Blogpost: Labour politician reflects on the “Disintegrating” Labour Party

Blogpost by Cllr Gavin Callaghan

CONVENTIONAL political wisdom appears to be a thing of the past. Pundits and polls are no longer to be trusted. The public are purposely misleading pollsters and canvassers. What is more, what constitutes the rules that governed acceptable behaviour for candidates and campaigners have been torn up and rewritten in 2016, as the western world’s disdain for ‘experts’ has become all too apparent.

I wrote in December 2015 that if I knew what that year would have held for the Labour Party and progressive politics at the beginning of the year, I’d have emigrated to Australia. After 2016 I think the only place left to go is Mars.

So as I begin to analyse the political events of 2016 and consider what is in store for Labour in 2017 in places like Thurrock and Basildon, I think there are three lessons for those of us in the Party to learn quickly:

1) The generational divide in votes from young to old is understandable and the younger generation need to match the record of their elders

2) Labour has to find answers that appeal beyond our cities; immigration, the EU and the economy

3) Progressive politics has taken a battering. It will again in 2017, but it will be needed now more than ever.

In November I was invited back to Newcastle University to speak to the Politics Schools students. Like every student who turned up to listen that night, I had voted to remain in the EU. I told of them of how I struggled, for months following the result, not to feel bitter towards those over the age of 60 who had voted for Brexit, and condemned me and my generation to a two-decade long stalement.

Of course there were many reasons why Britain voted to leave the EU but one of the prevailing and so far unearthed stories for me, has been the real divide between young and old in the voting booths.

To me it didn’t make sense; rights and protections that they have seen demonstrably improve their lives – from disability rights to employment rights and maternity rights, all EU legislation that the Tories will now be at liberty to scrap. Why would you vote to make your life worse, not better? It didn’t make sense to me, and I wrestled with it for months.

But then I asked the students to tell me why they thought their parents and grandparents had voted to leave? I asked them to think about what, in the twenty-one years for which they had been alive, were the stand out policies of the British Government that they saw as being so instrumental in changing their lives, the country and yielding lasting positive influence on the world stage?

In a room full of Russel Group University students, the responses were limited to say the least – gay marriage and devolution. That was all they had.

Then I asked them what a twenty-one-year-old student would have said, if asked the exact same question, in that same room, in 1966. The answers illustrated my point – the creation of the National Health Service, the invention of the Welfare State, the New Towns Act to help house people who lost their homes in the air bombings, the creation of the United Nations, NATO and the beginnings of the European Economic Community.

The generation of voters who decided the referendum result in the UK in 2016, had been the same generation of voters who had seen monumental political change happen in their lifetimes. They had then seen the slow, ebbing away of political influence every day since to the point that they now lived in a country where politicians from all parties can take more than 15 years to get agreement to build a runaway at an airport! You have to agree; it does make the Mother of all Parliaments look somewhat redundant when that becomes the extent of our infrastructure programmes.

My point is that politics pre-1973 was for many people, a true battle of ideas. It was the arena where people did stand tall, where they had the courage to speak their ideas and put into practice their values through policies that changed lives of all social classes and the country, for the better. And they did it against an unforgiving backdrop of a half century of wars and a Cold War threatening to rip the East of Europe apart for good and hand the Soviet Union supremacy over the Americans.

Today our politics is too inhibited, and in truth, what is our excuse?

What backdrop is so insurmountable for our MPs and Councillors that they cannot overcome it with bold ideas for the future of the next five decades? Yes, there is a financial crisis and yes we face terrorist activity of a new kind that ignores orthodox rules of warfare. But does the UK and the West really not have the capacity to meet the challenges of strained public services, falling educational standards in our schools or think boldly enough to find a cure for cancer through continued investment in R&D?

Perhaps now Members of Parliament are expected to be clones without any history or any skeletons. Is that why they are too scared to say things in the House of Commons for fear that it will be tweeted or shared on Facebook within seconds, never allowing them to correct the record or add the necessary context? Is this why politics is devoid of the big ideas that previous generations were used to seeing enacted?

It is true that Whitehall is gripped by a paralysis that means the major policy issues of our day, including how we care for our disabled and elderly citizens in the social care system is simply deemed “too difficult to fix”. So instead it is ignored for another five years until it becomes someone else’s’ problem. We’re told that wage depression is a necessary consequence of austerity because the seventh richest country in the world is at the mercy of the banks – not one of whom has faced any criminal charges for the casino-style chaos they caused almost a decade ago.

What is worse, is that we do not have credible leaders willing to step up to this challenge. David Cameron has proven to be one of the worst Prime Minister’s in recent history, failing to understand the country at an even basic level. Theresa May has gone on to preside over the most hapless first six months in office of any recent PM, as she is held to ransom by Tory rebel MPs who want a hard Brexit and she is undermined at every turn by Boris and David Davis. Meanwhile the Labour Leadership contest of 2016 threw up not one single candidate capable of winning a General Election.

And that leads me to the second lesson which is around the Labour Party’s continued irrelevance from mainstream politics in towns and villages outside of the major UK cities.

In London, Manchester and Liverpool, Labour continues to do well politically, winning the Mayoralty in the capital in 2016 and likely winning the mayoralties in Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City-Region in 2017. Yet the messages that work in these three cities, don’t translate to towns like Basildon and Thurrock, that Labour must win in order to form a Government again.

I was clear through 2016 that I believed Corbyn was incapable of becoming the Prime Minister. In fact, I think his performance in the EU referendum campaign was unworthy of the Leader of the Labour Party. It lacked urgency, clarity or the desire to persuade, influence and win. In all, it amounted to reason enough for him to be displaced and I fully supported the MPs who left the frontbench and urged him to resign. But so long as the Socialist Worker’s Party, Greens, Conservatives and UKIP supporting members of the public can have a vote in Labour’s leadership contests, Corbyn will remain in charge of a party that even President Obama has described this week as, “disintegrating”.

However, what I care more about in 2017, is Labour fashioning the answers to the key questions on immigration, Brexit and the economy. Because it is in these areas that there is a disconnect between what the London-centric Labour Shadow Cabinet think and what the rest of the country’s Labour representatives at local, regional and national level think.

Those of us outside of London are pleading with Corbyn to take Labour out of our comfort zone. That means ending our obsession with open borders, freedom of movement and the notion that immigrants are vital for the NHS so we should not oppose any greater controls on migrant flows into the UK. Such policy stances are not acquainted with the modern world.

And, ironically, it isn’t new for Labour Party councillors, MPs or members to be urging the party to get real over immigration either. It was ten years ago in 2006 that Labour’s most successful ever Prime Minister, Tony Blair, told the Labour Party conference in his last Leader’s Speech that, “When we can’t deport foreign nationals even when inciting violence, the country is at risk. Immigration has benefited Britain. But I know that if we don’t have rules that allow us some control over who comes in, goes out, who has a right to stay and who has not, then instead of a welcome, migrants find fear. We can only protect liberty by making it relevant to the modern world.”

The warnings of 2006 are just as relevant in 2016. The only material difference is that successive Labour leaders who followed Tony Blair did not understand the impact of immigration on the lives of people living outside of the big cities. Had they done so, I’m confident Labour’s position on freedom of movement would have changed well in advance of the referendum and the Labour strongholds of Nottingham, Leeds, Hull, Wigan and Sunderland that all voted strongly to leave the EU, would have thought twice.

On Brexit, Labour and the progressives of Europe must learn that we have lost the EU argument. Not just for 2016, but for good. With expected defeats for the Socialists in France and the Christian Democrats in Germany to come in 2017, Labour should be using this time, not to champion a busted flush as the Lib Dems appear to be, but to be thinking seriously about what the next multilateral organisation of the Western World’s super powers should look like. How free trade can underpin a new organisation that is mindful of the changing demographics and powers of the world, open to trading with new and emerging markets in the South Pacific region and strong enough to stand up to the likely increased levels of Russian aggression that will undoubtedly come in the next thirty years.

And on austerity, Labour must learn the language of the country. The word ‘austerity’ means nothing to almost everyone in the country. It is a preserve of the Islington elite who have read about poverty and competing economic theories in university textbooks. Every time Corbyn or McDonnell go onto the TV to talk about ‘austerity’ they sound more and more out of touch with the public.

Labour has to stop labelling everyone as “poor” and “struggling” and re-adopt the language of hope and ambition that saw us win big, three times in a row.

If Labour can do that. If Corbyn and his team can recognise that their approach over the last 18 months hasn’t worked and has led to a devastating blow to progressive politics through our leaving the EU, and if he can begin to understand where Labour went so badly wrong in 2016, the party may have a chance of ensuring progressive politics has a place in all four corners of our country.

After all, as Blair went on to say exactly a decade ago, “The true believer believes in social justice, in solidarity, in help for those not able to help themselves. They know the race can’t just be to the swift and survival for the strong. But they also know that these values, gentle and compassionate as they are, have to be applied in a harsh, uncompromising world and what makes the difference is not belief alone, but the raw courage to make it happen.”

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