We know the “what” and the “why”, but does Labour know the “how” and the “when”?
By Karin Smyth MP | Read the argument by Philip Collins
Philip Collins provides a comprehensive overview of what Labour needs to do, and why we need to do it, offering helpful insight whether we’re refreshing our understanding of party history, or coming to it new.
Having joined Labour in 1985, campaigning and organising as we worked our way back to power in 1997 and 13 years in government, the “what” and “why” became ingrained in me over decades. But last year’s general election defeat and the summer schism forced us all to reflect and rethink. For me, Collins helpfully catalyses one outcome: the need for a new generation to own the “what” and “why” of our party.
Yet, as an eternal pragmatist, I tend to be more interested in the “how” and the “when”. On this, too, Collins’ thoughts can help us progress.
Many elements of his article evoked head-nodding, none more so than his contention that contribution must be an essential driver of levels of help available from the welfare state to individuals. As he argues, we are “a party committed to the dignity and importance of labour” and all that follows from it.
I have always been alienated by a philosophy that is pessimistic about human capacity. Being on the receiving end of a centrist goal of doing things “for” and “to” people – rather than “with” them – was never a positive reason to support Labour. It will be even less of one in the future. I also had the leftist tendency to prize the interest of the institution above the citizen shaken out of me at quite an early age.
There is a huge responsibility on those of us in representative and leadership roles to do just this: focus on driving forward, but never forget the value of the rear-view mirror.
There is a need for a relentless focus on Clause I of Labour’s constitution: “to organise and maintain in parliament and in the country a political Labour party”. Winning is what we must do. As one of just 12 Labour MPs in the south of England, I experience daily the frustration and futility of opposition. It’s this simple: when we fail to win elections we let down the people we seek to serve. And we have spent 75 per cent of our history in opposition.
We must be unsentimental and unsparing about our past. But we must also be careful, for there are many, many sound-but-fragile elements of our past that have served the party, and those we look to represent, very well. There is a huge responsibility on those of us in representative and leadership roles to do just this: focus on driving forward, but never forget the value of the rear-view mirror.
I am optimistic that on policy we can move our aspirations and commitments on to ground that affects the daily lives of those we exist to champion and represent. More housing both to rent and buy; addressing the collapse of social care whose impact spans generations; the value of the EU to jobs and security; the “fragmenting” of education and post-16 opportunities. These are all genuine concerns to people I speak to on doorsteps across my Bristol South constituency.
Never forget the Tories are desperately struggling to address the day-to-day concerns and priorities of the British people, locked as they are in to bean-counting and bowing to rampant markets. “Cameronism” is neither a political philosophy nor a purposeful project.
If that’s the “how”, one last thing: “when?” Collins doesn’t spell out how long this vital work will take. None of us knows, but, on timescales, I’m less optimistic.
It will take time for enough of us to agree on policy. With our electoral system, fixed- term parliaments and the scale of our defeat in 2015 the “how” is problematic and means the “when” is best left open by me. But, barring unforeseen seismic events, it’s going to be a long game.
Karin Smyth is member of parliament for Bristol South