In early 2010, during the dying days of the last Labour government, I had tea with a cabinet minister. “We need a big idea,” he said to me plaintively. “Have you got a big idea?”
I didn’t. And 12 years later Labour still doesn’t either. Yet as the Conservatives collapse and the polls turn, the search for an idea remains pressing.
Ed Miliband tried out several, of course. Early on he put “predatory capitalism” on notice. Then he pivoted to a more centrist celebration of “One Nation” – an audacious raid on Tory territory. Finally he settled on “the cost-of-living crisis”, seeking to stress that even if the overall economy returned to growth, the benefits would only be enjoyed by a few.
Jeremy Corbyn was more parsimonious. He had only one idea: transformative change. He promised to rebuild the economy, bring about a green industrial revolution and upend entrenched prejudices. It was inspiring stuff for those who believed it, but sadly that didn’t include the British public.
Throughout these years of searching Jonathan Rutherford has been a crucial contributor. A former adviser to the MP Jon Cruddas and the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, a compelling essayist, and a well-liked personality across Labour’s factions, if anyone can come up with the elusive big idea it is Rutherford.
In his new pamphlet, Labour’s Covenant, he almost does. Rutherford opens by joining Keir Starmer in stressing just how hard it is for Labour to succeed. Only three of its leaders have won parliamentary majorities – Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair – and each of them had the winds of social change in their sails. Labour has made winning now harder still, Rutherford continues, by wilfully estranging itself from middle opinion. “Many voters view Labour as the party of London and of the higher-educated middle classes who behave as arbiters of cultural taste,” he writes. Even under Starmer, “Labour has been unable to overcome this negative perception of its cultural exclusivity.”
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Starmer would surely agree with that. The Labour leader has recently outlined a new “contract” with the country, prioritising “security, prosperity and respect”, but Rutherford says this approach is too narrow and transactional. Talk of a contract reminds us of “individual property rights”, not profound change.
Rutherford turns instead to a “covenant”, intended to imply a far greater shift in the relationship between politicians and people: a sacred promise to put narrow sectional interests to one side. You only enter one if you want to find genuine common ground, to care about each other’s concerns and to recognise the vital contribution that each group has to make.
Given this, you might imagine that Rutherford’s big idea would be profoundly participatory. I was anticipating an intense attack on deracinated, hierarchical technocracy and a call to dismantle alienating and elitist state structures.
There is some of this in Labour’s Covenant, including a truly wonderful section on the “everyday economy” in which Rutherford argues that we should abandon abstractions such as GDP and focus on “the basic goods and services that sustain everyday life: the food we eat, the homes we live in, the energy we use”. He also makes a powerful case for renewed interest in the places we live and in the parks, community centres, transport and schools that support vibrant communities.
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Yet Labour’s Covenant also concedes too much to the status quo. There is a lot of talk of improving vocational training, securing finance for regional businesses, modernising corporate governance and ensuring environmental sustainability. None of this is wrong. But it isn’t new. And it isn’t big.
Or perhaps it is too big. Too much of Labour’s Covenant deploys the grand and abstract terminology that blights the party. It lacks the texture and detail of everyday experience, preferring instead to promise “fairness”, “decency” and a “bright future”. The detachment between people and politics cannot be solved by abstractions alone.
None of this is Rutherford’s fault, I am sure. The pamphlet, sponsored by the Labour Together group of MPs, is as much an expression of the current parliamentary party’s ideas as it is a work of independent thought. But there is a vital realisation here nonetheless: Labour’s search for a big idea might be holding it back from finding better, smaller ones.
Labour’s Covenant: A Plan for National Reconstruction
55pp, available free from labourtogether.co.uk
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This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed