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18 May 2015

Three questions that Labour’s next leader must answer

The next Labour leader will face varied challenges. If they can't answer them all, they're doomed to failure. 

By Ian Kearns

Three central questions await Labour’s next Leader.

First, how can Labour win in left-leaning Scotland and among working class Ukip voters in the north of England while simultaneously appealing to centrist voters in the Midlands and the South? Second, what now needs to happen to save the unity of the United Kingdom? And third, if we believe departure from the European Union would be disastrous for jobs, businesses, exports and inward investment, and this writer certainly does, how can the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU be fought and won?

The prospects of answering the first question will be heavily impacted by the answer developed to the second. Labour should now support a comprehensive constitutional settlement that turns the UK into a federal state. Since the perception that current arrangements are unfair is widely shared both north and south of the border, it should describe its support for the new settlement not in constitutional terms but as one part of a commitment to building a fairer Britain. Any new settlement agreed to by the SNP, moreover, will have to be owned by the SNP and as such, its effect will be to remove the grievance machine the nationalists have deployed against Westminster so effectively and for so long. In a post-settlement environment the SNP will have fewer places to hide and Scottish Labour will be more effectively able to hold the SNP to account on its domestic social and economic record.

This repositioning of the debate in Scotland is vital because a key ingredient in the rise of identity politics in Scotland and in England, and in the UKIP fuelled concern about foreigners and immigrants, has been widespread public concern about economic insecurity. Labour lost votes to all three of the Conservatives, UKIP and the SNP because it was not considered competent or relevant on this issue.

Constitutional reform will help give Labour an opportunity to be heard again,  as will the Conservative government’s growing unpopularity through this parliament as its unstable majority, deep spending cuts and rebellious right wing produce a sense of drift.

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But to take advantage of the opening, Labour will need a compelling proposition that offers people not just protection against the forces they cannot control, but an increasing and tangible stake in the society in which they live and real prospects of social mobility. This will mean prioritisation of education spending and reform but the party could also do worse than to explore a major increase in part ownership housing schemes, help for people to set up cooperative businesses, and increased opportunities for employee share ownership. The route to a society that is both more equal and more aspirational, and to a Labour Party that can unite around a message it believes in, lies through a wider and fairer distribution of assets and not just incomes. 

Just as constitutional reform at home must not be described as an end in itself, neither should Britain’s membership of the European Union be defended in purely technical economic terms or in terms of what needs to happen to the EU institutions themselves. It must instead be presented as the essential international component of Labour’s determination to protect people from injustice and insecurity, and as an essential aid to economic opportunity and social mobility.  The challenge for the new Labour leadership will be to develop a narrative on the way the EU and Britain’s relationship with it needs to change to best serve that agenda.

The debate on UK constitutional reform and EU membership are also more closely connected than many currently acknowledge. After all, the creation of a federal UK will require clarity not only on the powers to be devolved but on the powers to be retained at the centre. The powers retained are likely to focus on foreign affairs and defence. Front and centre of the EU referendum debate, meanwhile, will be questions about what Britain’s role is and ought to be in the world, where we rightly belong as a country and whether we want to go it alone or be part of a larger bloc.

The differing attitudes to Europe and to Trident in Scotland and England are emblematic of the challenge here. Even if a new constitutional arrangement can be arrived at inside the UK, events outside it, like a conflict similar to that in Iraq, could be so divisive as to destroy the union.

The political class across the UK is not well placed to address this danger. Ed Miliband showed little public interest in international affairs and his attitude was representative of the political mainstream.  This lack of willingness to think strategically and long term with regard to events beyond our borders is staggering when one considers that it was a collective failure to regulate the global financial system that caused more damage to our country’s jobs, welfare state and public services than any other development in modern times.

Not only does Labour therefore need to get well beyond the debate on what was right and wrong about the invasion of Iraq to develop a story on how globalisation can be given a human face but if the UK is to be saved, this is a story that is going to have to be developed, argued over and owned right across the UK and not only in parts of it.

These are perilous times for the Labour Party and for the country but as each day since the election passes the contours of the challenge become clearer. The new Labour leader will not have the luxury of answering only one or two of the most pressing questions on the agenda but will need to answer all three simultaneously or risk failing to answer any.