Labour cannot be a heritage brand, but must build a vision for the future that has something for everyone, writes Andrew Harrop
The 20th anniversary of Labour’s extraordinary 1997 election campaign arrives at a very dark moment for the left in Britain. The triggering of Article 50 marks the moment where the UK turns away from a forward-looking European partnership to grasp at an imagined rose-tinted past. Meanwhile the Labour party seems incapable of opposing, let alone of competing for power. The party is weaker than at any time since the 1930s and while Labour’s problems go much deeper than Jeremy Corbyn, it is now clear that he cannot offer a way out of the morass.
It is also the second anniversary of Labour’s defeat in the 2015 election and that is a further reminder of the depth of the party’s crisis. For what has Labour achieved in those two years? It has failed to prevent cuts and failed to stop Brexit. But has it come up with any new ideas at all, bar the idealistic but empirically flawed notion of replacing all benefits with a universal basic income? In its unsuccessful defence of the status quo Labour is a bad conservative party. In its half-hearted, unsubstantiated prosecution of ideas that will never work, it is a bad socialist party. If that is all the left has to offer, we deserve to lose: Labour now needs a re-set that is just as far-reaching as the one which preceded the 1997 victory.
However, that should not be confused with seeking to recreate New Labour, whose economic assumptions were far too complacent. Nor should the party ape the right’s 1950s nostalgia, even in these culturally anxious times. Labour cannot be a heritage brand of workplaces and communities that no longer exist. Yes, it should be a party of security and belonging, not just ambition and opportunity, but one that reflects the lives we will lead in the decades to come.
This is one of the lessons of the 1990s. Then New Labour combined an inspirational story about the country’s bright future, which the left has always needed in order to win, along with more traditional values of community, protection, responsibility and nationhood. Blair in office and Miliband in opposition forgot this and increasingly pitched their message exclusively towards the young, restless and aspirational.
To find the sweet spot between cultural conservatism and impatient progress, the left must start by raising its eyes to the horizon. We must deeply interrogate how the fabric of life in Britain will change in the decade ahead, and what that will mean for the nation’s political psyche. It is likely to be a time of intensifying poverty, rising pressures on family budgets and crippling business uncertainty. But it will also be a decade where extraordinary new technologies permeate ever more widely, with implications for our cultural, social and family life as well as the world of work. In this terrain, Labour’s agenda must promise security, power and opportunity for all.
The way we imagine ourselves as a people will also catch up with creeping demographic change, as we realise that the country is far older and far less white-British than we think. That has big implications for public policy but also for political culture. The chances are that we will become both more open-minded and more focused on community and security – more liberal and more communitarian – not only because the nation will be demographically diverse but also because each of us is a bundle of competing emotions.
Our goal must be to unite people in our ever less homogenous society – to build bridges, when others seek to divide – by appealing to the better angels of our nature and by painting a vision of a future which has something for everyone. In other words, Labour must be the one nation party: the British left will make its comeback when it can tell stories that bring people together, provide reassurance and are optimistic about what is to come. Just like in 1997.
Image: James Lewis / jwestonlewis.co.uk