Lessons from London: Create Space for People to Make Change

Neal Lawson is chair of Compass

In May UK Labour suffered its second cataclysmic defeat.

Once again it polled 30 percent but it is the nature of that 30 percent we should inspect. It was a 30 percent bereft of hope, meaning or any grasp of the future or the Party’s place in it.

It was 30 percent for the least worst option – anything but the Tories – because the Tories were so incompetent and uncaring and out of touch. It was a 30 percent boosted by the collapse of the centrist Liberal Democrats from 23 percent in 2010 to 8 percent.

And yet Labour was still only 1 percent up on 2010. Five years of hard graft and even higher hopes gone as soon as the exit poll flashed up.

Labour now tries to pick itself up. It has jumped straight into a leadership contest – which already resembles which bit of the past do you most want to recreate – the Blair, Brown or Miliband era – as if any were sufficient. Like just about every social democratic party the world over, Labour finds itself going through the motions – a kind of undead zombie politics – hoping that something, anything will turn up.

But what are the key lessons for Australian Labor that can be transported from the other side of the globe?

The first is get beyond retail politics. Labour in the UK offered baubles like energy price caps that were never seen as credible and were never viewed as part of a bigger story about what sort of country we wanted to create.

So have a narrative about the future of your country. In the UK Labour has always done well electorally when it contested the future – 1945 and a land fit for heroes, 1964 and the white heat of technology and even 1997 and the modernity of New Labour.

In an increasingly networked society, the Left can lay claim to a more egalitarian and democratic world because its possible to experience such a world as the technology unfolds. Yes it is contested by the big digital corporates – but we should own a future that is becoming more horizontal and talk about how the gains of productivity should be distributed.

The second lesson is to get back to movement building. Labour here ran an orthodox top down campaign – centralised messages – even to the extent of literally carving vague pledges in stone.

Miliband must have seen himself as some kind of Moses figure – politics done to the people. But if we live in a more connected and networked world. People are getting used to doing things for themselves – and many are enjoying it. So the job of Labour parties is not just to inhabit the state to pull levers for people.

We need to create the spaces and deploy the resources so that people can make change happen themselves. Then change can be come embedded culturally and politically.

In the UK new figures have just been released showing child poverty back to pre-New Labour levels. A decade of backroom transfers though tax credits and benefits tweaks has been undone – in part because Labour did it all by stealth. No constituency was ever built up to make the changes permanent. Even the people who benefited did not know why because no one told them.

One ex-Labour adviser recently recounted a conversation with Gordon Brown that went ‘we are in politics to help those at the bottom – but can never tell anyone because then we won’t get elected’.

And in the leadership election just taking place uber-Blairite ex-Minister Alan Milburn said that ‘no one knows what Labour stands for’. After 13 years of New Labour, and five years of Miliband’s ‘vote Labour and win a microwave’, that’s no surprise.

So the real lesson is – it’s both tough and complicated. There are no shortcuts. In or out of office the ALP must dig the cultural, moral and organisational roots in which a 21st century progressive politics can flourish. Good luck and let’s learn from and help each other. It’s the same struggle in the same cultural context.


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