Past mistakes and future hopes
By Peter Kyle MP
The failure of the centre left has been building for some time.
Over the last few years, we have failed to carry out the hard work of politics in publicly developing our policy and our politics for the modern world.
Commentators all have their own take on what we have done badly. If we want to now improve our position we must base it in part on our analysis of what we have done wrong in the last few years.
Many suggest all of this needs to be sorted in the next few months or the Labour party will collapse. Some are using a time of anxiety for the centre left to argue for immediate action and a frenzy of activity. Of course we need to act and mobilise, but we also need to build our position over time. In the Labour party in the 1980s things looked bleak for some time. We thought and organised our way out of it over a decade. This will take time.
We disappeared. Successful politics is a public activity. For the last few years we have failed to publicly stake out positions and argue for them openly. Over every day of these years there may have been a good reason to keep quiet – an election looming or the need for party unity – but the end result of days of quiet has been several years of silence. No one was gagging us. We were keeping ourselves quiet. The Argument is one way that we will find our voice once again.
We stopped making politics happen. Politics is about activity. It is not a private seminar of friends. For three decades from the 1980s the centre left was used to the hard work of political activity. Daily graft and annual strategy. And when the centre left played a role in government, the work and energy went there. Daily activity and thinking about the future was channelled, quite rightly, into the work of running the country. But, out of government, we became passive and failed to engage with the commotion of daily politics. Words are important. But it is true that, in politics, actions speak louder than words.
We came to think policy was easy. Looking back at the last few years this all looks a bit lazy. We seemed to forget the hard work of developing ideas. Because, for a period in the 90s and noughties, the centre left made the political and policy weather, we wrongly felt that our work was done. But, at any one time, authority may appear durable but, of course, other ideas and philosophies are competing all the time and create new ways of looking at the world. Clearly, in 2015 our position was far from one of authority and we now need to do that hard work of regaining that position.
We forgot that renewal needs to be constant. New Labour was only a point in time. It renewed centre-left politics at an important moment and successfully engaged with the public over more than a decade. But that was then. And this is now. Hanging on to a set of ideas from 20 years ago is not renewal. Renewal by its very nature needs to keep happening. So many exciting things about the world we live in in 2016 simply did not exist 20 years ago. We need to renew our politics for this world, not the one before last.
Not included in this criticism, of course, are those people dispersed throughout our movement who stood for selection, election, or on platforms and committees, and gave up countless hours in frontline campaigns in order to reconnect Labour with the electorate. The party as a whole let them down as it did the electorate, not the other way around.
Serious politics is long term. For understandable reasons, many have become very gloomy about the prospects of the centre left. But they forget the longer term of politics. After the 1987 election many people thought that Labour would never win again. A view that was reinforced when Labour lost, for a fourth time, in 1992. Serious analyses recounted the breakdown of the industrial working class and with it the bedrock of Labour voters. After 2005 many people thought that the Conservatives would never win again. They had lost touch with the modern world and spent all their time banging on about Europe. Within a decade both predictions were completely wrong. The current prophecies about the Labour party will be wrong as well.
The Argument for centre left politics will play a role in helping us to move on from these mistakes. The Argument will be made and conducted in public.
We are publishing a journal to clearly develop our policy and politics in public. The centre left needs to develop its argument in public by engaging fully with a wide range of other positions. At the moment, the Conservatives dominate the discussion of policy and politics, but as the party of government they will be judged by the competence of their social and economic outcomes and not just intentions. Whatever their rhetoric, inequality and economic insecurity will rise. Many of our fellow citizens will remain trapped in traditional – and subservient – relationships with the public services they rely on. And, by 2020, Britain’s place in Europe and the world will be more fragile than it is now. To help solve these problems we need robust public arguments about how to change our society. The Argument will engage in that.
The Argument will play a role in making centre left politics happen. That argument needs to take place at many levels. What is clear from both the general election and the Labour leadership election is that it needs to engage with people’s emotional intelligence and not just with policy technicalities. It needs to engage at the level of developing a world view that can move people. And it also needs to demonstrate practical policy that can solve real economic and social problems. There is a danger that the Labour party becomes a party that simply enjoys being the party of protest. That’s a small canvas to paint on. The Argument with others needs to ensure that we develop political solutions for the wider public and not just the fringes of demonstrations.
The Argument will do some hard work in thinking things through. Don’t expect a new manifesto by Easter. If we knew the answers to everything we would publish them, but we don’t. Developing new policies and politics is not the matter of a few clever people and a set of seminars. The Argument will ensure that we don’t only start a set of debates but will engage with people so that these arguments convince in the real world of politics. This takes hard work and some false starts. We want to engage with as many people as possible in carrying out this hard work and will look for opportunities for as much joint work as possible. We also wish to help restore some civility and a sense of respect to Labour’s argument. We believe it is possible to disagree, without being disagreeable. So that is how we want to conduct The Argument.
The Argument will be all about current renewal not past glories. Over 20 years has passed since Tony Blair’s election as Labour leader. Reeling off policies from the past will not work. From 2016, The Argument is working to renew centre left politics in entirely new conditions. Demography is different; the economy is different; the world is different. That means spending some time fully understanding these new social and economic conditions. And then developing politics and policy that works for now and the future. So this is the renewal the centre left today. New Labour it isn’t.
The Argument will go on for a decade or more. Too many people set the possibilities of politics from what is around them at the moment. That’s a mistake. Politics is a business of the long term. That’s why we are launching The Argument for at least a decade. That’s not to say that we will achieve nothing until some moment in 2026. We would hope for some impact along the away. Too many people are looking at the current political landscape and “reading off” the future from the present. That’s a mistake because it sees politics as a passive activity. The point of politics is not just to analyse the world, the point is to actively change it.
We think The Argument will be an important journal, but it is only a journal. The Argument will not be an intervention in organisation. That is important work, but others will do it. Nonetheless, we will play a role in re-establishing the centre left as the driving force in British politics.
– Peter Kyle MP
Photo: SW1A, Flickr