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30 June 2015

Let’s be clear: there is no continuity candidate in the Labour leadership race

No-one in the Labour party thinks that "one more heave" is enough. No-one thinks the party doesn't need to change. The question is: how much change?

By Chris Bryant

Ok.  I’m getting irritated now.  The very idea that anyone really supposes that Labour can stand still and just wait for the government to fall into our lily-white hands is not just daft, it’s offensive.  Nobody thinks that one more heave will win this tug of war.  Everybody – including every candidate for the leadership of our party – believes that we have to change. Nobody is a continuity candidate.  Everybody knows that we are going to have to be absolutely ruthless with ourselves if we are to stand a chance of returning to power.  

Besides, the whole point of Labour has always been change.  Deep, fundamental change in the way our country, our economy, our democracy and the world is run.  If we can’t embrace change ourselves we have no chance of bringing about change in the world.

But let’s be clear, we do come with baggage.  Every single member of the Labour Party does. We have a set of values and principles.  We believe in equality and peaceful coexistence.  We hold that work is the best route out of poverty and that a civilised society protects the vulnerable and the rights of the minority. We know in our guts that grinding poverty can destroy people and that a more equal society is a happier society.  We have railed at every moment of injustice and cheered on every campaigner for democracy and the rule of law.  We see humanity as essentially social but we cherish the freedom of the individual.  This is our baggage – and I for one have no intention of discarding it.  Not because I fear change, not because I believe that Labour has a monopoly of truth, not because I believed every jot and tittle of our manifesto this May, but because politicians without principles are worth nothing.

We’ve other baggage too.  We were in government for thirteen years – and for all the bitch-slaps our opponents try to land on us, there is so much to be proud of.  Others will have their specific policies we should boast of, but I remember so very clearly those hateful years when some attacked the brave souls in our party who campaigned for gay equality as ‘loony lefties’.  But Tony Blair and Jack Straw, building on the 1960s liberalism of Roy Jenkins, managed to crack that argument wide open.  An equal age of consent, gay adoption, gays in the military, an end to discrimination on the grounds of sexuality and civil partnerships all followed because we were brave enough to change our party so that we could change the country.

We can and must do that again, rebuilding our economic credibility and refashioning our whole approach.  Old nostrums will need new analysis.  Individual policies that made sense in the 1950s or 1990s will need re-examining.  At times we will need to revise some of our most cherished ideas, because the world is changing fast. 

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But let’s be clear.  There is no point in trying to rerun the 2015 election.  Nor can we just pretend that 1997 is just around the corner.  None of us knows how the 2020 election will play out and it is neither certain that we will win nor inevitable that we will lose.  But one thing is certain, we shall have to reframe the party so that every aspect of our manifesto runs with the grain of life as it is lived today and will be lived in the future, not as it was in our industrial past. Political nostalgia could all too easily undo us.

So yes, let’s embrace change, but if we try to ditch all our baggage we shall look like shape-shifting charlatans. Better to own our baggage and write our own version of our history so that we can write a different future for our party and our country. 

Chris Bryant is shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport and the MP for Rhondda.