Labour must learn ‘the country comes first’

Published on Progress on 21st July 2015.

The Labour party leadership contest is a hot mess. What began as a promising debate about the future has now become a political middle that Labour has always been prone to in its century-long history. As the Tories capitalise on their famous victory with ‘tanks on Labour’s lawn’, these are desperate times for the Labour party.

Back in the 1980s, when Labour was just as desperate – suffering successive defeats at the hands of Margaret Thatcher – the right proclaimed victory for conservatism. So when New Labour emerged in 1990s, the left impulsively perceived it as ‘Thatcherism 2.0’ and attacked its advocates for conspiring against socialism.

Yet it was not small-state conservatism that destroyed the socialist left. Rather, it was a rejection of the future – technological advance and globalisation – that prompted the public to ditch socialism. As a result, millions who sought a progressive alternative, or merely a government with a heart, were left stranded in a society defined by Thatcher.

It took the emergence of New Labour to reverse that logical error and for Labour to be trusted to govern again. Today, trade unions ask not how we would reopen coal mines, but how we can work with businesses to create the jobs of the future.

Much of this ‘centre-ground’ rationale has been accepted by the mainstream candidates. To different extents, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall all recognise that, if Labour wants to win again, it can no longer be anti-business and must be trusted to run the economy.

But being credible on the economy is not just about winning elections, it is about putting the country first.

As Tristram Hunt argued in Progress last week, the Labour party, like declining social democratic parties worldwide, is losing that emotional touch with the people.

Our Labour values must connect to a more obvious sense of national identity.

That obvious sense of national identity, I believe, begins with having common sense with the national finance.

Labour lost the 2015 election because it conceded the centre-ground which, as much as the hard left (or the hard right) refuses to believe, is not an ideological construct. It is a political space occupied by those who simply say: You wouldn’t trust a dodgy car salesman with your money, so why should the taxpayer trust a political party that cannot look after public finances?

Labour must present a sensible business plan for Britain if it has any interest in governing. The trouble for some on the left is that they are losing sight of government as they endorse Jeremy Corbyn. Instead, they return to their comfort zone, utter buzzwords that would win applause but never an election, and speak a language of ‘solidarity’ and ‘struggle’ that the country does not understand.

This takes us back to the beginning of the contest – what seems like years ago already – when Burnham said ‘the party comes first always’ in the BBC Newsnight debate, and Kendall quipped instinctively, ‘the country comes first.’

Instincts say a lot about leaders, still more about political leaders. Kendall’s campaign has been by far the boldest and most credible of all so far – the backing of the well-regarded Alistair Darling further confirms that. Yet, even if Kendall fails to win, she will have done the party a service by reminding them ‘the country comes first.’ It is a basic condition for a party of government, one that Labour has forgotten for far too long.

Until Labour puts the country first, the country will never put the party first on the ballot paper.

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