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The conditions for Labour's previous successes are falling apart. Where do we go from here?

This summer saw our Labour Party engaged in another lengthy period of introspection, culminating in the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader thanks in large part to the transformation of our membership base since last spring. For those who haven’t read it, Ian Warren’s piece in Newsweek on why Owen Smith’s campaign was probably doomed by the circumstances of its birth rather than by the specifics of its execution is very much worth a read, not least because it offers a telling set of clues to the challenge we will face at the next general election. Whenever it comes, we will find that the electorate – or at least the elements of the electorate whose support is most necessary for us to win an overall majority – do not merely judge us on our values, policies, or competence as we might like them to do, but through other frames beyond our control. They will consider our fitness for office, our relevance to their concerns, and the image that we project – deliberately or otherwise. Insurgent campaigns, especially those run from opposition, are often interpreted by the public in a way that is difficult to predict. That will be a huge challenge for us all, whether we backed Jeremy or Owen, and combined with where we are electorally, a very daunting prospect.

Lest we forget, last May was a disaster. We did not just lose: we were smashed. All but one of our MPs gone in Scotland, with little sign of a recovery so far. We could be out for a decade – at least. 2015 was, I fear, the 1983 of my generation. Notwithstanding future boundary changes, to win a working majority of fifteen next time means making a hundred or so gains in England and Wales. Nobody has achieved that, except Tony Blair, since Britain moved to one-adult-one-vote. We should not kid ourselves that a victory on that scale is remotely straightforward, no matter how fervently we might hope for it or whoever the leader is. It's worth briefly revisiting what happened, unhappy as it was. We did after all win a handful of seats from the Tories in England: a few in London, plus another small handful outside – Hove, Dewsbury, Wirral West, Wolverhampton, City of Chester. Both inside and outside the M25, the seats we gained have much in common. Most of them are rich in either the liberal middle classes or in ethnic minority communities, Not to put too fine a point on it, people who don’t read the Guardian or the Mirror were not convinced by our message. Labour has a problem.

More depressing even than the paucity of gains is the fact that they were almost matched by our losses to the Tories. Many of the seats we had hoped and expected to gain instead saw Tory majorities increase sharply. To lose Bolton West, Vale of Clwyd, Gower and Morley and Outwood, to be down to only Southampton Test and Hove on the south coast is a disaster far beyond 2010. Our vote was concentrated ever more heavily in the seats we already held: above all in places where young, liberal, urban communities live cheek by jowl with large ethnic minority communities – places like Hackney, Islington, and Walthamstow. I make no criticism of Labour's pre-election organisational focus on trying to win seats quite unlike those, which might have given us a Labour government had we won them. It was our political failing that we had a message, a leader, and a set of policies which proved totally inadequate to winning over a plurality of the British people. We are still desperately far from changing that today: a recent poll had us no fewer than eighteen points behind the Tories. Sometimes it seems almost unbelievable that less than a decade ago there were Labour governments in London and Edinburgh as well as Cardiff.

How did all this come to pass? Alastair Campbell's latest volume of diaries offers a powerful reminder of both the strengths and achievements of Labour in government, and the mistakes or missed opportunities that all governments come to rue. Reading Gordon Brown’s remark from February 2005 that “we have not changed the country as much as we could or should” and his prescient observation about media obsessions - “how easy it is for the Tories to make immigration the issue, and we help them” - made me reflect on quite how much has changed and how insightful those observations remain, despite all the water that has flowed under the bridge since that spring almost twelve years ago when last we won power. It seems an age ago now. It is striking quite how little we have done in that time to address those changes; how little we have done to engage with the changing world since then and to shape our wider political discourse. The social and cultural background to how we seek support and contest elections, never mind the shape and structure of our economy, has altered beyond recognition.

Perhaps we should cast our minds back further, to the end of our last prolonged electoral malaise, and ponder how different that world was. I remember the Britain of 1997: I joined Labour as a teenager not long after, watching as Tony Blair changed our party and our country. It was a world where along with most other people, I didn't have an email address. It was a world without social media. It was a world where mobile phones were largely a novelty and you communicated with relatives and ordered items with letters and cheques and stamps. The newspapers were in black and white and had mass readerships, and there were just four channels on most people’s televisions. The concept of a national conversation had a degree of reality it has now almost certainly lost.

It was a world where everyone of pensionable age, and plenty who were younger, remembered the Second World War. I grew up listening to my grandfather's experiences of serving in that war and how it shaped the beliefs of those fortunate enough to return home. There remained a strong belief in the notion of personal sacrifices for a greater collective future and plenty of people whose experience of those sacrifices had been all too real. Much of that was still true even in 2005, the last time we won an election. The social media echo chamber didn’t exist. We couldn’t avoid listening to the electorate, no-one expressed their outrage on Twitter, or was reassured by Facebook that their friends all felt the same way; and the touchscreen smartphone in my hand and the tablet on which I'm writing this article were only glints in Steve Jobs’ eye.

That world has gone forever. As well as having lost manufacturing industries from town after town, ours is now a much more culturally fragmented society, with fewer people listening to what passes for any form of national conversation. Social media echo chambers are both symptom and cause of that change. More people now spend more time talking and listening to voices with which they agree, less exposed to opinions at variance with their own, less aware of their differences with others and less tolerant of political differences, even as they become in many respects more socially tolerant. The changes in the economic basis of our society have also driven that steady push towards a disintegrating polity.  The period since 1997 has seen slowly falling trade union membership, an ongoing decline in skilled manufacturing jobs, and the coming revolution (of which the long march has only begun) whereby skilled “white collar” jobs are lost to automation and smartphone technology. To a degree that worries me, the industrial and economic foundations of our collectivist traditions – the successful Labour and trade union politics of the last two centuries, from the Tolpuddle Martyrs to Tony Blair – seems to be giving way very fast to a different economy for which we are politically ill-prepared.

Earlier this year, Faisal Islam remarked that the Labour Party was a coalition between Hull and Hampstead, and that that coalition was breaking. I think that captures our problem really well, and I think the causes of that fracture lie in the economic and cultural changes since last we won power. To understand how we might address these changes requires an analysis of both what the people of Hull (or Sunderland, or Stoke, or the Rhondda) and Hampstead (or Islington, or Cambridge) have in common, and also what separates them.

At root, what people in Hull and Hampstead have in common – or had in common – and what unites both those areas in returning Labour MPs, is that a plurality of the electorate believes in a more equal society. They want decent public services, high quality schools for all children, and a first-rate health service. They accept and welcome a role for collective action – for government – in creating that fairer society. The electorate in those places also trusts Labour to deliver that agenda with competence, as every Labour government over the last century has done.

No matter how much we might wish it otherwise, the continuum stretching from left to right is an inadequate description of the political dynamics in our country at the moment. If we didn’t already know it, the referendum was a pretty clear message. My own home city of Sunderland, where I grew up and which I have had the privilege of representing for six years, sent three Labour MPs to Westminster last year, re-elected its Labour council in May, and delivered a resounding ‘Leave’ vote in June. The same story was repeated in many Labour strongholds across Britain. By contrast, almost every borough in London voted to stay and inner-city Labour strongholds like Camden and Lambeth did so by thumping margins. What is going on? How is economic and cultural change driving this divide?

It is worth mentioning at this juncture that Britain is not exactly alone in facing these challenges, nor is the British left the only movement dealing with this sort of tension within the existing party system. Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election would appear in part down to the failure of the Democratic Party to motivate its traditional base in crucial swing states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. A quick look at every one of the major economies in Europe does not reveal a continent with electorally successful social democratic parties maintaining commanding poll leads. While we do well to examine ourselves to understand our problems, we should also be informed by what has happened elsewhere and – equally pertinently – what has not. So while Gordon Brown might have had a fair point that we had not done as much to transform Britain as we could have done, we should not beat ourselves up too much. This was, sadly, a general failing of social democracy in Europe and the United States. Even where our sister parties continue to govern, as in France, the polls do not give hope that situation will long continue. Similar to the outcome of the EU referendum in this country, the situation in the rest of Europe gives us a clear view of the difficulty that is tearing our support, if not yet our Party, apart. It is hard not to look at the rise of the FN in France, the AfD in Germany, or even of Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece, without seeing patterns across our continent.

One of the best assessments I have read recently on what is happening to our politics is an article on the bifurcation of our politics that Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker published in the Political Quarterly in March this year. Using terminology I find a little objectionable but with characteristics I can recognise, they identify two ‘Englands’: one that is (in their words not mine) “inward-looking, relatively illiberal, negative about the EU and immigration, nostalgic and more English in its identity”, and another which is (again their words not mine) “global in outlook, liberal and more plural in its sense of identity”.

To me, their key insight is that in both these Englands there is a battle between right and left for electoral success, and that in that first England, the Labour Party lost far too much ground to the Tories and UKIP in 2015. Ever since, we have made ourselves more and more a party at home on the left side of the second England rather than in both. The former Labour voters who live in that first England – the people who are sometimes described as the “left behind” – are the voters for whom we need to have a strong set of messages and to whose concerns we must be most alive. They are the people for whom we must craft a message that also carries the Labour vote in the second England, thereby forging and sustaining a governing majority to take us back to power and keep us there. As Jennings & Stoker put it: “In majoritarian systems such as the UK’s, the challenge for party elites is to build an electoral coalition that straddles the divides created by the bifurcation of politics.” I should also say that though they talk about England, I think a lot of their analysis is true for Wales as well. Scotland, as ever, poses a very different set of challenges.

My view is that the bifurcation has been driven by the rapid hollowing out of our economic model that has sustained social democratic movements since the coming of the industrial revolution. Too many cities like Sunderland have lost most of their manufacturing industries, with too little hope of the large numbers of jobs they provided ever returning. At the same time London, Edinburgh and other cities built on less tangible industries thrive and attract migrants from across the world. That is great, but it also opens up a sharp gap between places where being an economy open to Europe and the world is obviously a good idea, and places where that advantage is rather less apparent to people. A combination of free trade and automation means the sorts of work that once employed miners, dockers, millworkers and shipbuilders in my constituency and in every major city in Britain haven't just moved to China, Malaysia or wherever, they've also moved from people to machines. They aren't ever coming back, because lots of them aren’t done by people in Malaysia either, but by robots. Let us not forget, all that said, that many of those jobs were hard and dangerous. The reality that my son will probably never work down a coalmine, and that my daughter will probably not leave school to work in a textile mill at fifteen is one I welcome, even as I worry about what jobs there will be and what their future will hold.

I am repeatedly struck by the startling lack of serious thought in the wider Labour Party about how we engage with these changes, and with the people left behind by them. We lack as a movement a clear picture of how we frame our politics and present our values for an age where the economy is transforming and the social and political divides are shifting. That’s not to say there haven’t been efforts to understand this process, but too often they have been woefully inadequate. We've seen various manifestations of communitarian reinvention, from ‘community organising’ to 'Blue Labour' – all variations on a common premise that it is possible to deal with cultural and industrial change by wishing it hadn’t happened, an effort to pass off nostalgia as political strategy. Elegiac lyricism about a vanished world of large unionised workplaces full of men doing semiskilled jobs, shared cultural experiences, shared religious affiliation, and tight community links does not amount to a plausible programme for government. That world has gone, it isn't coming back, and hankering for the past isn't what any of us were elected to do. And to go back to that horrible morning of 8 May 2015, no evidence I have ever seen suggests that nostalgia is the route to victory in Nuneaton.

We shouldn’t be surprised by that. Thirty-five years ago, Lord Dahrendorf famously pilloried the SDP for offering “a better yesterday”. That is what too much of our offer has been in recent years, and what almost all of it has been in recent months. We will repeal Tory legislation – excellent, but what will go in its place? We will restore manufacturing industry as a larger component of a rebalanced British economy – how, when governments of all sorts have been wrestling with this for decades? We will, according to some colleagues, reduce immigration sharply – and what will that do to the economy? We are still offering the electors of Nuneaton nothing but the slogans and solutions of times long past.

We've also seen an extraordinary fascination among Labour colleagues with talking about “Englishness”. It is true that many of the people in the so-called “left behind” group are people who would probably describe themselves as English rather than British, but I am wholly unconvinced that the way to reconnect with these voters is to talk about Englishness all the time. To diagnose a political problem, or to point to a feature of its manifestation, is not in any sense to identify the means by which to resolve it. Talking about the Chartists or fiddling with our Rulebook is not the high road to the New Jerusalem, and I am completely unconvinced that simply wrapping ourselves in the Cross of St George will get us very far in Nuneaton either.

Another blind alley is electoral reform. First, it isn’t going to happen – at least not in a way that helps us for as long as there’s a Tory government – so let’s not waste our time calling for it. We need to face up to the fact that we lost the general election. Fiddling with the electoral system so that losers become winners is pathetic, looks pathetic, and distracts us from the changes we need to achieve. Every moment that the British people hear us talking about electoral reform is a moment we are not heard talking about the things that matter to voters and their families: the economy, jobs, the NHS, schools. We clearly failed to cut through to electors on these issues last May. Let’s not make it harder for ourselves by banging on self-indulgently about AV and STV, d’Hondt and MMP, when we could be talking about issues that most people have actually heard of.

Partly perhaps because power in Parliament seems so far away, we’ve also seen a new embrace of devolution and the concept of localism. Localism is too often a trap for anyone who calls themselves a socialist or a social democrat. In the US the same movement is called “states’ rights”, and everyone knows why certain states want certain rights returned to them rather than controlled centrally. In the US, few of a leftish persuasion would find convincing the idea that power is always best exercised and controlled locally, closest to the citizen. They have seen where that leads. Here in Britain the trap can be set because the pitfalls are less obvious and our history less scarred, but they remain pitfalls all the same. Most obviously, localism too often means devolving responsibility without power.

Metro mayors and combined authorities provide an excellent illustration of that trap. The Tories are now devolving power over the NHS in Greater Manchester to the local Combined Authority and its directly elected mayor. It is my strong suspicion that George Osborne knew exactly what he was doing when he invented this constitutional novelty: he was doing over the Labour Party. I have sat through enough Health Questions in the Commons where every criticism of the government is deflected with an answer along the lines of “In Wales…”. The Tories are going to create a small Labour-controlled NHS in the heart of England, run separately from the rest of the country. Responsibility for administering it will rest with the Labour Party, yet decisions on the overall level of funding from general taxation will continue to rest with the Conservative Party in Westminster. So Labour will endure responsibility without power, and the Tories will enjoy power without responsibility. What could possibly go wrong? I wish Andy Burnham every success, but I fear the Tories have not merely set him up to fail, they have set up that failure to be a fable for all England.

There is another and more insidious set of traps in localism. A powerful government in Whitehall can take on major companies that seek to defraud the people, can build a National Health Service, can reform our schools. Take these powers away from the centre and they may be more local, but they are also lesser. For one thing, they are easier to chip away at. Yvette Cooper led a brave if doomed fight this time last year to resist the devolution and fragmentation of the legal framework for abortion rights within Britain. As she said at the time: “We are stronger if we stand together to defend them against those who want to turn back the clock, rather than leaving each other to face the heat of the campaign alone.” The powers that Labour councils seek to take from the central state are – as they see it – about improving services locally. But you can bet that any number of Tory councils would love there to be regional or even council-specific Minimum Wages, not a National Minimum Wage. On occasions when HMRC bothers investigating rather than excusing tax evasion, they at least have the resources to do a decent job of it. If further elements of taxation are devolved to local level, don’t bet on that always being the case. If you care about effective, equitable and efficient public services, cutting them into council-sized chunks is not the obvious way to achieve economies of scale, let alone to ensure their responsiveness to democratically elected governments.

There’s also a politics to all this which we shouldn’t forget. If people in places where we are never going to control the council locally are going to vote Labour at Westminster elections, we need to give them a reason to do so. If we want people to vote Labour, we should not be advocating for an incoming Labour government to relinquish at once the remaining levers it has to make everyone’s lives better. A Labour government should not be limiting its ambitions for improvement to the lives of people who happen to have a Labour council or a Labour combined authority. Political power is there to be used to achieve positive change, not to be handed back to local Tories on a misguided point of principle, not least because – as we all know – the notion that people only vote in local elections on local issues and never as a way of kicking the incumbent government is at best optimistic.

If none of these arguments persuade you that promising to devolve power to local government is simply another electoral blind alley for us, I recommend looking at what the voters think. The TUC commissioned one such study immediately after the election, and their website allows you to compare the interests of swing voters who considered voting Labour and ended up voting Tory with the interests of the broader electorate. The people we need to win over to form a government again – people who voted Tory having thought about voting Labour – are even less interested in what we say about devolution than the population in general.

Not one of these approaches to our travails is remotely good enough. None of them acknowledge the world in which we currently live, let alone that which we will live in after Brexit – whatever that ends up meaning – or ask what a Labour government is for in such a world. Let me take immigration as an example, as much as anything else because most political arguments seem to these days.

Given the city in which I grew up, perhaps it’s inevitable that my political analysis is shaped by the fortunes of the manufacturing industry. But this also means that I am extremely reluctant to endorse solutions to our problems that might sound popular but which I believe would bring economic ruin to my constituents. We are lucky – we still have manufacturing industries. The Nissan plant has a productivity record which is the envy of the sector and of which everyone in Sunderland, and indeed the wider region, is rightly proud. So solutions which might win elections but destroy industries and livelihoods thereafter are no solutions at all. Nowhere has this been clearer to me of late than the issue of free movement and immigration. Nissan is one of the north-east’s iconic employers, a huge manufacturing plant supporting supply chains across the region. Access to the single market has been central to the success of the automotive sector in a Sunderland and across our country, yet it is already all too clear that Europe isn't going allow us free movement of goods without free movement of people. I wholeheartedly welcome Nissan’s recent decision to continue investing in Sunderland, but we shouldn't imagine the issues have gone away. Any form of Brexit that imperils single market access puts at risk the livelihoods of thousands of the people I represent.

Movement across continents and the world is now extremely straightforward. The real terms cost of getting on a plane to Spain or Italy, never mind Poland, Hungary or Egypt, has gone through the floor. Migration is here to stay. Across swathes of the world, war and unrest creates wave after wave of refugees, making their way to the relative safety of Europe. The destructive and long-running civil war in Syria, which is sliding slowly towards a proxy war between Russia, Iran, and the West, is only the beginning. Yet the refusal of almost every European country to either intervene effectively in Syria or to admit refugees in adequate numbers – not even economic migrants but people fleeing for their lives – has hampered EU decision-making to a degree to which those who wish Europe and its institutions ill could only have dreamed. What is more, it has changed the conversation about free movement across the continent. Today, migration has a salience and unpopularity that has hardly been known for generations.

I take the view that the right decisions for Britain’s future are not invariably the ones that are immediately and universally popular. If they were, all politicians would be redundant. Sometimes things that are true are deeply unpopular, and sometimes things that are popular would be catastrophic as policy choices. That to me is why we are a representative democracy rather than one governed by referendum after referendum. I also believe that as politicians we have a moral responsibility to tell the truth. On immigration, the facts – as Jonathan Portes of the NIESR frequently and untiringly points out – are clear. Free movement of people within the EU is, overall, good for Britain. Not because it widens our cultural experience, although it undoubtedly does and that is a good thing. Not because it is a price worth paying for single market access, although it may well be and for my constituency single market access is very important. Not because I don't care about the transitional effects when suddenly more people are living in an area than existing public services can support, because I do, very much. But because immigration into Britain has boosted our economy year after year and thus raised the standard of living for people in this country. It makes people in our country and in my constituency wealthier on average than they would otherwise be, and it makes working people – for whom Labour was founded and exists – better off. We should have no compunction about telling those simple truths.

If we pretend things that are true aren’t so, and pretend that seductively popular options which would actually damage us are without downsides, we deserve to get in trouble. The fastest way to lose trust is to be found out in deceit, and once we lose that trust, we will then find it very hard to gain the support we need to change what can and should be changed. It’s easy for those who don’t believe in government: they have nothing to lose from a diminution of faith in politics and politicians. As Labour politicians we have everything to lose: we have a double responsibility.

So to the point: the ‘lump of labour’, the notion that there are a finite number of jobs to go round, is a long-known fallacy. Those who pretend otherwise or deny that finding should be treated with the same bemused contempt as Douglas Carswell when he claimed the tides were driven mainly by the sun. The problems we face in Britain today do not result from the inadequacy of immigration controls. The reason it's difficult to get a GP appointment in Sunderland is because the government has wrecked the health service through chaotic reorganisations and haven't trained nearly enough family doctors. It is not because there are tens of thousands of recent arrivals in Sunderland from central Europe who are disproportionately unhealthy, because that simply isn't true. The reason Hetton School in my constituency has spent most of the last few years falling down is because the Tories cancelled the rebuilding in 2010, not because Hungarian workers were able to claim benefits when they fell ill from the day they started working here a decade ago. There is something horribly un-socialist about blaming people for the consequences of political decisions of a right wing government. That is the politics of populism not socialism, the politics of easy answers rather than right answers.

It is also, to return the concern I expressed earlier, the politics of shredding apart the left-wing coalition of the two Englands. If you want an issue on which Labour voters in Hull and in Hampstead probably don’t agree, it’s immigration. Simple political common sense – as Gordon Brown observed all those years ago – tells us that we should not be banging on about an issue which divides our own potential support in two, nor encouraging and enabling others to do so. The more we ourselves frame our politics in a way which divides our support, the less surprised we should be when we are almost twenty points behind in the polls. At the last election, half of Labour’s possible support was horrified that we were selling mugs branded “Controls on immigration”, while the other half simply did not believe that, if immigration was a major issue, Ed Miliband was the answer. In truth, both sides had a point, and experience elsewhere in Europe tells us that social democratic parties that make a point of talking about immigration while in opposition do not by and large spring back into power. The lesson is clear: if the divide in our politics is indeed between the two Englands, and we have put ourselves on the side of one of them, then the Referendum result tells us who is going to win. If the divide in politics is twofold – both the two Englands and left-right, then we cannot be restricted to one corner. We have to win for the left and centre in both Englands. Repeatedly reminding the electorate of issues which split Hull from Hampstead even within the core Labour coalition is completely counterproductive, not least because there are plenty of people willing to move onto patches of what was once our political territory. The obvious one has been UKIP, but Theresa May’s conference pitch on the power of government to do good was an audacious bid to park a lot of tanks on a very poorly defended lawn.

Since there are various blind alleys, and since I don’t think emulating Ukip’s stances on immigration would be either right or expedient, what should we do, and what should we emphasise? Part of that is, or should be, an empirical question. Nigel Stanley at the TUC wrote a fascinating article a few years ago on George Lakoff’s work on framing, and how the polling that the TUC had conducted could and should inform the choice of language we use about the welfare state in Britain. The results themselves are extremely interesting – for example, we should talk about “national insurance” instead of “benefits” or “social security” – but actually the work in itself is just as important. This is interesting on three levels. First, because despite how cheap polling now is, public discussion on the left of how we should frame our language is too often sorely lacking in empirical content, making up with moral indignation and baseless assertion what it lacks in demonstrable truth. Second, because the polling they carried out also looked at how best to change the way people saw these issues so as to make them more likely to support the sort of policies Labour would be likely to advocate. Finally, because the results were usable, although whether Labour actually used them to inform our messaging ahead of 2015 I do not know. I do know that the further work the TUC did following the 2015 election, to which I referred earlier, on what swing electors thought about the issues that matter, is both fascinating and chastening. Too much of our debate is trapped in an arrogant belief that what we think matters to swing voters, or what we find interesting to talk about, is what actually matters to them, even when the data disproving that stares us in the face. One thing that this data does tell us is that “having decent messages for people on middle incomes” and “being trusted to run the economy” mattered noticeably more to those who considered voting for us but in the end chose not to than they did for the rest of the population. Englishness, not so much.

Another large part is necessarily less empirical, but still needs to be grounded in the reality of where we are. It is about engaging with the world as it will be when we are next on the threshold of power, and not as we dimly remember it from the 1980s or even the 2000s. Tom Watson’s speech at conference was excellent, and in particular his commission on the future of work is really important. Done properly, their work could inform much of how we move Labour politics to look – as we said  in 2005 – forward not back. As a party, we have a habit of determined navel-gazing, focusing on internal organisational issues in which the electorate has no interest. What was so refreshing about Tom’s speech was his determination to move past that and straight back onto the territory of government. I’d add schools and the NHS as two issues where in the last few years we have simply not had a coherent policy that properly engages with where we will be by the time of the next election. Solemn vows to repeal the Health and Social Care Act cheer up the delegates at Conference, but repealing legislation that by 2020 will be almost a decade old and the basis for how the NHS operates is a recipe for total chaos, not sustained improvement. We also need to be more serious about reviewing how the health service works. Do we spend enough on preventative care and on public health? If we targeted that work better, could we save money more quickly? Does the government make proper use of the vast quantities of health data that it collects to drive improvements in NHS operation and resource allocation? How do we connect up the budgets so that managers of acute services for preventable ill-health find it in their interests to fund prevention work? If we want to reduce the role of the private sector in the NHS, what are the criteria by which we should go about doing that? There was remarkably little about any of this at Conference this year, and yet the NHS is an issue which – handled well – could mobilise and unite the left of both Englands.

On transport, to take another issue, we must reach beyond a comfort zone commitment to rail renationalisation – which is good, but won't in itself solve very much – to address questions about what the purpose of renationalising will be, and how we would balance funding transport improvements. And what of those voters, including in my own constituency, who don't enjoy easy access to rail services and rarely get on a train?

As for schools, the catastrophically stupid Tory policy of bringing back grammar schools has distracted us from having a coherent position on the wider situation. The reality is that well over half of state secondary schools are now academies outside local authority control. Tristram Hunt did some good work in the run up to 2015 on how we could put in place a new framework for driving up standards and intervening, but we should engage with the probability that the vast majority of schools by 2020 will be outside the power of local authorities, with governing bodies that are smaller, less representative, and – for good or ill – much more professionalised. That creates opportunities as well as problems. It’s worth remembering that the Dedicated Schools Grant was introduced by the last Labour government to stop Tory councils siphoning off money we wanted spent on schools to pay for their own pet projects. If school funding is now more directly driven by central government than it was twenty years ago that means greater power for an incoming Labour government to effect change fast. What should schools be teaching that they aren’t now? What sorts of skills might we want people to learn at school that we don’t now? The current fads for coding and (to a lesser extent) Mandarin don’t seem to reflect a serious consideration of how best we can use limited hours in the school day to give our people either a better education or a competitive edge in the trading world of the future. What can we learn from the success of The London Challenge to improve schools across the county? Again, talking about schools – as with talking about the need to improve all public services delivered by the state – is a way of uniting the left of both Englands: shared concerns about the distribution of social goods that unite us, rather than opening cultural gaps that divide us. We need to show both a degree of intellectual seriousness about the issues, and a laser-like focus on how we shape and refine our language to turn those issues into victory.

To me, therefore, what the next few months and years need to show from Labour isn’t simply or necessarily about supporting Jeremy or maintaining a semblance of unity or a particular policy platform. What we need to do is to look as forensically as we can at the changes that have actually happened in Britain since we last won a general election in 2005 – a time before Twitter, iPhones, Brexit, same sex marriage, the Trade Union Act, the rise of the Scottish National Party – and decide what a Labour government might do differently when it returns to power. We need to formulate a policy agenda that is more practical and more redistributive of power, wealth and opportunity than simply “repeal Tory legislation”. This could allow us to frame the debate again as one between collective action and its absence, not between the two Englands of Jennings and Stoker. And having formulated that clear sense of how the Britain of 2020 would be run differently between 2020 and 2025 by Labour, we need to work out how to persuade the electorate of that – to work out exactly how we should communicate our promises. Mass rallies of the true believers and shared content from The Canary or the Independent are definitely not the answer, even if it turns out that can be part of winning a leadership election. The question is one on that should be driven by evidence: what framing and what language best allows us to present our messages? What beliefs do the electorate already have about us that need defusing, or at least acknowledging before we can say our piece? What parts of what the Tories say about us are things the electors believe, or at least find plausible, and also think are damaging?

All of these questions have answers we find by commissioning research, by talking to electors on the phone and on the doorstep, and not by introspection. We would do well to encourage those who have funds, and will spend them on helping the Labour Party even if not on supporting the leadership, to look at a whole host of questions on how we frame issues and what language we use. We need to understand how and where that can actually be effective from opposition, and where we are pushing uselessly at firmly closed doors. We need to understand on which issues we can make the best progress in taking votes off the right in both Hampstead and in Hull, and how we can hold together Hampstead and Hull when different forces try to take each away from us. It is time for Labour’s debate on our future to move from self-indulgence, arm waving, and affirmation to discipline, analysis, and evidence. We’re only going to get one shot at winning the next general election and securing the Labour government that Britain needs, and we need – need desperately – to get it right.

Bridget Phillipson is Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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