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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.

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
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"I teach dirty tricks": the explosives expert who shows armies how to deal with terrorists

Sidney Alford used to blow things up in his garage. Now his expertise is helping save lives.

“I’ll fetch the hammer,” says Sidney Alford, leaving me in a laboratory filled with mysteriously named drawers and small bottles with skulls on their labels. When he has fetched it – “it’s a jeweller’s hammer, given to me in Paris by a friend of Salvador Dali” – the 82-year-old plans to tap gently on a small mound of white powder called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, better known as the explosive favoured by Isis in their suicide belts and homemade bombs. Because of its instability and destructive power, its nickname is “Mother of Satan”.

Tapping it with a hammer is enough to make it go bang.

Directing me to stand by the door, he searches for ear plugs before stuffing some paper in his ears – “I’m quite deaf, you know,” were almost his first words to me that morning – and begins to tap the Mother of Satan. On the fourth tap, it explodes in a genteel fashion with a flash and a pop. Its sensitivity to percussion is one of the reasons that jihadi bomb-makers suffer so many workplace accidents. “See,” Alford says. “You’d be OK walking, just don’t fall over or get shot.”

I have wanted to meet Sidney Alford ever since I heard about him from the investigative journalist Meirion Jones, who once uncovered a British man who sold £50m-worth of fake bomb detectors in Iraq and other countries. (The fraudster, James McCormick, was jailed for ten years in 2013.)

Giving a presentation to students, Jones mentioned that he could prove the gadgets were useless – just black boxes with radio aerials sticking out of them – because he had taken them “to a guy the BBC uses for explosives, who has a quarry in Somerset where he blows things up”. I decided then and there that I was very interested in being in a quarry in Somerset where someone blew things up. Maybe I would even get to press the button.

There was a less childish reason for visiting, too. Sidney Alford’s life story is interwoven with one of the technologies that defines the modern world: explosives. We fear explosives – suicide bombs, car bombs, bombs on aircraft – but we also need them, for everything from realistic film scenes to demolition. (Alford has a letter from Stanley Kubrick thanking him for his help on Full Metal Jacket.) Surprisingly, the best way to defuse an explosive is often with another explosive, something that Sidney’s company, Alford Technologies, has pioneered.

In other words, if you want to make something go bang – or, just as importantly, stop something going bang – he is the man to talk to. Quite loudly.

***

The first explosive materials Alford ever saw were fragments of bombs and V2 rockets left over from the German shelling of London. Born in 1935 in the suburb of Ilford, he moved with his family to Bournemouth when the Second World War broke out. When he returned, he found rich pickings in his battered neighbourhood in the form of magnesium incendiary bombs, which he filed down and turned into fireworks.

I ask him if, like my own father, he ever frightened his teachers with nitrogen triiodide, an unstable explosive compound that schoolchildren used to make themselves and set off in lessons to terrify unwary members of staff in the era before health and safety. “Oh yes,” he says. “I put it under my French teacher’s chair.” A pause. “He’d been in the army, so he didn’t make a fuss.”

Alford went to a grammar school, where he was an undistinguished pupil, angry that the headmaster wouldn’t let him learn German (rather than Latin) so he could speak to the Jewish child refugees he knew. But he was always interested in chemistry, and “by the fifth form, I’d recruit classmates to make bigger bangs”.

A chemistry degree came next, followed by a series of odd jobs, including diet research and studying the brain, an MSc in the science of environmental pollution, and two business associations with men he now characterises as “bad sorts”, who ripped him off.

By this time, he had moved to Ham, in west London, and had begun to take his chemistry experiments more seriously. It was the early 1970s, and the IRA’s bombing campaign had come to England. How could these weapons be neutralised, Alford wondered? Was it better to encase suspect packages in “blast containers”, or use shaped charges – typically, small cones that focus explosive energy into a point – to disrupt their ability to go off?

A brief digression on explosives is necessary here. When you think of something going bang in a spectacular fashion, that’s a detonation. “Detonare,” says Alford at one point during my tour of the quarry, relishing the Latin. “Like thunder.”

High explosives such as TNT, nitroglycerin or Semtex can be detonated by administering a violent shock to the main charge using a small amount of relatively sensitive and violent material in a metal capsule. This creates a hot shock wave, which sweeps through the substance faster than the speed of sound.

Old-fashioned gunpowder, house fires and your car’s internal combustion engine go through a different process, known as “deflagration”, where the chemical reaction moves through the molecules much more slowly. This burning is usually less dramatic and easier to manage. (Alford hates the term “controlled explosion”, reasoning that an expert should always control their explosions. If they fail, it’s a cock-up.)

The theory goes, then, that if you attack a munition just hard enough to ignite its contents but without causing a violent shock wave, it will deflagrate but, on a good day, it will not detonate. “Yes, it might make a massive fireball, but I’ve done it in jungles under a tree,” says Alford. “[With deflagration] the tree may lose most of its leaves, but with detonation, there is no tree.”

In the 1970s, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his suburban garage. There, he would experiment with making explosive charges, using measured quantities of material in different casings. He would leave his car engine running so any bangs could be plausibly written off as backfiring.

This cover story clearly didn’t wash with the neighbours, though, as first the police and then MI5 – “the most gentlemanly man” – came round to see why exactly a chemistry graduate they had never heard of was blowing stuff up in his suburban garage. When he explained himself to the security services, they put him in touch with the Ministry of Defence, and he was offered a contract.

***

Alford Technologies has a slogan: “For when you can’t afford to fail”. It also has an office in a business park outside Trowbridge in Wiltshire, but the real action happens at its testing ground, a former quarry amid the rolling hills of the Mendips, not far outside Bath. It feels like a cross between a scrapyard and a building site. “Here’s the bottom half of a Soviet mine, which we use as a brazier,” says Alford at one point, prodding it with a toecap.

Soldiers from various armies come here to learn about explosives and how to render them harmless. It’s vital work: last year in Iraq and Syria there were dozens of car bombs, with a single one in Baghdad claiming 250 lives. In Manchester this year an Isis-inspired jihadi killed 22 concert-goers and injured 250 with a backpack bomb apparently built from instructions found
on the internet.

Learning to counter such threats means understanding them; jihadists and other terrorists might have access only to basic materials, but many also display great ingenuity. When I ask why Alford has a packet of Tampax in his lab, he says the tampons can be dipped in liquid explosives and turned into cartridges: “I teach dirty tricks so they don’t get caught out by them.”

Sidney Alford’s contributions to the world of explosives rest on an unlikely substance: water. When he first began tinkering in his garage in the 1970s, engineers had already worked out a rough-and-ready way of disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They used a gun barrel loaded with a blank cartridge to fire a jet of water that broke through the explosive’s casing and disrupted it. However, a sufficiently strong casing – say, one made of steel – could defeat this method.

In a low outbuilding in the quarry, Alford shows me his answer to this problem. Within a shaped charge, the force of a small explosion collapses a metal cone, turning it inside out and extruding it into a long, thin rod that shoots out at high velocity, about five times faster than a bullet.

The young chemist had an idea: why not combine the water from the older gun-barrel method with the accuracy and force of the metal jet in a shaped charge? In Alford inventions such as the Vulcan and the Pluton, the explosive charge shoots a targeted jet of water at high speed and with incredible accuracy.

Ho ho, you’re thinking. Water! Very scary. This is broadly what I thought until I saw one of Alford’s smaller shaped charges in action. After the demonstration with the hammer, he put on a pair of sturdy boots instead of brogues and we hopped into a small four-by-four to get to the base of the quarry. “Should I take my safety glasses?” I asked, even though we would be inside an old reinforced lookout hut salvaged from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. “Oh no,” replied Alford. “If it goes wrong, it will kill you. No need to waste a perfectly good pair of glasses.”

The Vulcan is about six-inches long, with a case of grey plastic, and loaded with 30g of plastic explosives with a cone of water held in front of it. The explosive is “about two toasts’ worth of butter,” said Alford’s project manager, Matt Eades, who served in the Royal Engineers for 25 years.

Alford placed the charge above a 10mm-thick steel plate using the aluminium-wire legs as a tripod, inserted an electric detonator into the Vulcan, and we retired to the hut, whose thick, double-glazed windows gave a good, if smeary, view of the sandpit. “If you write a nice, ingratiating article about me you can press the button,” said Alford.

I pressed the button.

There was a significant bang, making me glad of my ear defenders, but the plume went straight upwards. When we ventured out to the sandpit, Alford practically skipped up the side and fished out the metal plate, now with a clean-edged circular hole punched straight through it.

This practical demonstration had followed a whirlwind tour of the various Alford Technologies products and a brisk explanation of the theory of explosives. Alford clearly enjoys naming his creations: the Vulcan sits in his display alongside the Krakatoa and the Vesuvius, which can also be used for bomb disposal and demolition. The BootBanger is so called because “it bangs car boots” while the Van Trepan cuts a neat, round hole in the top of a larger vehicle. The Bottler is not only shaped like a bottle, but named for the Australian slang “that’s a bottler”, which Alford translates as “the cat’s whiskers”.

Even the Dioplex, a linear charge that creates a chopping blade, has a story attached: “I thought it was a do-it-yourself device, but I thought ‘do it oneself’ sounded better. So: ‘Do It Oneself Plastic Explosive’.”

One of the things a trip to the quarry teaches me is that the ways in which humans try to kill and maim each other are nothing if not inventive. The company sells a version of a Bangalore torpedo, an old invention used by Alford’s own father when he fought in the First World War. This is a modular tube you can push underneath barbed wire, blowing it apart to clear a path for infantry. A stronger version was needed, Alford says, because of the advent of razor wire. “Barbed wire was soft steel, designed to keep in cows. Razor wire was designed to cut you.” The new Alford Bangalore Blade torpedoes through the wire coils, severing them using four aluminium cutters and creating an unobstructed 10m route through.

The Breacher’s Boot is a door-shaped panel filled with water, used to punch through walls in hostage situations. “It gives a ‘kick’ to the wall, so bits of it will fall down. You don’t want to use shaped charges then,” he says. “If there’s a person on the other side of the wall, you’d cut them in half. And if you simply used a mass of high explosive, the concrete would fly almost horizontally.”

A similar idea lies behind the Alford Strip, a sticky rope of explosives and tamping material used in terror arrests, where the police would once have used a sledgehammer to open a door, but are now much more worried about booby traps. You run the 25mm- or 42mm-long plastic extrusion down a door, window or wall and then lay a length of det cord far enough away from it to put service personnel at a safer distance.

Down in the quarry, having punched through one square steel plate, we now try ten taped together versus a 40g load of explosives and a copper cone. The result: a 2m-high flash and the same clean hole – although the jet doesn’t make it through all ten plates. It stops at seven.

This isn’t an error: the shaped charges can use copper, water, aluminium or magnesium, depending on the force and space needed. Magnesium is incendiary; water and aluminium might be chosen because they lose velocity very quickly. You cut through what you want to cut through, without damaging either the structural integrity of the object surrounding it or innocent bystanders.

This precision is particularly important in demolition work. Last year, Alford Technologies took over the contract to break up Didcot Power Station, slicing through steel beams to dismantle the decommissioned building. It was called in after a terrible accident on 23 February 2016, when four workers employed by a respected firm, Coleman and Company, were killed while trying to lay charges inside the structure. “There was this crash – I looked over my shoulder and saw the boiler coming down,” one of the survivors, Mathew Mowat, told the Birmingham Mail. “We ran in self-preservation – then there was a loud bang and a massive cloud of dust, we couldn’t see much for a few minutes.”

It took months to recover the bodies of all four missing men, who had to be identified from dental records and tattoos.

***

Over an Eccles cake in the main office, Alford tells me about some of his other jobs, including cutting up sunken ships in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” of the mid-1980s, between Iran and Iraq, and joining a mission to retrieve £40m in gold bars from HMS Edinburgh, which sank in 1942 off the coast of Norway. (It was carrying 4,570kg of Russian bullion destined for the western allies.) The ship had been designated a war grave to stop it being plundered, and an air of mystery hung over the whole salvage project. Alford was told not to mention that he was an explosives expert.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work – and his anti-authoritarian streak – has caused conflict. “I’m doing things government departments ought to be doing,” he tells me in the car on the way to the quarry. “I’m in the anomalous position of someone who is quite admired, but also quite despised. Civil servants hate my guts.” When he was 40, he says, he asked for a formal job working with the department of defence, “and was told I was too old to have new ideas”. He set up Alford Technologies in 1985, and it now employs six people. The latest set of accounts at Companies House value the firm’s net worth at £2.3m.

Although Alford is scrupulously careful when handling explosives, he loathes health-and-safety culture. As we tramp round the quarry, he indicates a sign next to a pond, reading “Deep Water”, and tuts theatrically. He voted for Brexit to give the establishment a kick, not thinking it would actually happen.

It is a source of great chagrin that the government breathes down his neck, regulating what compounds he can keep and how he can keep them. “You have to have a licence for every substance,” he tells me in the car. “I’ve got them all. Well, it might be different if I wanted to go nuclear.”

 In 1996, he decided to make a stand against the pettifogging bureaucracy that, as he saw it, interfered with his work. Spooked by the thought of Irish republican terrorism, the regulators had insisted that he had to put a lock on his explosives store. “I told them that if the IRA really wanted to get my explosives, they would kidnap one of my family.” (He has two sons with his Japanese-born wife, Itsuko; the elder, 46-year-old Roland, now runs the business.) Besides which, he didn’t see why he should put an alarm on his few kilos of various explosives when the farmer next door had tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, a key ingredient in the IRA’s bomb-making.

The stand-off broke when his request to renew his explosives licence was turned down; soon after, the police came to raid his stores. He had tipped off a friendly journalist, however, and the visit was captured on camera and written up first in the local paper and then the Daily Mail, where Christopher Booker took up the cause of a Englishman’s inalienable right to keep high explosives in his shed. “I felt morally obliged to be prosecuted,” he says now.

The court case, documented in the newspaper clippings, sounds like a mixture of deadening legal procedure and high farce. At the magistrates’ court, Alford and a friend pursued and rearrested the next defendant, who tried to do a runner; when his case was kicked upwards to Swindon Crown Court, he turned up in an armoured Daimler Ferret, posing for photographs with his head poking out of the top, white hair tucked into a helmet. He was eventually charged with possessing explosives without a licence and fined £750, with £250 costs. The judge ordered the police to give him his licence back, but ticked him off for using the court system for political purposes.

Listening to this story, it becomes clearer why Alford never ended up in the warm embrace of an official government role. He offered his ideas to the Ministry of Defence, but he shows me a letter from April 1977, where an unlucky official reveals that he is “regarding your correspondence with diminishing enthusiasm”. Still, he is sanguine. “Most of my enemies have now gone to the laboratory in the sky, or retired,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t work for them. Would I have fitted in? Probably not.” In any case, he has had some official recognition, receiving an OBE in 2015.

***

Alford’s work is used in war zones including Afghanistan, but also places like Cambodia, which are still riddled with unexploded ordnance from previous ground wars. Over the years, he has visited that country and Laos several times to practise new ways of dealing with old bombs. (The company produces a more affordable version of the Vulcan for non-military use.) He first went to Vietnam during the war; the last person, he says, to get a Japanese tourist visa into the country in the 1950s. The company’s brochures show smiling locals posing next to the sleeping monsters they have had to live alongside for decades.

But Iraq, too, is in dire need of methods to deal with cheap, homemade explosives. After Matt the Ex-Army Guy and Alford have demonstrated how to blow a door off its hinges, cut through a 50mm steel bar, and turn a fire extinguisher inside out – “that is unzipped in all known directions, it is a former IED,” says Alford, Pythonesquely – they show me the Bottler and the BootBanger.

They drag beer kegs into the boot of an old blue Nissan Almera, explaining that these were a favoured IRA device: who questions a few beer kegs in the street? First, they stick a Bottler between the front seats, showing how you would disrupt any electronics without setting the vehicle on fire – which would destroy forensic evidence. “They’d usually use a robot,” explains Matt. “And the robot usually leaves [the area], because they’re expensive.” A six-wheeler bomb disposal robot costs around £750,000.

We retreat again to the hut. I must be looking increasingly nervous, because Alford tries to reassure me about the building’s structural integrity: “If it tips over, it will take two weeks to get you out. But they’ll know where to find your body.”

As promised, the explosion is focused – and controlled, in the Alford-approved sense of the word. The windscreen is peeled back, lying on the roof, but the fuel tank didn’t ignite and the back windows are intact. “I know it might look like a mess,” says Matt, “but this would be classified as a result. You use a smaller bit of explosive to get rid of a larger one.”

Finally, it’s time for the big one. Matt slides the BootBanger, shaped like a suitcase, under the back end of the car. It has a curved sheet of 400g of plastic explosive through the middle, sandwiched by water on both sides and encased in nondescript grey plastic.

Now this is a bigger bang. I suddenly see the point of all those “Blasting!” warning signs that surround the quarry. If you drove past and heard this, you’d think the Russians had invaded. As an orange-red flame flashes and a deep, throaty boom fills the quarry, the beer kegs are fired out of the back of the car, pinwheeling 20 feet in the air and coming to rest yards away. Debris rains down on the roof of the hut. I swear I can hear the plinking sound of metal cooling. The car is now missing its back windscreen, and is, it’s fair to say, probably never going to pass another MOT. Nevertheless, it is still recognisably car-shaped; the skeleton is undisturbed.

Unfazed, Alford hurries to the car, and plucks a piece of paper from the boot, clearly left there by a previous owner. It is undamaged.

And then it’s time to rejoin the real world. As he drives me back to Bath, I ask Alford what it feels like to do what he does. He has saved possibly hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. “Yes, but in an already over-populated world,” he sighs.

I know he doesn’t mean it callously; he just doesn’t want credit for what, in his eyes, is barely a job at all. The schoolboy who wanted to make a bigger bang got his wish. 

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.