The psychodrama of the Blair-Brown era is over but our new leader shouldn't forget what New Labour taught us. Here are ten lessons for the new leader.
The candidates have gone through a gruelling process of hustings around the country. Now, as the ballot papers go out to members, trade unionists and members of the parliamentary party, it’s decision time for all of us. And, however low-key the contest has been, it would be wrong to underestimate the crucial importance of this decision. The party is taking a decision that will shape its future in the coming years.
We’ve heard a lot about the decisions various candidates thought were wrong in the past and it’s fair to point out where the Labour government fell short. But leadership isn’t always about telling people what they want to hear – it’s also about telling them what they need to hear, even when that can be a difficult message to deliver.
And, to state the obvious, we’re not just electing a party leader. For Labour, it should always be about electing someone we want, and believe, can be the next prime minister. That means someone who can take the argument to the Tories, have the judgement to know which ground to fight on, and who can bring us into the next election with a renewed programme for government. Labour doesn’t exist to protest. We exist to make change for the better and to do that we need to win.
The Blair-Brown era is over and we will all be glad to leave the personal psychodrama behind. But there are also things about New Labour we shouldn’t leave behind: the broad alliance between the working class and middle Britain; the determination to root our politics in the public; the hard-won reputation for economic competence we developed both in opposition and in government; and a focus on the issues of the future.
So what are the top ten New Labour lessons for our new leader?
1 Understand that what much of the public means by fairness and what Labour politicians mean are often different things. For many people, fairness in public services is about the concept of exchange – people feel they have paid in and, on that basis, can draw down, be it in health treatment, social housing, pensions and so on. Yet often, public goods are not allocated on the basis of exchange but purely on the basis of need. It can be argued this is the fairest way to distribute goods, yet the perceived absence of an inbuilt concept of reciprocity lies at the root of much anger about issues as varied as the banks, housing allocation, welfare benefits and immigration. Those who raise concerns about these issues are asserting that fairness should be related to what you put in, as well as what you take out.
2 Reward work and endeavour. There are few resentments greater than the notion that thrift and responsibility become penalised because some who could work don’t. The incentives should point to work making you better off.
3 Empower people. The days of ‘take what you are given’ should be left behind. The ‘big society’ is code for abandonment because it will be an excuse for withdrawing support from communities, but empowerment matched by resources is good and will liberate people from substandard services and from the frustration often felt by those dealing with bureaucracy. Those with the financial means already enjoy power and choice. Finding a way to put similar power and choice in the hands of all should be an important aim of the centre left in the 21st century and should be at the heart of what we have to say about public services.
4 Support wealth creation as well as its distribution. Labour should be passionate that Britain must be a vibrant entrepreneurial economy and have as its ambition to be among the best countries in the world in which to set up a business, see it grow and contribute to our national wealth.
We were right to put a floor of decency under the labour market, to improve employment rights and rebalance work and family life, but we must also show that we understand business costs and get the balance right.
5 Be a champion of industry. We stand on the cusp of a second industrial revolution as we make the transition to a lower-carbon economy. It poses challenges but also presents huge opportunities. Britain should seize them. We should believe in a Britain that makes things as well as delivering great services. We are stronger in manufacturing than we think. The Tory and Liberal Democrat rejection of Labour’s support for new industrial opportunities like the nuclear supply chain, wind turbine manufacturing and other green investment, as well as the government’s plans to cut investment allowances for new machinery, pose a threat to the modernisation of our manufacturing industries. The coalition seems not to understand the active role needed by government in this area and, for a new leader, this is a cause worth fighting for with passion and determination.
6 Equip people for the future and make access to the jobs of the future a core part of life. Talk of new industries and new jobs will ring hollow if people don’t feel they have a chance to do the new jobs. People need the chance to learn not only at school but in adult life too. It should be part of government’s contract with the public that we will give them every chance to do the jobs of the future. Whoever can simplify and sharpen the skills offer in apprenticeships, in-work training, regular chances to study throughout life and taking pride in the technical skills needed to do a job well, will do a great service to both individual opportunity and wider economic success.
7 Help families balance home and work life. Time is a precious resource. We can’t make more of it. So it is right that we help young families and parents trying to hold down jobs and raise young children. And we should be delivering public services in a way most convenient to the customer, for whom time is limited.
8 Remember that our case for public services is only meaningful to people if they feel safe in their own homes and their own streets. We must empower people to fight against those who destroy the quality of life in local areas. Fighting crime and antisocial behaviour and sticking up for the decent people who obey the rules and show respect to others should be a core Labour cause.
9 Understand the security threat we face. The attacks on the London underground five years ago were not an isolated incident. There have been other plots since and the ideology behind these attempts is alive and, in all likelihood, planning more. Behind all the coalition’s talk of sweeping away the ‘surveillance state’ lies a danger of complacency in simply wishing away the security threat that we face.
10 Be optimistic about the future. Yes, the recession has been tough but the coming years don’t have to be a dark and austere period. This country has great strengths and is regarded as a wonderful country right around the world. Britain isn’t broken. Be proud of what we are. And give hope about what we can become.
This article is also available on the Progress Online website. Posted on 14 September 2010.