The recent election results were a mixed blessing for the Labour party. Despite coming first in terms of national vote share in the local elections and seeing the further collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote, the successes clearly did not lift the spirits of the party rank and file. This was partly due to the fact that UKIP topped the poll nationally in the European Parliament elections and a feeling even among some candidates that Labour’s campaign, especially the party election broadcast, left much to be desired. The Newark by-election was also very disappointing for Labour, coming third behind the Tories and UKIP.
Since the elections attention has tended to focus on the troubles of the Liberal Democrats with the resignation of Lord Oakeshott as well as controversy over some recently elected UKIP members. Very little serious attention has focussed on the future path of the Labour party.
Let us be under no illusions that if we are of a social democratic or democratic socialist perspective then we must have a majority Labour government in 2015. A further term of Conservative rule would spell the end of the welfare state. There should be no room for compromise with the Liberal Democrats who have, by and large, supported this Tory-dominated government. It is not just that the Liberal Democrats would have to change their leader for there to be a Lab-Lib Coalition. The Liberal Democrats sacrificed their political beliefs for a spell in government. The party is at fault and not just its leader.
Some argue that Labour must tag to the right citing the recent successes of UKIP in attracting support from traditional working-class voters. Certainly there is considerable anger among Labour’s traditional core that their party left them behind. However, any attempt to tag to the right to imitate UKIP will be disastrous as we will always be outdone in any bidding war on issues of Euroscepticism and immigration control.
Instead, we should offer a more radical and distinctive alternative that reconnects with Labour’s lost support. Between 1997 and 2010 Labour lost approximately 5 million votes. While some of those drifted to the right many simply abstained. The Labour Party was no longer their party.
Yet more argue that the best way of winning the next election is to be cautious, pragmatic and not create false hope of unachievable promises. Wealthier, suburban voters, largely in the south of England would be turned off by making more radical promises and it is those who are needed to win the next election.
Again, this view would be a mistake. The Labour Party is on the path to electoral defeat if all it can offer is lukewarm Toryism, with slightly less austerity. Why vote for someone else if all that is on offer is the same?
Others have sought to blame the current position of the Labour party on its leader. However, Ed Miliband has the right instincts as seen over the Bedroom Tax, energy companies and concentrated press ownership. It is doubtful that any of the other serious contenders for the leadership would have taken this course had they been successful. The current leadership is at its best when it is boldest.
So the only option open to Labour now is to set out a bold alternative. This alternative agenda should include the following:
- A programme of structural reform of the economy, rebalancing between productive and financial capitalism, seeing state intervention as a positive, fostering environmentally sustainable growth and tackling injustice in the workplace such as zero-hours contracts. We should also see scope for public ownership on a case by case basis where privatisation has failed starting with the railways.
- Creating a more egalitarian society, which as all the available evidence shows would be more just, healthier and content. This will mean introducing the living wage enforced by law, closing tax loopholes, introducing a higher rate of income tax of 50% for those earning £100,000 per year with further taxation for the very top earners as a permanent measure, ending divisive free schools and academies and having a health system which effectively combines health and social care.
- Developing a more positive internationalist outlook recognising the benefits of EU membership and the positive effects of international aid and development as the best way of avoiding religious fundamentalism and terrorism. Unfortunately the sense of Britain’s place in Europe is now so fractured that the only way to revive it is through a referendum on continued membership in which the pro-European case must be put.
All of this requires an active, central state and the clear articulation of socialist values of equality, rights, social justice and liberty. It doesn’t mean dismissing out of hand the now widely shared belief in localism but it does mean recognising its limits. That only the central state can do certain things such as regulate the economy and that only the central state can do certain other things fairly, such as ending local and regional inequalities in income and wealth, educational attainment, ill health and life chances.
Finally, in keeping with Ed Miliband’s call for a left patriotism this would be a clear and rousing agenda capable of appealing to the better instincts of the British people at the next general election. Anything else would be to fundamentally let down the weakest and most vulnerable in society, who most depend on a Labour government in 2015.