Remarks To Progress on The Future of Labour’s Centre Left by Jonathan Ashworth, Shadow Cabinet Minister Without Portfolio
We meet tonight after two general election defeats.
So tonight’s discussion about the future of the centre left is timely.
Beyond the confines of our party or the borders of our country, there are forces driving huge waves of change that will reshape our politics whoever was leading us.
Advances in technology and digitalisation of jobs are creating hollowed out economies with huge polarity between the richest and poorest.
Climate change and world population growth are raising questions about sustainability of agriculture or water supply, as well as fuelling migration.
An ageing population here in Britain and fragmented public services.
And fragmented identities raising new challenges about Englishness, the United Kingdom and Europe.
All questions to which the centre left can and must turn.
Indeed, the condition of our country is now so critical, and the challenges facing our party are so vast, that the vanity of small differences which for too long dominated debate – Blairite or Brownite, or which Miliband brother you liked best- must now be forgotten.
In fact I would go further and say the labels of the past are now completely irrelevant. So let’s call time on terms like Blairite, Brownite, and the rest.
Tonight I want to argue why it is time to put aside the anger and fury.
Because we need to focus on how the centre left should respond to global challenges.
And where we need to go next.
Too often such intellectual inquiries have become barren and myopic.
Instead of signalling intellectual rejuvenation and renewed politics with purpose, we have sometimes given the impression of desiccated calculation.
That’s why I’m grateful to Progress for beginning the discussion.
And it’s why we should also praise other groups doing similar work from the Fabians, to Jon Cruddas’s and Lisa Nandy’s “Labour Together” group, Tristram Hunt’s “Labour for the Common Good” organisation and of course John McDonnell’s economics lecture series.
Because, in truth, our history tells us we only succeed when we have a deep reawakening of our policy and organisational thinking across the left, right and centre of our party
Look at our 1964 election victory.
It came on the back of a period that had seen Gaitskell, Crosland and Wilson all challenge us to renew and express our values in a modern age.
All of them laying the foundations for a Labour government that proclaimed a revolution built on the white heat of technology – investment in science, technology – what Wilson described as ‘Britain’s computer industry’ – the advent of comprehensive education, the Open University, as well as huge social reforms on homosexuality and abortion.
That was a government that owned the future.
And look at the stellar constellation of thinking that came together ahead of 1997.
It had its roots not just in the modernising battles fought by Neil Kinnock and John Smith, but in bodies like the Social Justice Commission, the LCC, as well as from the thinkers of Marxism Today and Renewal, the organisation of the Tribune Group, and the extraordinary efforts of two of its members – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
These streams didn’t just do the hard thinking on policy but brought different people in the party together to rethink, refresh and renew, laying the foundations for a Labour government that was able to introduce a minimum wage, extend trade union rights, impose the utility tax to fund employment programmes, and bring about the much needed expansion of public services.
That depth and breadth of thought, that courage, is necessary again.
It is also something those of us in the mainstream of the Labour Party have been slow to recognise.
Of course the route to our renewal cannot be through 1997, as some sort of New Labour tribute band. This is something you in Progress have recognised in your recent pamphlets.
Just as we realised the answers for the mid-90s had to be different from those of 1964, we must once again express our values in this modern setting.
But that doesn’t mean we junk our past.
Shouting slogans at the TV and denigrating the achievements of the last Labour government won’t work.
Frankly there was nothing Red Tory about the last Labour government, or the last Labour opposition.
So thorough debate is needed.
And I’m convinced there is a hunger in the Party for the type of discussion I am talking about.
Since last September I’ve been out on the road almost every week meeting thousands of Labour members – old and new – and Labour voters – past and present.
And what I know – despite what you read in the papers or see on twitter – is these two groups, members and voters, are not different species.
They are, decent and honourable people.
Who want society to be fairer and more equal.
Who want secure communities with good homes.
Who want public services to be strong.
Who want an economy which provides well paid, secure jobs and decent pensions.
And members are excited by Jeremy’s commitment – as I am – to do politics in a different way and engage in discussion and debate.
But I do fear that, in the current climate, the chance of getting policy renewal – is disappearing.
So I say to Progress and all parts of the Labour mainstream, let’s have that debate, let’s face up to the new challenges and opportunities in the world.
Let me finish by offering just one example where I think deep thinking is needed: reshaping our polarised economy so it works for everyone in the future.
Across the world advances in technology and globalisation are seeing economies become more polarised and hollowed out.
With fears medium skill jobs are disappearing with job markets becoming divided between high skill jobs at one end, and low skill jobs at another.
Those workers previously in medium skill jobs are being forced to compete in the low skill job-market and there is a growing shortage of high skilled workers to fill jobs at the upper end.
The effect of this trend is a huge growth in inequality and a society where people feel increasingly insecure economically and will be looking to those political parties that can provide security and reassurance.
Inequality has been a constant cause of our party. It offends our values of social justice and fairness – but we know now that inequality does economic damage too.
Hollowing out of middle income jobs leaving low paid jobs will increasingly drive demand for credit to sustain living standards, causing personal debt to build up again leaving us exposed to downturns.
So this is a big challenge.
But one we can approach with confidence in our values and pride in our past because Labour is nothing if not the party of fairness and social justice.
Our old approach to tackling inequality was just redistributing the proceeds of growth through tax and transfer socialism, but these are neither available nor adequate to meet the scale of the challenge. Unavailable because we have to deal with the deficit and live within our means. Inadequate because just redistribution is no longer enough to compensate for the inequalities a globalised economy spits out.
We need answers which are both radical and credible.
Therefore I believe we must put British industrial activism at the heart of our economic policy.
It’s a big idea. Conceived by Peter Mandelson at the end of the last Labour government who through his industrial activism and working with the trade unions saved the British motor industry – so that we now have the highest number of cars manufactured in Britain for a decade.
Then nurtured by Ed Miliband under the last Labour opposition.
So we should recognise that Labour in opposition during the last parliament developed this idea, with plans to upskill workforces, invest in infrastructure and research, tackle low pay, promote long termism, transfer power form Whitehall to the regions.
Of course, out of power and out of public favour, neither the language nor substance of these policies managed to cut through.
But this is an idea we must not now waste but champion more not less.
The Tories may steal bits of it but, as their sluggish response to the crisis in our steel industry shows, they will never do it properly.
This is precisely the kind of radical, reforming agenda which is vital for the revival of our party and our country because we know inequality is holding our economy back.
And because we fear that economic insecurity risks driving people into the arms of populists, the people who would divide our country or break us away from Europe.
On this issue and so many others, we must show we are not only the party with the right values.
But also the party that best understands the scale of the challenges.
The party that has the courage to look for new solutions.
The party that can make the best claim to the future.