Welsh Labour needs to find a distinctive voice

Gwion Malik argues that his party should not be afraid of leading from the left

The Labour Party has lived most of its adult life in opposition. During the 20th Century, Labour spent exactly 70 years consigned to the role of a Parliamentary pressure group, fighting to influence policy rather than to create it. If we are to build on the achievements of the 1997-2010 Labour Government – and ensure that the next 100 years are not written off as another ‘Conservative Century’ – we must ask ourselves one fundamental question: what must we do to become the preferred Party of Government?

Most of us recognise the simple truth that ‘power’ matters, because no social changes can be made unless we have our hands on the levers of Government. The reality is that no other UK-wide Party (other than the Tories) have a sufficient presence to secure power outright. As such, in the current economic climate in which the coalition Conservative Liberal Democrat Government will be taking an axe to public sector spending, it is crucial that Labour gets back into power quickly.

However, first we must learn the hard lessons of defeat and face the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding the Party. Our immediate goal should be providing the electorate with a real choice at next year’s Assembly election and the UK general election in 2015. We need a relevant, ambitious and radical manifesto that sets us apart from the coalition parties in Westminster. As the largest Party in Wales, we should also develop an increasingly distinct voice from Plaid and demonstrate that it is Welsh Labour that has the answers to the economic problems ahead.

Some within our Party, and many outside, believe that a radical manifesto would destroy our chances of getting back into power. But while this argument may have had some merit at the height of Thatcherism and Militant Tendency 30 years ago, circumstances have changed dramatically. The economic problems we are facing today demand a robust and radical re-think of the political and economic orthodoxies of the past. For the first time in living memory we are now faced with an electorate whose views are actually to the left of all three UK parties, and have been since the financial crisis in 2007.

Put simply, the ‘centre-ground’ of British politics (so coveted as the key to electoral success) has moved, perhaps permanently, to the left .We must respond to this. In Wales we have an opportunity to take even further the so-called Clear Red Water agenda originally set out by Rhodri Morgan. But before we can present our ideas for a more radical and progressive politics, we must openly reflect on our period in office. Why? Because we have lost the trust of the electorate and they need to believe that we have responded to their concerns. The only way to do this is by dealing with the issues and criticisms frankly and respectfully. We must not wait to be asked our views. Instead, we must begin that dialogue ourselves and instead seek to engage the public.

In opening the debate not only will we begin to realise that we can be more radical, but that the public actually want us to be more radical – so long as this is done constructively and in a way that places appropriate, necessary and fair limits on both the public and private sectors. We also need to be confident and clear in the argument that the era of representing exclusively sectional interests (for instance, only Trade Union views or just business interests) is over and the time for advocating a genuine ‘mixed economy’ is now at hand. If collective prosperity is our goal, then collective action must be our means.

But let us not forget why power really matters. Without us, the ‘Conservative 20th Century’ would have been a far more ‘regressive’ affair – whether in Wales or in England. Had it not been for Labour’s existence, there would have been no NHS or Health and Safety at Work legislation; no Sex Discrimination Act or Race Relations Act; no Universal franchise extending the vote to previously disenfranchised women; no end to hereditary peers; no minimum wage or peace in Northern Ireland; no devolution; no end to ‘capital punishment’; no smoking ban or a ban on fox-hunting; and there would have been no legalisation of homosexuality or divorce.

So we should be proud of what we accomplished during our limited time in government. Yet reading through our achievements, and also those over the last 13 years, it is easy to be left with a sense of disappointment and regret. What else could we have achieved if the tables had been turned and it was we who were in government for all those 70 years? It is a question that we must seriously set our minds to – regardless of what wing, or faction, or branch of the Labour Party we belong to. Power matters and the Tories know this more than anyone.

There are some on the ‘left’ who dismiss Labour’s last 13 years in Government. They argue that we abandoned what we stood for and that we did not do enough for working class people. Or that we failed because of the Iraq war and the financial crisis. But to take the achievements of 13 years in Government and to dismiss them in their entirety as ‘wasted’, ‘irrelevant’ or even ‘damaging’ is both cheap and intellectually redundant.

That is not to say that we did not make mistakes. We did. Some of those criticisms (in respect of our relationship to the City of London, Iraq and the internal democracy of our Party) are valid – and unless, or until, we can move on from those we will find it difficult to win back our lost support and get back into Government. Our focus should be to repair our relationship with our core voters, and the electorate as a whole – not just because we have to, but because we should do. We should not hide from that debate. While mistakes were made, overall Labour did make Britain a better place.

The doubters should look at our record. The Winter Fuel Payment was not just a gimmick – it saved lives and protected the elderly from spiralling fuel costs. Sure Start provided support for childcare and early learning with 3,500 centres that reached 2.8 million children and their families. The Minimum Wage (opposed by the CBI) raised the standard of living for the poorest and most vulnerable. The New Deal helped people back into work. Spending on the NHS increased three-fold, with 44,000 more doctors and 89,000 more nurses. Britain signed the EU ‘Social Chapter’ from which the Tories under John Major had opted out. And we secured the peace deal for Northern Ireland.

In Wales Labour secured devolution. Plaid Cymru, of course, try to lay claim to this achievement. But it was Labour’s radical manifesto of 1997 that gave the actual commitment to a referendum. Indeed, had it not been for Labour winning the general election, together with our critical votes and organisation, the September 1997 referendum would have been lost. Labour also doubled the financial settlement to Wales which now stands at £15 billion a year, giving us the opportunity to rebuild our country in our own image and not through diktat from England.

Sadly, most people do not yet appreciate the extent of the cuts about to be imposed by the London Government, nor the impact that this will have on our economy, jobs, services, pensions and our standards of living. It should be the responsibility, then, not just of Labour, but of all progressive parties and organisations to explain that the swingeing public-service cuts are both dangerous and unnecessary. In a nutshell, the Cameron-Clegg cuts are based on outdated economic ideology and old-school ‘monetarism’ that should have no place in a modern civilised society.

But this is just one part of the argument. The other is that, despite the economic problems our country is facing, we can still maintain all of the services and jobs that are due to be slashed. However, to do so, should identify alternative cuts, including:

  • Trident, saving £80 billion over its lifetime).
  • Halving the cost of the military budget from £50 billion to £25 billion, to bring military spending in line with Germany’s which is half our size.
  • Withdrawing all troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, which currently costs £5 billion a year.
  • Closing tax loopholes used by the wealthy for tax avoidance.

By taking these measures, we will secure Britain’s economic future and protect people’s jobs.

But we will only be effective if people understand for themselves that this is really an alternative to London coalition cuts Labour should be asking the Government to justify the unnecessary destruction of people’s lives. In doing so, we will also win the hearts and minds of the voting public. So let us be upfront about our politics, both within Wales and in Westminster. It is mistaken to believe that we cannot secure power on a more interventionist and socialist platform.

Ironically, the Tory-Liberal Government has unexpectedly provided Labour with the perfect opportunity to re-energise the Party and rediscover our radical tradition. The era of New Labour is over and we must not be overly cautious in moving on as a Party. As Lord Mandelson said on 3 June in The Times:

“I am not arguing for the New Labour of Blair, Brown and Mandelson to be preserved in aspic – that would be the opposite of the revisionist instincts that lay at the root of our project. This phase of New Labour is now over and died on May 6th 2010.”

So as we decide how to move forward as a Party. As with New Labour we need to respond to the political and socio-economic realities facing us. There is no room for half measures. The poorest in Britain are about to be dealt a severe and painful blow. The numbers of homeless are set to double and half a million children living below the poverty line will have their free school meals cancelled. Benefits will be slashed and jobs and services will be axed. VAT will be increased to 20 per cent affecting the poorest in our communities and liquidity constraints in the banking sector will restrict cash-flows to small and medium-sized businesses.

Labour’s task is to offer a sensible and considered alternative to this fundamentalist, right-wing agenda. We can afford to be a more reforming and left-wing party than we were under New Labour. Unless we grasp that political reality and adopt a more radical and progressive narrative, we will face another lengthy period in the political wilderness. If the cull of our public services, an out of control banking sector and a Thatcherite programme of cuts and privatisation cannot awaken our progressive instincts, then nothing will.

While a week may be a long time in politics, 70 years in opposition is a lifetime – especially for those lower and middle-income families who rely on us to represent their interests. The challenge is to begin a process of renewal with the explicit recognition that ‘power’ matters. We must be focused in our determination to get there. The 20th Century was good for business and corporations. The 21st Century must be good for society as a whole, and not just for the richest 1 per cent.

Gwion Iqbal Malik, a probation officer and member of Swansea Labour Left, is seeking selection onto the regional list for the Labour Party in Mid and West West Wales in next year’s Assembly election.

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