Despite everything, it’s still Labour or nothing

John Buckingham 19 June 2008

Those of us who hoped the recent election losses would bring about a change in Labour policy have been sorely disappointed: scarcely a day goes by without another reactionary policy announcement that owes nothing to our values, and everything to those of the Tories. There can be no more of that if we’re to win the next election: it’s time to accept that New Labour has failed; it’s time to make Labour the people’s party once more. If we succeed in doing so, there is no reason whatsoever why we cannot still win a fourth term.

Voters from across the political spectrum are crying out for a Labour Party with values and principles. And those values are not hard to find, or complex: Labour is about decency, compassion, and solidarity with those in need, things which appeal to all right-thinking people. This isn’t class war – it’s about a better quality of human relationships, based on cooperation and mutual care, rather than exploitation and inequality of power and wealth. This is an inclusive, not a polarising ideology. The notion that the New Labour project was necessary in order for Labour to gain power was always a myth: the British people were never repulsed by Labour values, by the thought of building a more just society. We have moved on from individualistic Thatcherism, whilst New Labour still lingers, stuck somewhere in 1996, reciting inane buzzwords in the bizarre belief that real conviction is somehow distasteful or unbecoming.

Certainly Labour has done much to be proud of since 1997 ranging from the minimum wage and free bus passes for the elderly to the building of almost 3,000 ‘SureStart’ centres offering essential services for parents with young children – all good, real Labour policies for which we deserve more credit. But it’s not good enough: a Labour government’s first priority in every policy should be ensuring that the poor and the disadvantaged benefit: instead we have preferred the interests of our enemies to those of our friends, and allowed inequality to spiral out of control. If we’re to reverse our decline, we must drop more than mere crumbs to our core voters – these people must be the first on our list, not down below the swing voters and the city bankers. The majority of the progressive measures we need would be supported by working- and middle-class voters alike – we do not have to abandon the people who built our party in order to achieve power. Young people long for a return to the battle of ideas: we have grown up on a politics of hopelessly limited vision, of moral vacuity and of resignation to conservatism. I for one am tired of justifying Labour support on the basis that ‘at least they’re better than the Tories’ – I think we can aspire to a little more than that. It just takes a little courage.

Turning the tide, and securing a fourth term, is not complex; what we need are simple, Real Labour policies. Take Labour’s introduction of free fruit for children in our primary schools: it’s not big or clever, but it’s the best kind of socialism – making sure everyone has what only some had before, and making life just a little bit better. More measures like this would show people that Labour is irrefutably on their side. New Labour’s stale, unambitious managerialism is simply not sufficient when faced with vast inequality, community breakdown and a fundamental lack of decency in our society. We need something more: a real commitment to tackle poverty, coupled with a massive programme of council house building, would enthuse members and supporters alike; I can only hope that Brown will deliver such a programme in the coming months.

Real Labour values are the only ones capable of tackling the problems of our times. Collective problems – inequality, crime, climate change – demand collective solutions, based on solidarity and compassion. Only Labour has those values: whilst the New Labour leadership remains bafflingly impervious to the obvious failure of its ‘project’, most Labour supporters remain implacably angry about the injustices of our society. If you want conviction, principles and a commitment to justice, they are undeniably here in the Labour Party – dormant, yes, but far from forgotten.

John Buckingham