Shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, talks to the Progress political school about learning the right lessons from our time in government, seizing the future and winning back lost voters.
The UK political landscape is being redefined. We have a governing coalition. The Conservatives are draped in progressive mantra to hide a historic fiscal contraction which will reshape the public sector and radically alter the relationship between citizen and state. The Liberal Democrats have chosen power over principle, in so doing ceding the limited trust the British public had placed in them. We are preparing to vote on a new voting system for what will be a smaller Parliament which may make it a bigger challenge for Labour to win again. UK society is changing dramatically and is influenced more than ever by events beyond our borders, which in recent days have been nothing short of revolutionary.
Labour’s challenge is to understand this change, have our own voice, shape these trends and define our version of the future.
To do so we need to change ourselves – in our policy, in how we organise, in our outlook.
The Tory victory was shallow but our defeat was deep. We lost 97 seats and almost five million votes since 1997. This huge electoral challenge provides the context in which we meet today. By-election gains, government u-turns and good media traction are all important signs that there is strength in Labour – but it is not enough to put us on the path to government. We have a long way to go.
There are four main points I want to make which I believe will contribute to our rebuilding to win again:
Learn the right lessons
- Learn the right lessons from our recent history
- Define our values
- Have our own argument
- Become a Movement again
As we rebuild our relationship with those voters we lost it is crucial that we have a clear view about a post-deficit Britain, a plan of our own to improve public services, a credible deficit reduction plan and that we learn the right lessons from our recent history.
It is important that as we look ahead we have a clear interpretation of our own record and in particular a clear assessment of New Labour.
In politics the past is the context and the future is the contest: we must understand New Labour to win again.
There is one school of thought which sees the financial crash and the scale of the defeat in 2010 as a natural result of a New Labour failure. New Labour, the argument goes, deregulated the private sector, commercialized the public sector and devalued community, all of which fractured the progressive coalition drawn by our promise of the mid-nineties.
The problem with this argument is that it is a one dimensional analysis. It fails to recognise the dynamism and innovation of New Labour and overlooks the great socially liberal changes brought about. It overlooks the improvements not just from income transfers but also from Labour’s reforms and modernisation. Public sector changes which brought in competition helped lead to lower waiting lists; record investment brought increased literacy and numeracy; a redistributive welfare state significantly increased support and incentivised work for lower and middle income workers; a strong role for the state in crime, security and family policy aimed at supporting a sense of solidarity.
But a traditional defence of New Labour is also troubled. There is a danger that it fails to appreciate the merits in critiques of New Labour where they do lie.
Both of these two arguments have more in common than they think. Both sentimentalise New Labour to the point that alone the analyses fail to learn the real lessons. Key to this is how we view tradition and history and how it should inform our future.
For too long there has appeared a choice between tradition and modernisation. A juxtaposition between ‘old’ and ‘new’ which has stifled debate. Tradition is seen by some as the path to a sepia-tinged interpretation of the world and an impediment to necessary change, whereas it should in fact be our guide.
Conserving what people cherish and embracing change should not be competing goals.
Labour has a rich and distinctive tradition in Britain’s social and political history from which we should continually draw.
Crosland’s vision of ‘social equality’ and the ‘good society’ are still measures by which we should judge our actions.
Wilson’s ‘White Heat of Technology’ demonstrates that Labour is successful when we have a sense of our future and reach beyond ourselves to try to shape new eras.
Nonconformists demonstrated the power of value-driven dissent. Trade Unions demonstrated the power of collective action to reshape the social order and redefine relationships between power, wealth and the individual.
Tradition is part of who we are, but it’s not an absolute moral standard. If we make that mistake modernisers put ‘tradition’ in a box marked ‘conservative’ and traditionalists put ‘modernisation’ in a box marked ‘Tory’.
There is a trade off: traditional practices, associations and institutions should further our modernisation, not constrain it, but that in turn requires an acceptance that those very elements of tradition themselves will need to change. That is to say traditions can themselves be made not just retained.
We must not sentimentalise our past but use it to shape our future.
Define our values
There is another important lesson.
Labour won’t win next time by joining others in claiming how bad Labour was last time. We should be proud of so much of what we achieved, from the National Minimum Wage to cutting crime to our social reforms on disability and equality.
New Labour was rightly criticised for defining itself against the Labour Party, but it is important that we don’t define ourselves against New Labour’s achievements. The quick sand of continual apology does not benefit us or those we aim to serve.
Of course we made some mistakes, but with two Parties wrecking our record we don’t have to make it a third. The Tories need to justify their pessimistic national view and their single policy of continuous cuts. The Liberals invest in alleged Labour profligacy to excuse their buying in to the Tories’ risky economic prospectus. We don’t need to join in. If we don’t stand up for our record no-one will.
Future credibility can come from a sincere conversation about our recent past, not serial confession.
Let me be clear, celebrating our achievements since 1997 is not the same as trying to re-launch New Labour. New Labour’s key insight was to use our past to shape a better future. The global financial crisis, the revolutions in North Africa and people’s appetite for greater control over their own lives make many of the solutions of a decade ago seem like they are from another age.
New Labour was created to address the question of how we marry Labour’s social democratic values with the modern reality of Britain’s post-Thatcher policy and economy. Now we must undertake the thinking capable of answering the question of what the post-crisis political economy will look like: how do we marry our values with a smaller state, mixed provision in public services and falling tax revenues? The challenge is to anticipate and lead the direction of reform. The answers lie neither in oppositionalism nor in the questions initially posed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown more than 15 years ago.
Future success has to be built on the firm foundations of the rigorous type of policy review that Ed Miliband has initiated.
New Labour drew on Labour tradition to win. Today Labour should draw on New Labour’s tradition of success to win again.
What will the future look like? In politics and economics there will be life after deficit reduction. Cutting our deficit is of course the defining political issue of our time, but we should also be asking ourselves what politics will look like after 2015. More importantly, what will Labour politics and policy would look like in 2015.
We live in an ageing society.
More young people will wait longer before entering the housing market and owning capital.
Working patterns are changing and will mean people taking on simultaneous jobs and multiple careers.
More children are being born in communities where there are often multiple cultures, languages and traditions.
Community is a concept which, thanks to technology, sometimes applies as much to values and interests as it does location.
Children are growing up faster and opportunities to learn are more diverse than ever.
There is less deference to authority and institutional power.
We live in a world where events overseas have a direct impact in our local neighbourhoods and where our businesses and services are reliant on international trade and employment.
Modernisation cannot be an end in itself but a value-driven pursuit around which we can rally people, so it is against these changes in life patterns and national trends that we must define the Labour purpose.
It is right that a modern Labour party supports family, respects people of faith and celebrates a progressive sense of patriotism.
Our values are not abstract concepts, for the British public they must be tools for personal and collective progression.
Have our own argument
To win in politics you need a sense of where the country is going at home and in the world, a plan of how to shape that trajectory and credible critique of your opponents.
Our values and our history are the starting point, but they must inform a Labour argument. Having an argument is different from starting an argument.
I sense that losing an argument about the economy this year could be at least as significant as losing the election last year. And in 2015 the prevailing attitude will either be relief or anger. People might feel relief that the worst is over. That for all the collective pessimism things didn’t turn out as bad for them and their family as they feared. The alternative aggregate sentiment is anger. They will feel anger at cuts, but many will remain uncertain about who should shoulder the blame. The Tories want to make sure that we are not the beneficiaries of either of these sentiments. We need to avoid our own mix of relief and anger: a shared relief that the worst of our defeat is behind us and anger that we didn’t make the best of our argument.
As Ed Balls has made clear, we must engage with the issues we would in Government if we are to be responsible and remain electorally credible. And that is why Ed Miliband is right to highlight the danger of the Governments cuts and that “the British Promise, that the next generation would always do better than the last, is now under threat like never before.”
In my area of defence I have tried to make the case why this should be natural Labour territory, tackling the ill-informed old orthodoxy that the Tories are the party of the Forces and Labour is the party of the NHS. In truth, we must be credible on both, especially when Tories are no longer credible on either.
Defence is actually in many cases about supporting communities. The industry employs 300,000 people in manufacturing jobs in the UK and generates over £35 billion per year to the UK economy. It has high-skill, advanced manufacturing sectors of the sort that Labour must promote if we are to rebalance and build a sustainable economy to support places such as Barrow, Portsmouth, Crawley or Filton.
Defence is also about reciprocal welfare. The ultimate act of solidarity with society at large is to join the Armed Forces?- it should be a Labour mission to ensure society honours its moral contract with our military. That’s why I have argued for enshrining in law the Military Covenant.
Defence is also about Britain’s place in the world. The uprising in North Africa and the Middle East and the awe-inspiring civilian surge that we have watched in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have fractured orthodoxies and permanently recast assumptions on which policy has been based for many years. In today’s world the prosperity, security, liberty and civil liberties of those at home cannot be separated from events beyond our borders and so the UK needs a proactive, strong defence policy to protect our interests and values.
As we look across the world there are many states of concern. But as all the foreign policy thinkers compile their own lists – from West Africa to South East Asia – there is one state missing from the lists and that is a State of Ambivalence, in which we would still believe in core values but would be less prepared to stand up for them around the world. We must, however, show that we have learnt from both Iraq and Afghanistan. If we invade a nation we immediately take ownership of the problems without necessarily being in possession of all the solutions. That means the post conflict peace plan must be a core part of the pre conflict battle plan. It means future stability will be based as much on the extent to which we support systems which empower people as it will bilateral government agreements. And that means co-ordinating defence and development, building capacity to enable self determination.
David Cameron tried ambivalence. He championed a foreign policy of trade over geopolitics, bilateral relationships over multilateral organizations, and a defence review reduced to a spending review. In its first contact with world events this approach has been exposed. Events have proved that you cannot opt out of global affairs. The Government’s handling of Libya was complacent before it was incompetent. But the real story – and indeed lesson – is that such a narrow view of Britain’s place in the world leaves us exposed, unprepared and weak. It’s not cultural conceit to say that the UK has unique leverage in international affairs and it should be Labour’s role to urge a security policy that protects and maximizes our influence.
Become a Movement
But our argument will be for nothing if we are not a real movement.
In Scotland it is counterintuitive to Conservative. We have to make sure that the same doesn’t happen to Labour in Southern England. We do not have a single seat in Kent, Essex or Sussex. If you look at the seats we lost to the Tories in England in 2005, we didn’t win a single one of them back in May. Every sitting Tory MP who won their seat from Labour in 2005 increased their share of the vote. The national swing against Labour was about five per cent, but the swing against us in the seats we lost in 2005 was nearly 10 per cent. It is compulsory that we don’t allow the same the seats we lost in 2010 go the same way as the ones we lost in 2005.
We cannot win without the South. This is both an organisational and political challenge since, if we get it right, it will improve and shape our message.
One of the few positives from our time in opposition has been the tens of thousands of new members who have joined – although it does ask questions about how we were unable to attract them while in government. It is essential that we look at the best way to involve them and harness their energy and ideas.
That is why Movement for Change is so important. It reconnects the party with communities and focuses activism on activity that really matters since it is born from relationships and interaction. A new community politics has a single objective we can all share: reconnecting with voters and letting their concerns and aspirations shape our policy and our local activity.
There is a simple lesson which binds these themes – New Labour, Labour history, Labour values and Movement for Change – Labour wins when we modernise and are the leaders of change.