans.

Do you plan on living in a small, rural hamlet for the next 23 years? Or postponing having children till 2040? For this is when the government intends to ban all new petrol and diesel cars (and vans) - the headline measure in its latest plan to tackle the UK's air pollution crisis.

If the above lifestyle does not appeal, then you had better hope that your local authority is serious about addressing air quality in your area, because central government will not be taking responsibility for other restrictions on vehicle use before this date. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband has tweeted that he fears the ban is a “smokescreen” for the weakness of the wider measures. 

Here’s an overview of what the new Air Quality plan means for you (Health Warning: not much yet).

Will the 2040 ban end cars?

No. Headlines announcing the “end of the diesel and petrol car” can sound a pretty terminal state of affairs. But this is only a deadline for the end of producing “new” fossil-fuel burning vehicles. There is no requirement to take older gas-guzzlers (or their petrol-head drivers) off the road. Plus, with car companies like Volvo promising to go fully electric or hybrid by 2019, the ban is far from motoring’s end of the road.

So what does the new plan entail?

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans. It requires local authorities to submit their own initial schemes for tackling the issue by the end of March 2018 and will provide a £255 million Implementation Fund to support this process. Interventions could include retrofitting bus fleets, improving concessionary travel, supporting cyclists, and re-thinking road infrastructure.  Authorities can then bid for further money from a competitive Clean Air Fund.

What more could be done to make things better, faster?

According to the government’s own evidence, charges for vehicles entering clean air zones are the most effective way of reducing air pollution in urban areas. Yet speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, Michael Gove described the idea as a “blunt instrument” that will not be mandatory.

So it will be down to local authorities to decide how firm they wish to be. London, for instance, will be introducing a daily £10 “T-charge” on up to 10,000 of the most polluting vehicles.

Does the 2040 deadline make the UK a world leader?

In the government’s dreams. And dreamy is what Gove must have been on his Radio 4 appearance this morning. The minister claimed that was in Britain a “position of global leadership” in technology reform. Perhaps he was discounting the fact that French President Emmanuel Macron also got there first? Or that India, Norway and the Netherlands have set even earlier dates. As WWF said in a press statement this morning: “Whilst we welcome progress in linking the twin threats of climate change and air pollution, this plan doesn’t look to be going fast or far enough to tackle them.”

Will the ban help tackle climate change?

Possibly. Banning petrol and diesel cars will stop their fumes from being released in highly populated city centres. But unless the new electric vehicles are powered with energy from clean, renewable sources (like solar or wind), then fossil fuels will still be burned at power plants and pollute the atmosphere from there. To find out how exactly the government plans to meet its international commitments on emissions reduction, we must wait for the 2018 publication of its wider Clean Air Strategy.

Will the plans stand up to legal scrutiny?

They're likely to be tested. ClientEarth has been battling the government in court over this issue for years now. It’s CEO, James Thornton, has said: “We’re looking forward to examining the government’s detailed plans, but the early signs seem to suggest they’ve still not grasped the urgency of this public health emergency.”

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.