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Time for an honest appraisal

The former Labour MP and minister responds to a <a href="

Let me begin with the areas of common ground. Like Neal and John, I want to see a future world that is more equal, sustainable and democratic. I agree the current economic crisis represents an appalling market failure and that new approaches are needed both nationally and globally.

Like them I believe in decentralisation so that citizens and local communities can exert more control over their own lives. And I, too, am a pluralist who believes that Labour can learn from – and should work with - other progressive forces on the big challenges we face.

My disagreement with John and Neal arises from our different analyses of the past 12 years.

This is not to say that I think everything that has happened since 1997 has been perfect – of course not.

I wish we had been bolder in seeking to close the gap between rich and poor. I wish we had made housing a priority from day one. And I wish we had built on our excellent first term democratic reforms to decentralise power in a more thorough and comprehensive fashion. Indeed recent events once again make the case for a different way of doing politics.

Neal and John’s NS article devotes a paltry 37 words to the advances and achievements of the past 12 years and dismisses Labour’s response to the current economic crisis as “business as usual”.

Since 1997 we have seen a sustained strategy to tackle poverty especially in childhood and old age.

As they acknowledge, we have seen massive additional public investment in schools and the NHS. The UK is now a beacon of best practice in international aid and development. Labour has challenged prejudice and discrimination – with a string of progressive legal changes including Civil Partnerships. I could go on.

The terms of political debate have been shifted leftwards so that even the Tories now feel they have to say they will match Labour’s spending plans on schools and the NHS and that they support achieving the UN 0.7 per cent aid target.

Measures to promote equal opportunity and challenge prejudice have been consistently opposed by the Tories – yet now diversity is seen as a test of being a “Cameron Conservative”. Progressives should surely celebrate this as a real achievement.

This brings me to my second fundamental disagreement with John and Neal. I do believe that Labour’s policies are very different to the Tories’. Take the present crisis – had the UK followed George Osborne’s advice we would be in a far worse position than we are and it would be the poorest, most vulnerable communities that would suffer the most.

Clearly, there is massive public disenchantment with party politics and politicians and the renewal of progressive politics is not only about what happens to the Labour Party. However, reform and renewal of the party itself is as important as engaging with social movements - events of the past few days demonstrate this very powerfully. Labour ignores the need for renewal at its peril.

I am a big fan of social movements and have always been involved in them alongside my Labour activism.

People involved in parties often underestimate the importance of civil society – but there is a danger of going too far the other way.

NGOs rightly take on governments and political parties but their solutions need to be subject to challenge too.

There are difficult and complex policy challenges – take the example of Energy Policy. Social movements like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have long campaigned against nuclear energy. Like many others I have changed my mind on this and see nuclear alongside renewables as an important part of the solution to our long term energy needs.

A vibrant progressive politics has to have the ability to engage with these important issues. Yes, let’s celebrate mass participation in NGOs but let’s also engage, argue and challenge.

An oft-repeated charge made again by Neal and John is that New Labour is “market fundamentalist”. I think this is over the top and does not bear close scrutiny.

There are fair criticisms – for example that New Labour allowed City excess to get out of hand or that public service reforms have relied too much on choice as a lever for improvement.

It is a big leap from here to the charge of market fundamentalism. Yes, New Labour has always supported a dynamic private sector and will continue to do so. However, since 1997 Labour has rightly intervened in the market across a wide range of social and economic issues including the minimum wage, maternity & paternity rights, trade union recognition and tougher equalities legislation.

In the public services there has been a mix of approaches – for example Foundation Hospitals and Trust Schools draw upon the mutualism of the Co Op movement.

As we approach the next General Election it is crucial that Labour has a mature, constructive debate about what we can offer in our next manifesto. A starting point must surely be an honest appraisal of the past 12 years. That means people like me acknowledging the failures and the weaknesses alongside the achievements and successes. I hope Neal and John will feel able to be more positive about what has been achieved. I suspect that when it comes to the policies needed to address the challenges of tomorrow we may well agree more than we disagree!

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide