Labour’s reality check

Stephen Kinnock MP says that if the Labour Party is to return to government in 2020 it must begin by accepting the reality of modern Britain.

On 7 May a sickening feeling spread through the Labour Party. It started with the exit poll and continued through to the early hours of the morning as it became clear that David Cameron was going to command a parliamentary majority.

The picture across the UK was mixed: a boost in London but obliterated in Scotland and soundly beaten across most of middle England. The Welsh result was equally as mixed: gains in Cardiff Central but the Vale of Clwyd and the Gower, held by Labour for over 100 years, both lost. Overall the Labour vote went up in Wales but so too did the Plaid, Tory, Green and UKIP vote, and UKIP became the third party in Wales. If in England Labour were too left wing and in Scotland Labour were not left wing enough, then where exactly did we sit in Wales?

The Assembly elections next year will be the first big test of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and will signpost the extent to which Labour has bounced back since May. It is the first milestone in the road to recovery, and to victory in 2020. To re-build effectively we need an inspiring new vision and a compelling new narrative that appeal to more than just the traditional Labour supporter.

Understanding where it all went so wrong is the first step. In my view the fundamental weakness of the last five years was that we knew what we were against (eg the bedroom tax and zero hours contracts) but we didn’t seem to know what we were for. The electorate were looking to Labour to provide an aspirational vision for society, and a story of hope for the future, but we came up short.

In my recently published pamphlet – A New Nation: Building a United Kingdom of Purpose, Patriotism and Resilience –  I argue that if Labour is to have a chance of winning in 2020 then we must do three things:

First, we have to convince the British people that we can once again be trusted with the economy, and to do this we must start with a critique of the British economy today, which can be encapsulated in the phrase ‘all that glitters is not gold’. Yes, headline growth and employment figures are moving in the right direction, but lift the stone and you see a very different story: low productivity, ballooning personal debt, a yawning trade deficit, creaking infrastructure, dangerous over-reliance on financial services, and a chasm opening up between London and the rest of the country. Once we have identified the deep structural weaknesses that have to be addresses, then we must make it crystal-clear that our top priority in government will be to balance the books by modernising the welfare state, and by delivering purposeful policies that foster investment, competitiveness and sustained growth. The central pillar of our plan to build an economy of purpose must be a manufacturing renaissance, delivered through a comprehensive industrial strategy.

Second, we have to reclaim patriotism. I am a proud Welshman, proud to be British, and I love the UK as a united country of fair play and liberty, bound together by our shared values of compassion and of courage. In the chapter of my pamphlet entitled ‘Federalise or Die’ I argue that our new progressive patriotism should be underpinned by our commitment to radically decentralising power and resources, putting English regions on a similar footing to Scotland and Wales. The devolution settlement in the 1990s was the right way to go, bringing decision makers closer to the people, but it was also a typically British example of step-by-step pragmatism which has created grey zones all over our constitutional map. However, compared to English Votes For English Laws (EVEL), the devolution of the ‘90s was a model of thoughtfulness. EVEL is the ultimate example of the ‘make do and muddle through’ approach that is the Tories’ default approach to tackling all of the social, economic and constitutional challenges that come their way.

The UK deserves better, and we must start developing and consulting on a comprehensive written constitution that sets out modern principles and the division of powers of this country, within a federal framework.

In addition to this radical redistribution of power and resources, the review of our constitution must also include options for the replacement of our antiquated first-past-the-post (FPTP) with a more modern, democratic and proportional system. Electoral reform will be vital if we are to re-engage with the huge swathes of the electorate who are disenfranchised in so-called ‘safe-seats’, and also because we simply cannot defend a voting system that delivers glaring anomalies such as the SNP winning 95% of seats on the basis of 50% of the vote, or UKIP’s 1 seat with 4million votes. It is not good enough to defend FPTP because it is ‘what we have traditionally used’, or because it is ‘easy to understand’. In Wales the electorate have successfully negotiated the Additional Member System – a combination of FPTP and Proportional Representation – since 1999. The reality is that we now live in a multi-party country, and this renders FPTP unfit for purpose.

Thirdly, Labour needs to show that it is the only party that can deliver the radical changes needed if we are to build a more resilient country. In a world that’s in a constant state of flux, the successful nations will be those that are quickest to recover from unexpected events and adapt to new realities. High skills, properly paid jobs, well-funded research, an economy that is not dependant on huge household debt or overly dependent on financial services; these must be cornerstones of our new resilience. There can be no doubt that equality and resilience are intrinsically linked. More equal societies are better able to absorb, flex and bounce back. Here the Labour Party must also make the case that we do not believe in equality because we are bleeding-heart liberals, but because we are committed to building resilience.

By the time voters got to the polling booths on 7 May they had decided that Labour wasn’t speaking for them. This wasn’t because we had failed to re-connect with our core vote, it was because we had failed to understand how that vote had changed, and moved on. In the 1970s two-thirds of all voters lived in working-class households, whilst today the number of middle-class voters exceeds the number of working-class voters by seven million. At the same time, we have seen a decline in two-party politics, the rise of smaller political groups, and the emergence of new parties.

So, if we are to succeed in 2020 we must learn to engage with modern Britain. We must clearly demonstrate our understanding of the facts: in a networked society statist solutions are rarely the optimal ones; the purpose of taxation is to promote solidarity, incentivise hard work and foster entrepreneurialism, not to punish the rich; technology is an opportunity, not a threat; government can and must develop an active industrial strategy if we are to re-balance the British economy through a manufacturing renaissance; the primary function of the state is not to micro-manage, but rather to build a competitive framework that keeps market failure to a minimum.

Once the British people have seen that Labour ‘gets it’, then we will first and foremost have won the right to be heard again. The next step will then be to craft a new narrative that is sound on the economy, strong on reform and resolute on our place in the world.  We must embed ourselves in the national consciousness as the party that is truly for the many, and not for the few. This is the essence of our Party, and we must never forget it. Our mission is to provide the springboard for everyone to chase their dreams and to realise their full potential, if they are prepared to work for it. As a founding father of the Party once said: ‘Labour is for the elevation of all classes, not the destruction of any.’

And the first real test of whether or not the Labour Party is back on the path to government will be on 5 May 2016.

Stephen Kinnock is MP for Aberavon.

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