I’m standing for the leadership of the Labour Party because our election result in December was shattering and a long time coming. Nevertheless, I believe our route back to power doesn’t have to be long. We have, over decades, lost the trust and confidence of many of the people we exist to represent, but I know we can win it back.
To earn the trust of communities that once proudly returned Labour MPs means we need a leader who is proud to be from those communities, has skin in the game, and is prepared to go out, listen and bring Labour home. And so I’ve spent many weeks listening to people in places such as Wigan, Workington and Wrexham about where they feel Labour has been going wrong – about what we’ve done to lose their faith. And I’ve spent the past week setting out my case for change.
Building a campaign and a movement that can win means taking the debate out into the country and meeting people where they are. A week into the campaign it’s clear to me that we’ve got a big job to do to raise the level of debate in this country.
The Scottish problem
My recent interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil, both during and afterwards, lit a match on that feeling. It’s the kind of interview that can be catastrophic for politicians if you get it wrong, which is exactly why Boris Johnson hid from Neil for the entirety of the election campaign.
He is a formidable interviewer and you have to be on your game, but the format of interviewers trying to land blow after blow on politicians while interrupting their detailed answers is getting pretty tired.
Predictably enough – despite a half-hour conversation ranging from poverty and polling to trust and Trident – we discovered Scottish nationalist Twitter aflutter: a comment I made about Spanish socialists’ resistance in Catalonia was wilfully distorted into the ridiculous notion that I support police brutality. It’s obviously rubbish but hardly surprising – it’s just part of putting yourself forward to lead, but it lets us all down as it distracts from the real issues.
We have come to expect this from nationalists. The current status quo in Scotland is not good enough. But we need to start with ourselves, as a party, and we need to think very carefully about how we take on the SNP. I am sick of hearing the defeatist attitudes of some corners of the Labour Party in relation to Scotland.
Rules of disengagement
Look no further than the hustings in Liverpool on Saturday 18 January – the first since the PLP nominations closed and the first chance for party members to hear from all the candidates together. At times there were reminders of how much we all agree, but for the most part it was a stifled and stifling event. I call it an event because you couldn’t really call it a debate: 40 seconds each to answer questions on a postcard read out by a moderator is not a debate. Being unable to engage with and respond to each other is not a debate. Party members – either in the room or online – being unable to discuss or challenge our answers is not a debate.
We’re missing the opportunity to hold leadership and deputy leadership hustings in the towns we lost at the last election, which would have been a clear signal that we have the humility to listen and the desire to reconnect. I believe party members deserve vibrant, passionate and honest debate – the people I spoke to after Saturday’s event shared my feeling. I hope that my fellow leadership candidates share it too.
We can’t run away from debate, we have to run towards it, and allow it to improve us and strengthen our movement – to show the country that Labour has the answer to the questions they’ve been asking. Nowhere was that more obvious than on my visit to North East Lincolnshire on Monday.
It was a beautiful day at the port of Grimsby, where I talked with fish market bosses about how their industry – at the heart of their town for centuries – has been decimated by multinationals allowed to game the system at the expense of our fishing communities.
It was the kind of sunny, breezy day when the opportunities of solar power and wind energy are obvious to anyone. And it was genuinely inspiring to see how offshore wind has brought new jobs to Grimsby – but even more frustrating to hear again how too often we are losing out on clean energy factories to other countries, sending the number of quality green jobs the wrong way.
This, in the same week that this cruel and dishonest government scrapped protections for workers and the environment that Labour has fought long and hard for, and came out swinging against regulatory alignment with the EU – a move that would be catastrophic for industrial strategy and jobs. We should be calling them out on it.
This debate should be about talking and listening to people in towns like Grimsby – about how we ensure everyone has a real stake in their community and real hope for a bright, cleaner, greener future.
My town, my union
You might have heard me mention once or twice that I represent a certain town, a former coalfield town at that. So I couldn’t have been prouder to receive the backing of the NUM. This is a union that I have long campaigned alongside for justice for its members who were victims of an ideological, weaponised state. It is a union that cares deeply about the future of deindustrialised areas of this country where we have seen decent jobs replaced by low-pay, zero-hours factory and call-centre work.
Labour must lead the discussion on the green industrial strategy that will unite this country and build the red bridge between Lewisham and Leigh again. I’m excited about the debate and contest ahead and, as ever, enthused by the energy and ideas of our membership.
This article appears in the 22 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people