These are difficult economic times for the country and have been difficult political times for the government. But the left should recognise there are grounds for optimism.
The challenges of the time demand progressive solutions – whether it’s globalisation or climate change, they make the case for government more not less strong. The Tories are talking about the minimum wage, public services and poverty because they know the mood of the times has changed: we have changed it, and we should be proud of it.
But, to take advantage of this, we need to do a number of things. First, the government and the Labour Party need to show why the record that we have had over the past 11 years is a reflection of the success of progressive values.
Of course we are disappointed that it has proved harder than we expected to tackle inequality. However, child poverty has been cut by 500,000, even after the recent figures, and pensioner poverty has been cut by nearly a million. We haven’t yet managed to show an increase in social mobility, though we have halted its decline. But we are proud of the fact that we are making the right long-term investments in nursery education, in schools, in universities and apprenticeships which in the long term will make a big difference to social mobility. And we can be incredibly proud that, 60 years after Aneurin Bevan founded it, we are about to have the shortest waiting times in the whole history of the National Health Service.
Second, we must show that Labour has a big mission for the future that speaks to people’s lives. We should demonstrate our idealism, based on our values of equality and social justice. We need to create a society fairer than it is today and one where the next generation does better than the last. As a society, we need to nurture life outside the market, with families, friends and community, and create more of a sense of belonging. As a country we need intergenerational equity, and we must tackle the biggest threat that humankind has faced: climate change.
But how does Labour show that this idealism addresses the daily worries of modern life? Building a fairer society is hard amid globalisation, because globalisation creates bigger winners and bigger losers as well. The progressive task is to shape those forces for the benefit of people. Government action is essential to deal with the issues people are facing amidst the credit crunch and rising oil and food prices.
But it is not just the immediate economic situation that demands progressive politics. When someone comes up to me in my constituency and says, “I’m worried because Polish workers are driving down my wages,” we can’t simply say “globalisation is good for you”. We have to show what difference politics can make. We have to say we understand the need to protect rights at work, to enforce the minimum wage and to take action so wages are not undercut by agency workers, as well as showing how, with second chances for skills and education, people have a chance to get on.
Control for individuals
Then there is the issue of building a sense of belonging. People face massive pressures that they didn’t face even ten years ago, with two people working, with having to look after their elderly relatives, with communities under more pressure as a result of inequality and mobility. We have to show that we can build new frontiers of the welfare state – whether it’s more progress on work/life balance and parental leave; answering the challenge of social care and elderly care that is such a big issue in so many people’s lives; or building new community institutions – as we’ve done in Sure Start, and by extending it to youth services, to libraries, to play parks, to a whole range of other things that can bring people together in their own community.
The issue of climate change is the biggest threat to humankind that we face. How can progressive politics address the issue? Fundamentally, it is about governments shaping markets. The new national caps on emissions, a UK carbon budget, will have profound effects on the way we use energy. So we need to have a manifesto that thinks radically about our energy policy, transport policy and urban policy – and also about our economic policy. With the oil price as it is, economics and environmentalism now come together.
We also have to answer the challenge of people having more control over their own lives. This dates back to the demands of the New Left in the 1960s: that we have a different kind of state.
What does “a different kind of state” mean? It comes home to me when I think about my own constituency. A particular story comes to mind, of someone who came to see me recently who had been waiting for months for his disabled wife to get a stairlift in his house. His wife had died the previous Sunday, still waiting for the stairlift, but he came in to tell me about it so it wouldn’t happen to others. This says something fundamental about the relationship of the state to my constituent, and it was a relationship based on disrespect, not respect.
Our manifesto has to be about doing all we can to change that relationship – and this means continuing to change the way our public services work. It means putting the individual in control. We should be open to new sources of expertise, including those of the voluntary sector. Individuals should be able to control their own care budget, and we should let young people have more of a voice in the way money is spent on local youth services. We should give local people more of a say over local police accountability.
There is a third reason to be optimistic. We can meet these challenges better than our opponents because we under-stand the role of government: to ally the power of the indi vidual and the power of civil society with the power of government, to give individuals themselves more power over their own lives.
Don’t believe the Tory argument, which is that this could all be done by the voluntary sector alone. The voluntary sector needs the funding and accountability that government brings.
When it comes to the next election, it will not be the time to play it safe. It will be time for an idealism that doesn’t say the progressive moment has ended, but says that we can do more to build a progressive country in the years ahead. So let’s debate and argue together, but let’s join together to create the kind of manifesto that we can believe in, and build a Britain true to our ideals.
Ed Miliband is minister for the Cabinet Office and co-ordinator of Labour’s next manifesto. To submit your ideas, please visit www.labourspace.com
This is an edited version of a speech to the Compass Conference on 14 June 2008