Everyone in Labour (and surely anyone of any political hue who rejects the politics of the dog-whistle) was hugely received to see Sadiq Khan win the London Mayoralty on the 5th May. The horrendous, racist (and bizarrely short-sighted) campaign of Zac Goldsmith failed miserably in its aim of scaring white Londoners into rejecting a Muslim candidate simply because he was a Muslim. Sadiq’s success will have ramifications way beyond the capital city and the Labour Party in London are to be congratulated for the huge effort rallied behind our candidate.
Sadiq has subsequently used his mandate to sign a way forward for the Labour party over the next couple of years. He doesn’t think that Labour should be asking voters to take sides, thinks Labour needs to get back in the habit of winning elections and sees in Tony Blair’s three successive election victories a blueprint for Labour to follow. All interesting points.
Labour’s thumping victory in London was closely followed by the Progress Annual Conference this weekend, which appears to have been an extremely interesting and entertaining gathering. Sadly, I couldn’t attend. A major event in the ‘moderate’ Labour calendar running under the slogan “straight talking, honest politics”, it has been addressed this year by Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Jones as well as many luminaries on the ‘centre-left’ of our party and encompassed wide-ranging discussions on the future of Labour.
Liz Kendall is being quoted as repeating Sadiq’s argument that Labour “shouldn’t ask voters to pick sides”.
It is reassuring to see that most present at #pac16 were talking of party unity and focusing the collective energies of Labour on demonstrating why a Labour government is so important, campaigning against the awful policies that the Conservatives are pursuing; and not instead wasting time and effort undermining the democratically elected leader of the party.
It is in that spirit of unity and the knowledge that abuse gets us nowhere that I’m going to have to very respectfully take issue with some of the arguments advocated by Sadiq and Liz.
The intriguing paradox at the heart of the “moderate” Labour argument is that the much-trumpeted realism is nothing of the kind. The ‘moderates’ base their hopes on successfully repeating the strategy of winning Conservative voters from the Conservatives by adopting Conservative policies which did indeed deliver three election victories for labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005 and many tangible benefits to working people.
The slight difficulty with this approach is that a) the Conservatives were probably at the lowest ebb in their modern history at this point and that no such shift to the right was actually required to win, b) the state of the economy allowed significant spending on public services without needing to seriously challenge economic inequality and c) by accepting the Thatcherite economic consensus Labour helped allow the financial services sector to bring the global economy to the verge of catastrophe (only to be saved by the kind of socialist state intervention in the economy that is considered to be unacceptable and doomed to failure in these neoliberal days).
We also have had the Conservative/Lib Dem and subsequently majority Conservative governments claim that many of their worst policies (for example ‘academisation’ of schools and sky-rocketing tuition fees; creeping privatization and marketization across the public sector; and the completely bogus language of ‘choice’ and ‘localism’) were initiated by New Labour and what they are doing now is simply a continuation of good work done from 1997-2010. And to a degree they are right. This awful, mean-spirited and economically illiterate government and the ideas that underpin it didn’t appear from nowhere.
And that is all without mentioning the stunningly disastrous interventions in the Middle East.
The idea that the Blair legacy represents a blueprint for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn to follow is fairly questionable. Indeed, Jeremy’s successful campaign for the leadership in 2015 was based on what is surely a simple and uncontroversial statement of fact – that more of the same won’t do.
Sadiq has also rejected Labour’s official local election slogan:
“Elections are about taking sides. Labour is on yours”
“It should never be about ‘picking sides’, a ‘them-or-us’ attitude……… Our aim should be to unite people from all backgrounds as a broad and welcoming tent – not to divide and rule.”
The difficulty with the talk of ‘aspiration’ and ‘not asking voters to pick sides’ is that it is a coded reference to something much more specific, a policy of essentially accepting the intellectual assumptions of the Tories and the right-wing press who want the Labour Party to fail and will condemn and attempt to undermine us however accommodating we are to them.
We cannot always be a broad tent. A political party has to be clear in what it believes and who it is governing for. Labour was established over a 100 year ago as the political representative of ordinary working class people. A Labour government should therefore ensure that everyone pays their fair share of taxes, that no one is left behind, public services (including many now privatized public utilities) are controlled by and run in the interests of working people. By definition not everybody will agree with that. Our job is to win a majority of the people to that view, and if they disagree patiently and un-patronisingly persuade enough of them otherwise. That is admittedly a huge task. It won’t happen overnight and there will be huge hostility from people with a vested interest in preserving the status quo.
But as the huge mandate for Jeremy showed in 2015, there is an appetite for these ideas. I remember vividly sitting in a huge meeting at the Muath Centre in Birmingham in the summer of 2015 witnessing people, many of them new to politics, applauding Jeremy for simply advocating public ownership, as they did all over the country.
The “moderate” candidates inspired and convinced no one.
Turning finally to Sadiq’s rather cheap jibe that Labour needs to “get in the habit of winning elections”, if I may be so bold as to respond with a cheap but pertinent jibe of my own, he played a significant enough role in the leadership of the post-2010 Labour Party to have to shoulder some of the blame himself for persistent failures. It’s also worth pointing that that Sadiq owes his fantastic victory to the work of Labour members, many of whom voted for Jeremy and all of whom are desperate for a Labour government.
We face a huge task to win a majority in 2020 and all sides of the debate need to learn lessons from previous errors. But Jeremy has taken a huge first step in that learning process; in making it clear that a new kind of politics and a new set of policies are necessary to take us back to power; and attempting to give control back of the party to its members.
The next necessary step is in reversing decades of Labour neglect in the North and Scotland, and winning over the millions of working class voters who have deserted us for UKIP, the Greens and the SNP by convincing them that a future Labour government will not leave them behind and has answers to the problems that affect their daily lives.
I really hope Sadiq Khan, Liz Kendall et al think again over the coming months. They are both highly capable politicians, can both play an important role in Labour’s revival and I firmly believe that Sadiq will be a wonderful mayor of London. But travelling back to the certainties of the mid-90s isn’t an option either for his administration or the future of the Labour Party.