Labour: the Nation’s Capacity Builders?

Ultimately Labour’s new leadership must show they are willing to take the big progressive gamble – to trust the people.

At any other time, the election of a new Labour Party leader would be a front-page story. Tomorrow’s announcement will happen, but will hardly scratch the consciousness of a nation with other things on its mind.

Compass has always looked beyond just Labour and works with people all parties (and none) who want a Good Society. Labour can contribute to or even lead this journey, but it can’t get us there alone.

Leading by example

While we need a very plural future, the political reality is that under a first-past-the-post voting system Labour remains the biggest tent on the progressive campsite. So, who leads it matters. But whoever is declared the victor tomorrow will be of little significance, unless they lead very differently. 

Labour faces five possible futures:

1.     It wins the next election and is ready to help transform the country.

2.     It wins, but is unprepared for the task of transformation.

3.     It loses, but builds the foundations for future transformative success.

4.     It loses, wastes the next four years, but stumbles on because the voting system keeps it on life support.

5.     It loses and falls apart like the Greek social democrats in 2015.

If one of the three better outcomes is to be achieved, then it is going to take a very brave, bold, and humble new leadership to get the party there. It starts now.

The first point here is that Labour’s new leader will operate in the context of unfolding and manifest crises. The pandemic now, but a financial and economic crisis that will follow, the crisis of inequality after that, and then of housing, care and climate, before a new pandemic hits. 

All of this at a moment of fundamental weakness for the Left, that has neither a coherent agent of change (the working class), nor a system of governance (command-and-control bureaucracies), and therefore no theory of big change at its disposal as it did in the middle decades of the last century. 

Indeed, the alliance between working and middle classes that underpinned Labour electorally, could already be broken for good. Meanwhile, globalisation, financialisaton and individualisation have left parties of labour weak everywhere.  

In the UK, Corbynism has been tried. It did win some important arguments and brought Labour many new members. But it failed to win the country. The danger now is that the party imagines there is some ‘soft Left’ sweet spot between Corbynism and Blairism from which it can win, govern and transform again. This is a cruel delusion. 

Transformation through tragedy

The C-19 crisis provides an opportunity, we all see, for new forms of collectivism and solidarity. But the form it takes will be contested. Some progressive are falling prey to a ‘virus determinism’ just as they did a ‘crash determinism’ in 2008. Events won’t simply do our work for us. While society will almost inevitably be more collective as a result of C-19, whether its authoritarian and elitist collectivism or democratic and egalitarian is down to us.   

In an age defined by populism versus pluralism, Labour must try a new approach, not triangulate between two old and tired poles. Of course, it can exist, pumped up by the steroid boost that first-past-the-post injects into it every election – happy to accept second place and the trappings of being Her Majesty’s Opposition, but blocking the path of anything new. But what is the point of that?

The core of a new approach is contained in one word – capacity. Can Labour’s new leader see him or herself as the capacity builder of the countervailing forces to really transform our country as it comes out of the corona-crisis? 

Those countervailing forces are: vision, policy, narratives, and alliances across politics, business and civil society. The new leader’s immediate focus should be the capacity of the Shadow Cabinet, the PLP, party members and Councils. Can they unlock all that team potential and empower them? They should then reach out to other progressive parties and forces, at every level expanding the project, occupying new space.

The only alternative is to contract, to circle the wagons ever tighter and hope that thinking you’re right is good enough or that something will turn up. Of course a leader who can command widespread respect in the country, the media and the Commons is essential, but it is now so far from sufficient. 

In all this Labour’s leader and the party must reassess and change one big thing, their sense of exceptionalism and uniqueness. Instead of intoning the dreadful “Only Labour can do….” , its new mantra must become “Labour working with so many others can achieve anything and everything”. 

Labour must start by being plural within, embracing Corbynites, Blairites and all points in between. And then it must be plural externally, seeking to adopt the practice and culture of a progressive alliance, not just to beat the Tories and the hard Right, but govern effectively in such turbulent times. It’s going to take all progressives working together to fix this.

Look at the way the corona-crisis is panning out. Yes, it’s about the return of the State, but if it’s about the return of the British State, then it must also be about the return of the Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and local State too. Power simply has to flow down to where it is closest to people. And that new State must be both green and liberal.

Labour must learn to let go, embracing this pluralism, because the only other option now is populism. It is why the new leader has to front the essential shift to Proportional Representation, not as a silver bullet, but as a litmus test of their willingness to work with others to the benefit of the party and the country.  

But as Sue Goss and Ruth Lister argue, this is about much more than what one person does. The new leader must forge a new more open and inclusive style of collaborative leadership that doesn’t just focus on them.  But here we all have a responsibility. Piling up all our hopes on a single Messiah figure is a fool’s errand. We are all leaders, and must all play our part. The creation of a Good Society can only be negotiated by all of us, not imposed by any single party. 

Ultimately Labour’s new leadership must show they are willing to take the big progressive gamble – to trust the people. It is the only way social-ism can ever happen. 

The Labour Party has lost the last four elections. It has failed us enough. It must now step up or step out of the way. 

We wish the new leader well, and don’t envy them the pressures they will be under. In this enormous challenge, Compass offers constructive, critical support to whoever wins. We are here to help. But we will help build the foundations of a good society whether Labour is part of that or not. 

Comment here and let us know what you think.

As ever, in the words of Antonio Gramsci, “We live without illusions without being disillusioned”. 

18 thoughts on “Labour: the Nation’s Capacity Builders?

  1. The new leader must not simply play to whichever faction within the party that backed them.

    They must reach beyond to win over voters that have doubted Labour’s ability to lead the nation.

    I absolutely agree that the idea that “only Labour can” must be dropped. There must be a willingness to reach out and work with others.

    If the leader can’t bring the party together, bring others to the party and bring allies together to achieve common goals, the party will wither and die.

    On PR: It’s always going to be an uphill battle, but as an indication of a “willingness to work with others to the benefit of the party and the country” I’d say it’s a battle that must be fought and won.

    We must recognise and build upon the mindset of inter-dependence, now and after the CV-19 crisis.

    Unite the country with a Declaration of Interdependence:

  2. I think that you are right and that proportional representation is a key element for democratic rule by working together not in confrontation. This way we can join the rest of the world in having a better way of government – preferably in a modern circular chamber which doesn’t encourage people to oppose and hurl insults, but to listen and find acceptable compromise ways forward.

  3. Yes.
    Considered leaving it at that! but no, here’s a couple of things I’d like to add.

    Leadership. I had the immense privilege of working in Northern Ireland during the peace building process and thanks to the generosity of people across the globe who brought their skills and insights to our work, I saw firsthand the power of facilitative leadership. We used it to build connections across and between every level of society using social capital theory – bonding, bridging and linking to connect, dialogue, learn, problem solve. It also taught me that emerging from conflict can create a space where everything and anything is possible because there are very few who want to go back to the way it was. Ten years later I returned to England and was shocked at how backward it seemed.

    Imagination. ‘the decolonisation of the imagination is the most dangerous and subversive form there is: for it is where all other forms of decolonisation are born. Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless’. Walidah Imarisha.

    I feel very strongly that we need to draw far more than we do on the work artists are doing to imagine a different future. The greatest achievment of neo-liberalism in my mind is that so many people cannot imagine things being that different. But lets not tell people what the different reality is going to be. Lets co-create it…with artists help.

  4. I feel heartened by this recognition that ‘party politics’ is essentially destructive. I am in my late eighties so have a little social history in my memory – what there is of it. I was able to be part of the consultations which preceded the Scottish vote on an independent parliament so I know it is far from easy to draw everyone in to take part in critical decision-making. But it can be done, if the will is there, and if central government has sufficient humility and awareness to realise that only if as many as possible can participate and be heard will we become a viable, if different, society.

  5. None of the candidates are out and out PR supports Jill. Keir has been the warmest. Let’s see. But build a campaign which make PR unstoppable

  6. A good summary.
    Labour cannot cahnge and rebuild the country alone they must reach out to all the liberals in this country.
    PR must be embraced and given a prominent place in any future programme.

  7. This year is crucial for helping the Labour Party to commit to Proportional Representation. Clearly, at the moment everyone is focussed on Covid-19, but when we get to the next Labour Party Conference, whether that is this autumn or not, we need to pass a motion to drive forward the electoral reform agenda. Compass and Open Labour and Make Votes Matter and Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform are all working together on this – let’s make it happen, folks.

  8. I totally agree with Compass’s position: that Labour must work with the other progressive parties, and that its priority must be to implement proportional representation.

  9. Aneurin Bevan was part of a government that transformed Britain after WW2. Read his book “In Place of Fear”. He argued that the type of society before 1945 was decided by private interests and these interests, always supported by the conservatives, were decided mainly by the profit motif not by what is good for society. So long as this remained the case he said that the individual will never be able to make society conform to any permanently commendable pattern. That is why Labour nationalised a number of key industries.

    He thought that Labour had failed in the past because it made too many concessions to conventional opinion. The chief reason Labour succeeded in 1945 was because it had the self-confidence in the belief that it knew what had to be done. It also of course had a clear mandate from the country based on campaigning over a number of decades.

    The current crisis is an opportunity for Sir Keir Starmer to propose and campaign for a radical social democratic policy that will appeal to a majority of the country.

  10. working on it Sandy
    thanks everyone else for comments
    as you can hopefully see, we are in terrain where we can breath again
    keep safe

  11. The three opposition parties need to have an electoral pact at the next election. If that works and they have a majority between them they need to get PR legislation through then we can all vote for what we believe in and have a chance of having that view represented in parliament.

    Can the politicians put aside their personal political careers for the sake of the country, I doubt it.

  12. Completely agree with the idea that Labour needs to commit to PR, but it’s also important not to make the mistakes the LibDems did. Labour should:

    1. Not call it Proportional Representation, the term is over technical and will bore voters. Instead campaign for Fair Voting, it sounds better and it’s impossible to argue against (hands up everyone who’s in favour of unfair voting).

    2. Not get hung up on what system to use. Establish some principles that must be met of an electoral system – e.g. proportion of seats must match proportion of votes cast, everyone must have a constituency MP to represent them, must allow for local variations and preferences. – Then, having established the principles, set up a joint enquiry by the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society to recommend the best system to use to deliver it.

  13. agree with both comments Tim. Jon Cruddas was making hopeful comments on ‘Fair Votes’ and Labour on the members call last night – which will bee out son as a podcast

  14. I agree that Labour has to embrace PR (or Fair Voting as Tim puts it). Regarding itself as the only alternative party of government and refusing to ditch FPTP will not help it win another election or survive.

    Sir Keir Starmer’s got his work cut out bringing the Blairites and the Corbynites together, who it seems can’t bear to be in the room as each other. He has to steer his party to a route of tolerance and survival to be part of the future. No one party has all the answers, and fellow opposition parties of the centre and left, Labour has to recognise, are not its enemies.

    However looking at the new Shadow cabinet, only a third of the MP’s openly support PR according to MVM data, and with Keir’s nuanced words on the matter I’m not convinced the party will take that bold step and embrace the future. Furthermore the one leadership candidate excluded from his front bench is Clive Lewis, the one MP challenging the party to change.

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