Thursday, 13 May 2010

Jon Trickett: 'We must cease to be the party of the establishment'

Former PPS to Gordon Brown, Jon Trickett MP, has spoken out about his thoughts on the future of the Labour Party and the shape of the leadership contest to come - and argues it must be about change, and not continuity.


It is only 72 hours since I left Downing Street for the last time – and fewer still since the emotional but supremely dignified departure by Gordon and his family. But with the Lib Dems now camped out with the Conservatives in a coalition dominated by the right, and a cabinet stuffed with millionaires apparently preparing to cut public services, a new political vacuum has opened up for Labour if it has the courage to occupy the centre-left of British politics.

Without being seen to look backward to old Labour formulae, we can and should put an end to the years of triangulation against the Tories. We must cease to be the party of the establishment, and become the party of an insurgency against those powerful vested interests which have so damaged the country.

The collapse of the financial markets has increased both a sense of insecurity about the future and a feeling that the growing inequalities in our country – exemplified by the bankers' bonuses – are unfair. The times we live in demand an active government; an end to the idea that markets are always right; enhanced social protections for the millions who feel vulnerable at a time of economic change; a rebalanced and reflationary economic strategy; and a socially just tax system.

These requirements cannot be fulfilled by a government of the right. They require a Labour party which quickly regains its confidence in our historic values.

There is a political crisis, too. An enormous gulf has opened up between the governed and the Westminster elite. Every week I attended Labour's cabinet and worked as Brown's parliamentary private secretary, for whom I have the greatest admiration. But every week too I attended my surgeries and spoke to friends and family in Yorkshire. The disjunction between the two experiences was evident and during the election, in hundreds of encounters with voters, I could sense their growing disillusionment. Of course, this was crystallised by the horrific expenses fiasco. But the roots of this crisis lay deeper.

The country was shocked to see a war approved by the Commons fought on a false prospectus offered by a Labour prime minister. And millions of people were profoundly uneasy at the way in which the European Union's free market culture, based on the free movement of capital and labour, was intensified and steamrollered through the Commons in the form of the Lisbon treaty. It had real effects on real people. It enabled multinational companies to move production and distribution units around the globe without a by-your-leave. It was accompanied by falling living standards, especially for manual workers. At a time of profound economic insecurity, this in turn fed the fear of mass migration, which was being used by the employers to drive down hard-won deals for better wages and conditions.

Britons continue to feel that the criminal justice system still needs recalibrating in favour of the victim. Nonetheless, aspects of Labour's excellent anti-crime drive – which has yielded falling crime levels – had authoritarian tinges and gave the impression of an over-mighty state.

Labour needs to rebuild its relationship with its core demographic alliance of progressive and working-class voters. Our social base in both these groups has atrophied. Between 1997 and 2005, and under Tony Blair, Labour lost four million votes. In last week's election we lost a further 900,000, almost exclusively manual workers.

We can therefore only rebuild ourselves if we move beyond New Labour in three areas.

First, our next Leader must offer a new economic paradigm – the creation of a more heterogeneous base built around green industries rather than our over-dependence on the City. We should espouse a clearly redistributive tax and welfare system. Serious steps need to be taken to offer social protections to people at work.

Second, we need to reassert the importance of public spending to achieve growth. The former chancellor's suggestion that Labour's cuts would go deeper than those carried out by Margaret Thatcher rocked the confidence of millions of people. The public sector is what makes our country a civilised community. We should have sought to reinforce the public sector ethos of care and service, rather than introduce the ethos of competition and managerialism. In these matters, the voluntary and charitable sector and many campaigning NGOs will be natural allies and we should foster relationships with them. Above all, the trade unions – which are the biggest democratic civil society organisations – will be at the core of this work.

Finally, in order to resolve the political crisis, we should place ourselves decisively on the side of the governed and not be part of the elite. We need to return to our tradition of being for civil liberties and opposed to the authoritarian state. We need to embrace political and institutional reform. It will also mean that our new leader must say that the war in Iraq was wrong and that the mistake will never again be repeated by Labour.

The new government is not as stable as it claims. Labour therefore has no time to lose. We must have a debate which will be suffused with a deep pride at our achievements in office. But with the benefit of my recent experience, I give a strong warning to the Labour movement.

We must choose a leader who can learn from our mistakes and apply those lessons to the future. It would be best not to choose someone who was a minister at the time the decision was taken to go to war. The campaign for the deputy leadership gave a glimpse of the party's thirst for change. We cannot duck it any longer. We must reject any continuity candidate and grasp the change the country wants, but which will not be delivered by the present cabinet.

This task is urgent. On behalf of the people Labour exists first and foremost to represent, we can't afford to get it wrong.


Timothy Carter said...

Thinly veiled endorsement of Cruddas in penultimate para?

charlesbarry said...

"Second, we need to reassert the importance of public spending to achieve growth."

Alarm bells are ringing in my head. As in "here comes 1983" alarm bells.

This sounds like a turn towards Labour indulging in dogma derived from gut-feeling, rather than using evidence-based economics.

All of which will be absolutely lethal to Labour in the medium-term.

Sunder Katwala said...

Timothy Carter,

I expect you are right, though neither Ed Balls nor Ed Miliband had entered parliament before 2005, so "was a minister" could be carefully chosen, vs advisers to government at the treasury. Cruddas was a backbencher, who publicly recants/regrets his vote for the war.

Harry Barnes said...

Timothy Carter : Or perhaps Jon is re-positioning himself once more.

james said...

Charles Barry - evidence-based economics tells us that reductions in public spending will prevent, not spur, growth in economic activity.

Countries which are focusing on deficit reduction rather than the recovery will experience contracting economies, not growth.

If the "here comes 1983" alarm bells are rining its perhaps because we are again in an era in which counter-recessionary action is foresaken to allow the rate of profit to be revived.

rb said...

When it comes to making sure aspirational lower-middle to middle income families are not squeezed, perhaps the solidarity society could give guidance on this, with it's emphasis on a universal flat rate housing cost credit/ worker's benefit. This would avoid the problems faced by families earning just too much to apply for certain benefits and tax credits. Also, making the tax system more progressive through scrapping pensions relief on high earners would help too.

Looking to Germany and Sweden, that have a social partnership between recognized trade unions and high tech manufacturing companies, has helped to sustain some of the highest rates of employment in high tech manufacturing in Europe, alongside very decent wages. Obviously the Fraunhofer network and their industrial activism helps to sustain and create new employment in high tech manufacturing.

Stuart White said...

Nice to see some recognition of the work to be done on civil liberties. There's a big space out there now marked 'left liberal' which Labour can move into - but only if it actually becomes more liberal.