16 October 2009
After twelve years of a Labour government, at a critical moment for progressive politics, the Young Fabians have invited twelve of Labour’s young Prospective Parliamentary Candidates to reflect on the party’s record and outline their vision for the future. The pamphlet The New Progressives: Voices of Labour’s future brings together young Parliamentary Candidates from across the country including Rachel Reeves in Leeds West, Emma Reynolds in Wolverhampton North East and Chris Ostrowski who fought the Norwich North by-election.
It’s clear from these essays and from wider debates within the Labour movement that a battle is raging about the future of progressive politics. A struggle is emerging between self styled Old Labourites on the one hand and a burgeoning coalition of democratic socialists and liberals on the other. The ideological fault lines of Labour’s future are being drawn up; between those that argue for a planning state and those that call for an empowering one. Yet the lessons of the past twelve years show that, to reengage the public in the political process, Labour needs to move away from the state-centred solutions of the past. Only by finding the right balance between liberalism and democratic socialism, extending individual liberty while defending social justice, can Labour renew itself and rebuild public confidence in its progressive cause.
New Labour’s approach to reform was very much a product of its time. State-centred solutions, managed from Whitehall, were required to tackle the challenges inherited from the Tories. Whether it was serially underfunded public services, or millions of people marginalised by the moralising policies of Thatcherism; clear and bold state action was desperately needed. However, while investment and modernisation from the centre transformed services, it also alienated many. Today Labour finds itself behind in the polls and facing a resurgent Tory party. We’re forced to ask ourselves why, when so much has been achieved over the past twelve years, are so many abandoning Labour?
Some say that we need to return to the Old Labour policies of the past. They argue that Labour’s current plight reflects a widely held belief that we have moved too far away from our founding values. Yet it seems counterintuitive to argue that voters are returning to the Tories in droves because they feel Labour aren’t left wing enough. Rather, they are calling for a new type of politics that reflects a fundamentally changed world from the one that Labour inherited in 1997.
To regain public trust Labour must not look backwards but must instead offer a new progressivism that empowers individuals and gives them greater control over their lives. The progressive politics of the future must be about the state giving up power, rather than reclaiming it. In the Liberal Republic Richard Reeves and Philip Collins outline their view, offering a challenge to Labour that is particularly pertinent today,
“Trapped in his elevation of means over ends, the social democrat is not sure what to do. The pattern of society seems oddly recalcitrant to his reforms and yet he cannot see that his own ends – which are right and good – can only ever be served by liberal means. Power to the people is in his gift if he holds the levers of power – but only by letting go, not by pulling them even harder.”
It would be a mistake to use this argument to negate Labour’s many successes over the past twelve years or reject democratic socialism entirely. While the liberal tradition can teach social democrats about the importance of empowerment; social democrats can teach liberals that, without social justice delivered through an active state, empowerment means little. Only by finding the right balance between liberalism and democratic socialism, extending individual liberty while defending social justice, can Labour build the progressive coalition of the future.
The new progressive’s goal must be to redistribute power to the lowest possible level. That means stronger local government. The vast majority of constituency casework should be dealt with by local councilors, not Members of Parliament. If councilors had more access to central government and greater influence, they could become the strong and influential local voices that they deserve to be. The public needs to have a greater say in the way that public services are run. Choice is important, but even more important is meaningful control. We should expand participatory budgeting and give people greater opportunity to set priorities at the local level. Civil liberties must be protected, and in many circumstances extended, to ensure that people know that power rests in their hands, and not in the levers of the state.
These are the policies that must define the progressivism of the future. There are some who would look back. Progressives must always look forward.
To view the pamphlet The New Progressives: Voices of Labour’s future, please visit the Young Fabians website at www.youngfabians.org.uk/content/view/236/1/
If you are a young Prospective Parliamentary Candidate and would like to join the Young Fabians Candidates Network please email James Green at firstname.lastname@example.org
James Green is the Labour PPC for Cheltenham and Young Fabians Candidates Network Officer