As the starting gun goes off in an election campaign that is already managing to be both tedious and fascinating at the same time, the question facing Labour is not just whether it will govern but how? Its challenge is not just electoral tactics but the weaknesses of the party’s underlying assumptions about our society and economy.
Those assumptions are now shaped by two ideological and opposed forces: a resurgent radicalism that takes its inspiration from the post-war consensus and a weakened but occasionally vocal right that looks back to the pragmatic realism of Tony Blair.
But there is only one thing worse in politics than being a divided party and that is being a divided party fought over by equally deluded factions. Neither has noticed that the world has moved beneath their feet. This is not 1947. But neither is it 1997.
The dominant trend of our time is fragmentation. We are moving from a 20th-century world controlled by a handful of big, centralised hierarchical organisations to a 21st-century world where many smaller, decentralised and flatter bodies hold sway.
The post-war consensus which accepted that centralisation, hierarchy and bureaucracy provided the solution to the world’s problems has lost credibility, popular support and, most importantly, the tools and resources to deliver change. Yet a large section of the Labour party behaves as though the period in which this consensus flourished represents some sort of high water mark of the good society. A programme that places heavy state regulation, public ownership, a growing welfare state and top-down public services at its heart is a programme that is failing to notice, let alone adapt to, the major trends of this century.
Neither does this new fragmented world provide fertile soil for centrist pragmatism. Blairism assembled a coalition of voters with the promise that the state would ensure that the proceeds of globalisation would be fairly distributed. The failure to deliver on this promise combined with the huge damage done to livelihoods by the 2008 crash has torn this coalition apart. It has also left faith in the power of politicians and the state to deliver at an all-time low. It is for these reasons that our politics is fragmenting with voters turning to smaller parties with very different offers or turning their backs on conventional party politics altogether.
Those who think the Blairite progressive consensus can simply be revived by pitching to the centre while talking tough on issues like immigration and Europe have yet to come to terms with how deep the popular disgust now is with Westminster and how much the political identities of the 1990s have dissolved. The power of inauthentic retail politics to unite fragments which have lost faith in government is severely diminished particularly when the lengthy period of high growth that graced much of Blair’s time in office looks set to be a very long way off.
Until Labour accepts that the fragmentation of our society, politics and economics is an irresistible trend, it will face a constant struggle to connect with public opinion and to develop policies and approaches that can genuinely deliver a fairer future. Win or lose in May, without a deep understanding of where the world is going and what the party’s place is in that world, Labour will continue to be condemned to a series of short- and long-term crises that threaten its very existence. Our fragmented world requires a very different type of Labour politics.
Firstly, the party must become the champion of freedom. The major reason the old 20th-century world of hierarchy and centralisation is in steep decline is because the scope and intensity of the desire for freedom has been growing since the Sixties. This need not mean an embrace of all things individualistic and a rejection of all things collective. New technological developments, such as the open source model which gives us Wikipedia, crowdfunding and aspects of the sharing economy show how much desire there is for collaborative effort outside of the operation of the market. But the desire is for a much flatter, freer and innovative form of collaboration than that associated with the traditional statist institutions of the left.
Nowhere is this challenge clearer than in the party’s insistence on the big state continuously undertaking remedial action to address inequalities of income. Yes as we see from the food bank queues, decent benefits are essential. But Labour should be placing as much emphasis on the equality of wealth and asset ownership as it currently does on equality of income. This requires a focus on making home, share and intellectual property ownership accessible to all. Such a shift works with the grain of a fragmented world where people desire the resources and security to make decisions about their own lives without the need to seek the permission or the support of the state or any other dominant organisation.
This focus would require a determined effort to address the housing crisis by releasing a huge drive to encourage home-building so that as many people as possible at least have a home and a choice about whether they wish to rent or own. A real shift in the ownership of private and public sector organisations away from state and concentrated shareholder dominance towards employee and customer ownership would be another central element of a new focus on wealth rather than income alone.
And it will require a reform of our intellectual property regime which favours big firms over small businesses and is no longer fit for a world where so much data and so many products are shared over the internet.
Finally, Labour must stop trying to be the voice of the people and instead become the party that gives the people their voice. There is no long-term future for any party that sees its role as persuading millions of people to vote, support or campaign for a single monolithic vision determined by an unaccountable and remote leadership.
Labour should commit itself to reforming our democracy so that it allows citizens much more direct say over how MPs vote and gives them the tools to hold those MPs to account. In a world of fragmented identities and allegiances only such a direct and deliberative democracy combined with a proportional electoral system can truly represent the diversity and complexity of views now held by the British people.
Labour only ever succeeds electorally when it has a grasp of the trends and imperatives shaping our future as well as the new energies that are emerging in society. When the party has this understanding then it knows best how to bend those forces to the values of equality and solidarity. This is a moment to do just that.
Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass and is the co-author of New Times. Adam Lent’s book “Small is Powerful: Why the era of big business, big government and big culture is over” will be published in late 2015. Pre-order a copy here.