By Peter Kyle MP
The argument strongly believes that the centre left only really triumphs when it mobilises a national and international political message of hope. In this country Labours three great majorities were for winning the peace in 1945; harnessing technology on the side of the people in 1966 and ensuring that the economy could operate with social justice as well as growth in 1997. These were big historical hopeful narratives. We win – we win well – when we rally the public with a message of hope and optimism.
The current politics of the referendum campaign shows how far we have to go in developing the centre left into a political movement for hope and confidence. The dominant political message of both the Remain and the Leave campaigns have been concerned with different messages of fear and loss. We agree that the public should be afraid of Britain becoming a country that would try to make its economic and political future on its own. For at least the rest of this century the economic, political and human tides will severely reduce our ability to thrive on our own. Harking back to an 18th century where we could develop an Empire is risible in a world where our nation has so little individual power. So the remain camp are right to argue for our future in a stronger Europe rather than on our own.
In the battle between two sets of fears – it’s correct that we should remain. But as many people have commented about this campaign, there has been little positive to motivate people for. On June 24 we trust the public will vote to stay- but they won’t wake up that day with a spring in their step looking forward to our country playing a new and better part in a new and better Europe. Instead they will remain where they were at the beginning of the campaign.
We know we are not alone in making this point. Most commentators from all sides have discussed how they find the campaign depressing in its twin pessimisms. Is this all our country can offer?
The argument is in a different position from most of these commentators. For a start we have a responsibility to move beyond comment. Its fair enough political media commentators lamenting the failure of British political culture to be a better culture. Each seems to yearn to live in a different time when politics was more intellectual or just … better. That’s their job. There is nothing wrong – as long as the whole country doesn’t do it – with standing on the side-lines and wringing hands at how hopeless everything in politics is.
Our responsibility is to build an argument that will lead to a different politics. If we are a long way from the centre left politics of hope- what do we do now- to build the political actions for that politics of hope.
For a start the centre left needs to recognise our responsibility in getting to the barren lack of hope in today’s politics.
• We have become too tactical;
• we have failed to make a robust case for the mass opportunity contained in the modern world;
• we have failed to develop an economics which demonstrates how prosperity can reach the whole of society
• we have failed to a vision of our place in the international world which contains an active optimistic Britain in a difficult world
This is not an exhaustive list – but it’s a good list of our failures to start with.
The first thing to say is that since these failures have been committed for a few years- then it is likely to take a few years to develop real answers on the ground. The argument is in for the long haul. But rather than be daunted by how long this will take- it’s important to start now.
Starting means starting on June 24. Any hope of any kind for a centre left vision of the future depends upon remain winning on the 23rd- so in this editorial lets prematurely count those votes as if they have gone the right way.
We are not even sure what the phrase traditional Labour voter means any more – but it is certain that a considerable number of those who have voted Labour in the past will have voted to leave the EU on June 23.
From that date UKIP believes that they can in England play the same politics that the SNP played in Scotland after they majority voted to stay in the UK. The SNP painted the Labour Party in Scotland as a part of an establishment that wanted to status quo. Given many ‘traditional Labour voters’ did not want to stay in the UK, the SNP were able to claim that the Labour Party had left them.
In the SNP argument the very idea of a traditional voter is turned on its head. Its true their argument went that you have been a part of a tradition but that tradition has now rejected you. You wanted an independent Scotland more than anything else- and that Labour tradition has left you.
UKIP will want to argue that in many parts of the country the pro EU Labour Party has left the leave Labour voters. And, UKIP believes, it is this act of betrayal by the Labour Party that has broken the bond of allegiance. You didn’t leave Labour they will claim- Labour has left you.
There is an important flaw in the comparison. The referendum in Scotland swept that country and its people into a deep passion about who everyone was and what that meant for their lives. Hen parties were riven with dispute; arguments at bus stops and in cafes were the order of the day for several weeks.
For those that wanted independence and didn’t get it, there was an enormous sense of momentum being stopped. For them independence was the next thing; was the movement forward they felt we needed. After the result it became a mass movement of disappointment.
But unlike the pro Independence campaign in Scotland, the Leave campaign hasn’t mobilised millions with a vision of history present and future. Sturgeon linked the emotion of the past of Braveheart, the current and seeming security of our oil with the joy of a future freedom from England into a powerful and deep argument. The day after the referendum and losing that vision of a past present and future, a previous Labour voter could feel betrayed by Labours unionism.
But lets face it Boris Johnson aint no Nicola Sturgeon
The leave campaign have been trying to fashion the same passion about their vision of the UK but with no clear future. They have tried hard to mobilise visions of an English past where they dredge up 18th 19th and 20 century moments of British history for images that will paint a picture of brave isolation in the 21st century. This has made it a campaign about our heroic past.
But where has been the joy of their vision of the future. The clearest image of the country that they seem to want is 1956 probably just a few weeks before Suez.
That monochrome world just a few years on from when we had “stood alone”; when we could look at our new jet liners and think we made the future; when even though there was more Commonwealth than Empire, much of it was still pink on the map.
This past vision of the future will work for some of the English population- but it doesn’t make the visionary world for millions to live in in the same way that Scottish Independence did.
After June 23 UKIP will not have such a fertile and disenchanted group of frustrated voters as the Scot Nats did.
BUT its true that on June 24 there will be many Labour voters (as on in May 2015) who have a longer term dissatisfaction with Labour. And, from June 24, it is this frustration that we need to talk to them about.
The great Labour institutions of the post war welfare state – the building blocks of Beveridge and Labours good society- have failed for a section of the very people it was meant to work with – segments of the semi-skilled and unskilled working class.
Labour always believed in the way in which hard work at school could bring social and economic progress for generations. The last 40 years have seen a significant failure of comprehensive education to provide that conveyor belt to a better safer life for the some of the white working class. For those children from unskilled and semi-skilled families, boys especially, 12 years of compulsory education has left too many untouched.
In our second edition Georgia Gould outlined for detached many of these young people had become from the opportunities that are there for others.
Reforming those 12 years of compulsory education to ensure that they provide a stairway to a secure future for those children that are at the moment failed by it must be where we start.
For some of these upset ex Labour voters a more secure future based on their children’s education would act as a hook for a new conversation. The same would be true for better, more inclusive and involving public services that worked with them to develop better homes or health care. The 10-15 years of lower life expectancy and the many more years of living with pain suffered by this section of working people have not been a success of Labours policy on health and the NHS.
In a world of globalisation, not having the security of qualifications of owning their own home has left people to be pushed around on their own by powerful global forces. In some parts of the country globalisation has brought good skilled jobs where the workforce at Nissan and Hitachi have some of the most secure jobs in the country. But in the next neighbourhood from this security, the need to scrabble together 2 or 3 very different unsecure jobs to make ends meet, leaves people feeling they are facing world pressures on their own.
Being left alone to face these changes has quite rightly made people angry. Their world is mainly one of generational loss- and the worry that their children’s future is much worse. The culture that people had to make sense of their world has gone with the economy that had created it. Blaming their new neighbours for these changes is understandable and provides them with a narrative that at least makes sense of their insecurity.
Leaving people to face such economic turbulence on their own has been a failure by the Labour Party in Government and people are right to feel let down.
However there is a growing centre left consensus of where we should start to develop a new politics for such a conversation.
As with most of what the Argument is saying this conversation has to start with an apology. We didn’t hear – let alone listen- and we didn’t recognise how our social and economic policies failed to address your concerns.
Second an abstract argument on how globalisation has helped British society and economy does not work in the concrete of your world. All successful economies, in the last 20 years Germany and the US for example depend upon migrant labour for that success. The same has been true for the British economy. But within that success there are large areas of the economy where migration increases economic insecurity.
Labour should have started to recognise this by introducing a legal living wage from the 1960s. In Government we should have ensured that this rose in line with average living standards over the last 50 years. We should have provided not only a floor but one that was sturdy in the face of economic turbulence. One that could have bene depended on by generations of Britons.
One of the industries where this would have made the most impact is the care industry. Here in the last few months the fact that staff caring for the most vulnerable people in our society with get a few extra pounds a week has caused a crisis for that industry. Shame on us all for allowing this to happen. Its true and inevitable that better paid carers will lead to a higher price for care- but how can paying more for better care be a wrong priority for our society. And how can having low paid carers help anybody at all.
Let’s spend more policy and political time and effort working on how to develop a stable economic floor for all people who work in our society. This won’t abolish all the insecurities of the market- but, if it is rigorously enforced, will ensure that the pains of the worse off in that labour market are similar to those of the best off.
Second there has been much discussion of the pressure on public services that has been caused by migration. Let’s make sure that all the funding formulae for all public services reflect this. And with much more precision and speed than at the moment.
Since the late 1960s the funding formulae for education the NHS and all local government services have tried to reflect the pressures caused by migration. But these developments have been broad brush and waited until the census figures had worked themselves through. It hasn’t helped me to know when my children go to a school full of portakabins that my distant local authority will get extra money in 10 years’ time. My children need more teachers and teaching assistants with better equipment here and now.
We will watch with interest as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage argue for extra resources for public services in those localities with higher migrant populations. We will look even closer to see which of the locations without migrants these will be taken from.
A hopeful internationalism cannot be built on a society where so many people feel they have been held back by economic and social forces beyond their nation. As our contributors show- there are clear arguments for how a better European project can, in a difficult world, improve the prospects for our country.
This argument must not rest on abstractions alone. Labour needs to make the detailed political and economic case for how better public services and an international economy can provide better life chances for all and not just the better off.
Peter Kyle MP