A SUMMER OF HARD TRUTHS
I usually begin by saying what a pleasure it is to be here - yet given the rather grim nature of today’s topic that somehow doesn’t seem appropriate for this speech.
Nevertheless, it is certainly a pleasure to be speaking from a Policy Network platform.
Arguably, no organisation has done more to observe and document the collapse of mainstream European social democracy since the 2008 financial crash.
We will only recover if we can understand.
So we should all be very grateful for the work that Roger, Patrick, Michael and everyone else here is undertaking.
It is like a Davy lamp in the darkest recesses of our despair!
Similarly, it is fantastic to be sharing a platform with Sunder from British Future, an organisation which is doing so much to explore the essence of modern, inclusive British identity.
And to be hosted by the Barrow Cadbury Trust – heirs to arguably this country’s greatest civic philanthropists and still doing so much to tackle social deprivation in Birmingham and the Black Country.
Ladies and Gentleman, in May I argued that our crushing loss was more than a conventional defeat for the Labour Party.
Because what I saw on the campaign trail, in Stoke-on-Trent and elsewhere, felt like a more profound collapse in confidence.
Even in the places we were winning, you could almost feel our electoral coalition beginning to fragment;
our cultural reservoirs drying up;
our traditional loyalties withering upon the vine.
In Scotland that sentiment found a lightning conductor in the SNP, support for which still seems to be on a high-voltage power surge.
And whilst it would be wrong to discount the unique factors of what happened in Scotland, it would be equally wrong to assume similar forces of insurgence and identity politics could not be replicated in other parts of the country.
Make no mistake: to think an increasingly unjust electoral system or England’s traditional disdain for populism will guarantee Labour protection from what is called “Pasokification” would be to indulge in a dangerous and potentially fatal complacency.
After all, you do not need to go as far as Greece, Spain or even Scotland to find members of hollowed out centre-left parties which all but disappeared overnight.
You just need to find a Liberal Democrat…
And good luck with that.
So, I agree with Jon Cruddas and others who argue that this unprecedented political volatility means we face the biggest crisis in the history of the Labour Party.
What we need is a summer of hard truths.
A debate which asks the big questions - about globalisation, climate change, productivity, welfare reform, radical Islam and the move towards a digital society.
And a contest which eschews the obscure concerns about policy in favour of answering who and what a 21st century Labour Party is for?
NEITHER PODEMOS NOR PASOKIFICATION
First and foremost, I believe Labour must be about tackling inequality.
The task of helping communities like Stoke-on-Trent to thrive in an era of intense global competition and rapid technological change requires a clear and unambiguous focus on reducing inequality.
And in May I argued that we can become the party of family, work and community as long as we demonstrate to the public that we see those institutions through their eyes.
But my argument today is that we also need to look and learn from the experience of other European social democratic parties.
Because the depressing truth is we are not alone.
Normally, when you are suffering, that idea provides a comfort of sorts.
But in this case it provides no relief whatsoever.
…no matter the political context the retreat of the traditional centre-left is total.
And in the few outposts where we do wield power we are either on the back foot - as in France or Sweden - or have been absorbed into a coalition dominated by a hegemonic centre-right party, as in Germany.
Broadly speaking, there are three elements to this electoral squeeze across Europe.
First, there is a resurgent and intellectually triumphant right.
Second, we have seen the hollowing out of traditional centre-left parties such as Pasok in Greece. The process there is now so complete it has gained a name – Pasokification.
And third there is the threat of the new populism - populist parties like Podemos in Spain, which combine grassroots community movements, with resistance to austerity and an aggrieved sense of nationhood.
Let me be clear at the outset: a Podemos policy prescription would be electoral and economic suicide for the Labour Party.
Such populism has so far only benefited the centre-right at national elections, with the exceptional case of Greece only serving to prove the rule.
And yet I do believe there are some important lessons the Labour Party can learn from such parties and the emotional connection they have made with their public.
Our challenge is to decouple the good from the bad.
To ally that sense of patriotic identity and grassroots engagement - with a more traditional modernising, or ‘Blairite,’ approach to regaining trust on the public finances.
A politics which is patriotic and prudent.
Compassionate and competent.
Emotionally intelligent and economically literate.
In short, an approach which is neither Podemos nor Pasokification.
Because when I look at the state of the current conversation in our party, I know it needs shock treatment: we need to place a defibrillator upon the leadership debate.
We must widen what is, at the moment at least, a rather narrow and parochial discussion about Labour’s future.
For the hardest of hard truths is that we need so much more than micro-target policies and a change in personality if we are to arrest our decline.
THE RISE OF NATIONALISM
Friends, I draw three lessons from the social democratic wreckage piling up across Europe;
First, we need to understand how European politics is taking upon an increasingly nationalist character…
… how issues of culture, identity and defending the national interest are as important - if not more important - than material questions of public policy.
Second, we need to address apathy and the wider mistrust of mainstream politics: it harms us far more than our centre-right rivals.
And third, we need to address our deep-seated intellectual timidity in the face of economic austerity.
Let me begin with the new nationalist mood – which is the least well understood and could very well be the most significant.
Of course, here in what is just about still the UK, we need no discussion of what the rise of political nationalism looks like in practice.
And as Scotland shows, sometimes culture, emotion, history, values, politics and economics align to create the perfect nationalist storm.
To tell the truth, the SNP is actually something of an outlier when we consider other European nationalist parties.
The likes of Podemos, Syriza and the myriad of new far right populists tend to feed upon a simmering resentment towards the European Union.
In contrast, EU concerns play practically no role in the SNP’s populist appeal.
However, the impact of the SNP upon the Labour Party’s general election campaign perfectly captures the challenges mainstream social democracy faces with nationalism.
In Scotland and England, for different reasons, too many voters felt Labour was not standing up for them or their national interest. We were to Scotland, like the EU is to Greece: a foreign technocratic elite telling them they could not be trusted with their own affairs.
This sort of national struggle between identity politics on one hand, and technocracy on the other, is increasingly the prism through which European voters refract their politics.
Even some of those of us who have been dismayed by the antics of Syriza felt some sentiment towards their defiance – their sense of national endeavour - in the referendum.
Do not misunderstand me: the EU and the wider ‘European Project’ retains - and deserves - strong backing.
Indeed, do not misunderstand Greece: even in that crisis-ravaged country, a European future commands huge levels of support
And yet when it comes to the electoral crunch this commitment does not translate into votes for the most consensual, pro-European parties.
In fact, quite the opposite: voters appear to be actively punishing social democratic parties for those conciliatory instincts.
The Eurozone crisis is creating new confrontations and shattering old coalitions of support.
Cultural issues, such as identity and immigration, are now questions that increasingly dominate.
And whether it is Finland pursuing its creditor debts to the point of a self-defeating Grexit;
Or Greece electing Syriza to protect the Euro to the point of obvious intellectual contradiction…
…European voters now want their parties to demonstrate a completely new level of aggression against distant elites when it comes to pursuing the national interest.
And it is hurting us twice over.
Not only because our party came into being to represent the people not the elite.
But also because right-wing, conservative and nationalist parties appear to have a deeper and more emotional affinity with the national culture and interest.
RECLAIMING RADICAL ENGLAND
Such forces have now clearly arrived in the politics of our own fragile union.
And, as far as I can see, they will not be leaving soon.
For whilst the SNP surge was not necessarily a decisive shift in the Scottish peoples’ attitudes towards separatism, it certainly does represent a greater faith in the SNP to fight for the Scottish interest.
A faith which is deeply grounded in the emotional appeal of patriotism.
Because for all the work of Gordon Brown, the BBC, Team GB, the British Museum, and other cultural and political actors, the natural and instinctive ties of Britishness are fraying.
When the two defining edifices of Britishness – the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace – are both declared unfit for human habitation, there might be something rotten in the body politic.
And that means the Labour Party here in England - and Wales - needs to catch-up fast.
The Tories ruthlessly exploited concerns in England about the SNP during the election campaign.
We were beaten by a tag team of Nicola Sturgeon and David Cameron. In Scotland voters were told we would sell them out to the Tories. In England, voters were told we would sell them out to the SNP.
Neither was true, but we were feeble in our response.
If Scottish Labour needs to rediscover its cultural and emotional ties to the Scottish identity, then the Labour Party in England needs to embrace our English identity.
Emphasise our English culture.
And rediscover the history of radical England.
It is time for an English Labour Party to complement our Scottish and Welsh counterparts.
Time too for an English ‘Devo-Max’ settlement which, alongside radical city and combined authority devolution, should reform the constitution to account for how Scottish ‘home rule’ will shape England and Britain.
But most of all it is time to create a culture where our party is proud to celebrate its patriotism and love of country.
The vast majority of Labour Party supporters and members I know are deeply patriotic.
Indeed, their patriotism provides one reason why they want to make this great even country better.
Yet, as the Emily Thornberry furore shows, this is just not currently how we are perceived.
We seemed uneasy with the modern landscape of Englishness – of St George’s Flags, music festivals, soap operas, Premier League football, shopping, gardening and baking.
In any climate – let alone the current one – such reticence would be an absolutely toxic perception.
But what makes it all the more frustrating is that there is a rich English historical tradition which has always stood in fierce opposition to Conservatism and inequality.
From Thomas More, to the Levellers, Thomas Paine, the co-operatives, William Blake, George Orwell and the great 20th century achievements of the Labour Party and trade unions – there is clear cultural strand of radical patriotic Englishness.
Indeed, arguably this is what Danny Boyle drew so deeply upon - albeit to bolster British identity - in that pageant of progressive patriotism three years ago.
Labour should remember this culture.
And give it far greater seriousness of intent.
And because of the plural character of Britishness, I do not see it existing in tension with Englishness.
More importantly, I also do not believe a culturally English Labour Party will undermine solidarity with colleagues in Scotland in the face of the separatist challenge.
Remember, the story the SNP tell about the English is extremely clever - far removed from a traditionally nationalist politics of grievance.
Rather, it is far more an account of how England’s innate political sensibilities continually thwart Scotland’s social justice ambitions – delivered through the NHS, the BBC, pooled pensions and collective redistribution.
Therefore, I believe reclaiming radical England; telling the story of England’s progressive achievements; can in fact help to negate that damaging SNP story.
To remind us once again that so many of Scotland’s social justice ambitions are shared by the people of England;
And that in the face of the enormous challenge of globalisation - a strong, common union is the best way of realising them together.
As well as showing how - for want of a better phrase - a more ‘One Nation’ approach – a genuine One Nation approach - is the most effective way to advance the shared national interest.
But if anything the more successful target of the SNP’s populist fury was not England but Westminster.
And by association a Labour Party portrayed as being hopelessly ‘out of touch’.
Time and again, we see this throughout Europe - mainstream social democrats branded members of a remote and distant political class.
It is important to say that it is clearly not restricted to social democrats.
After all, it is not as if the Tory victory has suddenly rendered David Cameron ‘in touch’ with the British public.
However, the electoral evidence seems to suggest that such perceptions present far more of a problem for social democratic parties;
that such considerations may even be ‘priced-in’ to the general centre-right brand.
They came into politics to represent and replicate an elite.
We did not.
So it is not enough for the Labour Party to tackle its own toxic reputation for many voters.
No, at some level our renewal needs to tackle the toxicity of politics itself.
First, some hard truths: we are out of touch.
According to research from Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary’s University, around 80 per cent of the Labour Party’s membership is drawn from the ABC1 socio-economic groups.
Which is roughly around the same level for all political parties.
Put simply: political participation in Britain is a middle class sport.
And the Labour Party is doing nowhere near enough to try and change it.
Now, this is clearly a far bigger challenge than candidate selection.
But I do feel a more targeted approach there should be part of our solution.
Tom Watson has suggested we should look at a hardship ‘bursary’ for candidates seeking selection from disadvantaged or working class backgrounds.
Only 7 per cent of Labour MPs come from C2 manual occupation background.
Only 14% previously worked in business.
As Gloria de Piero has argued, we need a national recruitment drive which targets candidates who can help us mirror Britain and reflect the communities we seek to serve.
I am not saying people like me should never be Labour MPs.
I am not saying former special advisers or TV historians should be excluded from politics.
But I am saying we need more soldiers, farmers, builders, small business owners, single parents, women and care leavers representing Labour.
Because if we want to speak for the whole of Britain then I believe we should look like the whole of Britain.
REFILLING THE STADIUM
But to widen our politics and refill what Ed Miliband called “the empty stadium” the real challenge is attracting a bigger and more diverse membership in the first place.
I am sure there are Labour Party members in the audience today - so let me ask: what does the Labour Party do for you?
Other than political sympathy and leaflets to deliver - what does it offer you?
It is a question the party has barely begun to ask, let alone answer.
There is a famous American political cliché about when President Kennedy visited the NASA space centre in 1962.
According to which the President noticed a janitor carrying a broom and walked over to ask the man what he was doing.
“Mr. President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”
I do not feel this how the Labour Party instinctively approaches its membership or supporters.
I do not feel we try to empower them or make them feel an important and integral part of our own Apollo project: putting a Labour man or a Labour woman into Downing Street.
Indeed, every task we ask of them - be that running a local ward branch or canvassing voter intentions - seems to be governed by narrow and strictly applied compliance rules.
As if we are some sort of command and control military operation not an organisation that depends upon the good will, altruism and incredible energy of its volunteers.
I think Liz Kendall has asked some of the right questions on this in the leadership contest.
Like Tony Blair before her, she understands how party reform can demonstrate a fitness for office.
And how one of the great tasks of politics in the global era is to put real power in the hands of ordinary people.
But I would argue that this could be where we can learn from a Podemos approach to politics too.
Indeed, the entire ethos of Podemos is about mass mobilisation and empowerment.
About understanding that before you can get people to act, you need a relationship with them first.
We need a party structure that rewards participation, new ideas and which nurtures a sense of pride at being a member of Labour;
And a local analysis that political activity must be about far more than fighting elections;
After all, an engaged and committed activist base can be an enormously valuable resource in helping to changing local communities;
And could demonstrate the power of politics in a way that might cut through the Left’s great enemy of cynicism and mistrust.
Finally, the third reason for social democracy’s collapse is its intellectual timidity in the face of austerity.
It is often said that mainstream social democracy has failed to offer an argument about how it can deliver its ambitions in an era when money is scarce.
I do not subscribe to that view.
The Labour Party did not lack for radical ideas to change the shape and structure of the state during the last Parliament.
Reports like the IPPR’s Condition of Britain or Labour’s Local Government Innovation Taskforce prove the centre-left still has answers.
What we lacked was the political courage to advance them.
And we have seen in some of the government’s recent land-grab – on a higher national minimum wage; on the gender pay gap; on an apprenticeship levy – the political cost of such failure.
But our real timidity was a failure properly to take a stand against economically illiterate populism.
We saw this throughout the election.
How our body language and rhetoric seemed to imply that cutting the deficit was a begrudging concession to electoral expediency.
That, given the choice, we would rather not support the principle of balancing the books.
And, as the Red Book reveals, pay out £36 billion a year on debt interest payments – more than we spend on housing and the environment; or police and the courts; or industry and employment.
This is nonsense.
Now, Jeremy Corbyn is a humane and genuine advocate of our party’s left-wing tradition.
I actually believe we may need to extend the hand of friendship to progressive traditions outside of the party - so we certainly need to be less sectarian within it.
But rebuilding trust with the voters requires humility and honesty.
So here is some truth for Jeremy.
His argument against balancing the books is politically and economically bankrupt.
We are not Greece; we are not Spain.
In fact, we are not even Scotland where - as the IFS pointed out - the anti-austerity spin masks a far more pragmatic approach.
So the political calculation for fiscal expansion does not add-up.
But more important the economy is growing and the deficit stands at around five per cent.
Even John Maynard Keynes would be arguing for retrenchment in this context.
Now, if Jeremy has identified tax rises to square his circle, then I apologise, but I haven’t seen them.
Without them he seems to be saying that inequality and social justice cannot be delivered without borrowing and a big budget deficit.
That is an argument we cannot accept.
I believe social democracy must back our ingenuity and be far more intellectually confident.
I mean – it is not as if Sir Stafford Cripps’s austerity budgets stopped the 1945 Labour government creating the NHS or building the welfare state.
RETURN TO THE CENTRE
The nature and potency of the encircling populist challenge makes a traditional ‘moderniser’ response to Labour’s political crisis inadequate.
What worked in 1997 fails to take account of the new populist dimension of European politics.
And ignores the need for party, constitutional and devolution reform which might begin to revive people’s faith in politics.
However, the basics of a centre-ground strategy remain absolutely essential.
And the ingredients rarely change.
An acute antennae for the country’s concerns – from immigration to public services to housing.
And a tin-ear towards partisan preoccupations.
It is remarkable that the party which Tony Blair led to three straight election victories should need this to be spelt out.
The lessons learned in the hard yards of Opposition through the late 80s and early 90s have been forgotten.
But our party’s selective memory also seems to have forgotten much else besides:
the national minimum wage act;
the energy windfall tax;
A revolution in international development;
A more redistributive welfare state;
devolution for Scotland and Wales;
the Decent Homes programme;
a tax rise for the NHS;
child poverty slashed;
and the biggest sustained period of public service investment this country has ever seen.
Many of Tony Blair’s achievements seem impossible in today’s political context.
But in choosing not to debate – or even misrepresent - his legacy, our party forgets that when you occupy the centre-ground you wield power.
And when you wield power you begin to reshape the country’s political centre of gravity.
Tony Blair controlled and reshaped that centre for a decade.
To deny that is to deny our history.
But more important it shuts down the full debate we need to create Labour’s future.
So let’s learn from Podemos.
Let’s learn from the dangers of Pasokification.
But let’s also learn from our recent past.
After all, European social democracy has been hauled out of the wilderness once before.
We have come back before from a crippling defeat in an election we expected to win.
We have managed to rebuild our connection to the British people before.
And we can, must and will do so again.
A SUMMER OF HARD TRUTHS Thank you. I usually begin by saying what a pleasure it is to be here - yet given the rather grim nature of...