It’s been a long three months for Labour party supporters. Crushing electoral defeat followed by full-blown existential crisis is enough to fatigue even the most hardened enthusiasts. Add to the mix weeks of hand wringing over whether new members are the ‘right sort’, plus numerous calls to halt the entire leadership contest, and you’d be forgiven for disconnecting your broadband and refusing CLP raffles.
Today’s posting of ballot papers, then, may feel like some light at the end of the tunnel. Come September 12, Labour will have a new leader and a new deputy. Of course, that person’s task will be far from over – what are they going to do with their hard-won power? How are they going to ensure Labour thrives when the long shadow cast by the financial crisis limits the potential for public spending, and faith in the ability of political institutions to tackle complex social problems has collapsed? Most significantly, how will they secure the Labour party’s fundamental mission of creating a more equal society?
Enter the Fabian essays. We put those central questions to all four of the leadership candidates, and their responses were many and varied. For a race in which some candidates have been criticised for their homogeneity, these essays tease out stark differences in priorities.
Let’s take each alphabetically – the only way to do it fairly, as every news outlet knows.
Andy Burnham is unapologetic in his focus on aspiration, though he concedes the word is “controversial – seen as code for the days when Labour focused on families living in certain parts of the country who shop at more upmarket outlets”.
In steadfastly refusing to use the word ‘Waitrose’, Burnham is practising what he preaches on targeting voters. “We have used a ‘mosaic’ marketing system which segments the public and puts patronising labels on them” he writes. On this point at least, he and Jeremy Corbyn find common ground: this phenomenon is “machine politics”, writes Corbyn, and it “constructs the electorate as ‘Terraced Melting Pot’, or ‘New Homemakers’ or ‘Suburban Mindsets’.”
Labour must leave this behaviour behind, argues Burnham, because aspiration is universal – everyone has the same hopes and dreams, of a decent home, secure job, prospects for their kids and proper care for their parents. “Helping everyone get on” should be Labour’s raison d’etre, in fact.
Leader Burnham therefore would set out plans for a revolution in technical education, giving it the same prestige and support that comes with university. The UK’s lack of focus on this has been “one of the greatest failures of post-war public policy”, and an inevitable consequence of education policy shaped for decades by university graduates. “No wonder so many people feel politics doesn’t speak to them”, he says, “I will take Labour out of the ‘Westminster bubble’ and make it the vehicle for the hopes and dreams of ordinary people once again.”
Education is also central to Yvette Cooper’s essay, who says government focus should be on tackling inequality by preparing children for the jobs of the future. Giving children confidence in their abilities is also crucial for Cooper – “this is a big social mobility issue. If life elsewhere doesn’t give people confidence in themselves, then we need to make sure schooling does.”
She has much to say on Labour’s response to the challenges of a changing economy, and the global digital revolution, too: “unlike in the industrial revolution, we are getting left behind rather than leading the world”, she writes. In a bid to reverse this trend, Cooper would set a target of 3 per cent GDP investment in research and development from our private and public sector – “we can aim to achieve what other powerful economies do – higher proportions of their workforce in good manufacturing jobs.”
Jeremy Corbyn’s words are dedicated, almost exclusively, to the need to listen to “our people” and become a movement again. “The people who organise in their work-place or who are active in their communities – they are our best advocates. And if we listen to those people, we can produce a shared vision that can take the country with us,” he writes.
To this end, Corbyn would review membership fees so they are as inclusive as possible, and order a review of Labour’s policy-making process to ensure that it is inclusive, accessible and participatory because “the more we exclude our people, the weaker we are. The more we involve them, the stronger we will be.”
On the economy, he is adamant that Labour must “bust the myth that there is less money around and austerity is inevitable.” Austerity is not an economic necessity but a political choice, he argues, and Labour should offer a vision for a modern, prosperous and sustainable alternative that works for all, not just a few.
Liz Kendall’s essay begins with an declaration that Labour lost “because we didn’t trust people.” Her emphasis is on supporting people to do things for themselves – “that is the only way we’ll tackle the inequalities that are growing in Conservative-ruled Britain”, she says.
Kendall would prioritise building a living wage society, give public sector workers a pay rise and find the money to restore working tax credits – but she argues that achieving equality is about much more than that: “being equal is about how we’re treated by the people and the institutions around us. It’s about living in circumstances which give us self-respect, dignity and a sense of control over our own lives.” Power in people’s hands is what Labour has always stood for, she writes – it must help people to help themselves, and one another too.
Kendall is the most decisive on devolution, seeing it as a central solution to inequalities of wealth, opportunity and power. Kendall’s devolution vision is “radical and vast” – a comprehensive, nationwide model, working with cities towns and counties to help them take on more power and responsibility over welfare, housing, health, education, transport and economic growth. “As leader, I want Labour to win power in order to give it away”, she concludes.
Taken together, these essays present a pretty convincing vision of what Labour’s future might look like – coherent measures to increase social mobility, devolution that goes further than Osborne’s ‘my way or the highway’ model, tackling Britain’s productivity problem through better technical education and boosting pay, and greater consultation from a broad range of people on policy making. Behind the headlines, all four have got something to offer the party – now all we can do is vote, and wait.
Read the full essay collection here.