Dear Labour Leader,
We don’t want to pre-empt the result on Saturday but having thought about it we decided that our advice, if you wish to take any of it, would be essentially the same whoever won and we know you will be inundated with ideas as soon as you actually become Labour’s leader – so we thought we would get in first. Here goes.
First we wanted to spell out the three ways in which we believe you should use the power of your new job to build firm foundations for the political transformation of our country. Being the Leader of the Opposition is often frustrating – but you are already much more powerful than you perhaps think.
1. Power through the party
The only tangible thing, which you can directly change, is the party, so more than anything we urge you to use the party to prefigure a good society – one that is much more equal, democratic and sustainable. The way we change the party will help people understand how we want to change the country.
You have become leader in incredible circumstances, around 400,000 people joined Labour or became supporters since the election. In an age when political party membership was presumed dead, Labour showed it’s still a screen onto which so many people can project their hopes. The party has been transformed in weeks and will never be the same again. How you react to these new people is key. Your job, more than any other, together with the new Deputy Leader, is to help change the party to harness their energy and attract even more people so that our collective and democratic ability to transform our society is unleashed. Sadly what these keen new people will find is a 20th century top down, disempowering machine. It needs to change, and fast.
Here we get to the essence of political leadership in the 21st century – it is to take a firm stand on key moral issues but more importantly it is the help build the spaces and platforms on which people make change happen together. Just stand back and look at what happened over the last few weeks. The contest came alive because of the people joining – being part the wave. And many will leave as soon as they joined if the openness and empowering sprit of the campaign is lost. Today attachment is more fleeting – people have to be involved and find their voice – or they will go elsewhere. The incredible outpouring of solidarity over asylum is just another example of this people led change.
Whether you are more Bennite or Blairite is beside the point – both traditions had tendencies that wanted to impose and control. But this is the politics of the past. The future will be open and pluralist – defined by the sentiment of Facebook and not the Factory, a world that is negotiated not imposed. The good society can only be created for and by the people. You can show this.
What we have witnessed over this remarkable summer is the inversion of elite theories of change, whether by reformists or revolutionaries, in which the vanguard carries the masses – today the masses in the form of social media and social movement waves carry the political elite.
It is why a shift to proportional representation is now the base camp of the politics of the future. Neither you nor any candidate made it an issue during the election campaign. It is essential you do so now. It is about how Labour can be in power and govern effectively but it is about doing the right thing because it shows we trust people. You can’t change the country through short cuts and rigged results. Majorities will have to be assembled for what we believe in – which means deep and long conversations within parties and across parties. There is no alternative.
2. The power to convene
The second great power you have is the ability to convene. You can now ask almost anyone in the world to help you and they will respond. The days ahead are going to be tough. Don’t shrink into a small core of people who already agree with you. Instead open out and up. Be challenged. Get the best brains in the world and the most committed and energetic people in the country to help shape Labour’s vision, policy and organisation. They are waiting for your call.
Here we come to the need to forge a Progressive Alliance. No party has a monopoly of truth or share of the progressive vote. The days of two-party dominance are over. Labour is the biggest tent in the progressive camp site – but the Greens often have the better policies, the SNP now look dominant in Scottish politics and Plaid Cymru have radical ideas and may be soon needed in government – why waste time and effort battling them when they could be persuaded to work with Labour to create a socially just and sustainable world? This is the politics of the ‘open tribe’ to which more and more people are responding enthusiastically.
3. The power to reframe the debate
The leadership election campaign has proved already that political leaders, even aspiring ones, can change the terms of debate. What you say matters. Just by putting different and challenging ideas on the table the discourse of the nation is transformed.
It needs to be. For while Labour discussed its future the summer saw huge challenges come into sharp focus: the mass movement of people; the threat of another economic crash; reminders about climate change beyond our ability to cope; the displacement of work through new technology; regressive policies that will increase poverty and inequality; the fostering of extremism, and more.
But more than anything your election comes at a unique conjuncture – a moment when capitalism’s ability to reproduce itself is under strain as never before, combined with the emergence of a networked society. When social upheaval meets social media change happens at speed and scale. It is as challenging as it is opportune.
So here are just few concrete recommendations on what to do next based on the fact we know the next election is almost five years away:
- Start a two year values, vision, organisation and policy review- make it as open and expansive as possible – and join the initiatives up – they must support each other.
- If the party is what matters most then together lets find ways to enable the membership to democratically determine priorities and policy.
- Make a reality of the community organising role of local parties, started by your predecessor but aborted all too soon. Look at ideas like a Movement Council to bring the party together with the unions and social movements locally and nationally.
- In particular, help initiate a citizens and civil society led Convention for a New Democracy – learning from the Scottish Constitutional Convention –which built the ideas and forces to make democratic transformation irresistible.
- Form a Shadow Cabinet of all the talents – be bigger than any recent party leaders by involving MPs from across the party’s spectrum.
- If, as is possible, both you and the Deputy Leader are men, move immediately to reach agreement for the appointment of a second, female, Deputy who could be the female candidate who did best in the ballot. The party needs to do more to reflect the diversity of the population in what it is and what it does.
- Show Labour takes the environment and pluralism seriously by inviting Caroline Lucas MP to chair a commission into the future of sustainability and the economy.
- Jump on a train to see Nicola Sturgeon and with Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett form an anti-Tory Progressive Alliance.
- Bring in all the leaders of Labour councils across the country – there is so much we can learn from them and do with them.
- Radically reform and rename the Whip system in Parliament to build consensus through negotiation not force.
- Your first big event is the Labour Party conference, don’t make a long dull speech. Instead open it up and get delegates and visitors talking to each other – sitting in small groups – they know the answers already and can make them happen. We have found that this works really well in engaging and enthusing people at our own gatherings.
- Start developing an open election winning strategy, building on Labour’s 30% share of the vote last May but with no presumption that any single vote is safe. So how do we forge an alliance of workers, the precariat, the professions, the cultural and creative sectors, social entrepreneurs, the self-employed, digital workers etc?
Finally, two friendly warnings. First don’t confuse the enthusiasm for Labour over the summer for the reversal of the long-term decline of social democracy being experienced the world over that we described in Downfall. Labour has been given a chance – that is all. We know that things move so fast now that anything can happen at any time. So be brave – the art of political leadership is to make the desirable become feasible. Do today so that tomorrow you can do what can’t be done now. Always build your intellectual and organisational forces. Play the long game.
And lastly, despite this letter being directed at you – this is not about you – it is about all of us. Our country will change for the better when millions of its citizens believe it can change, must change and are prepared to help make it change. Your job is to help them. We search for something, not someone.
Good luck – we are here for you as critically constructive friends – just as we are for everyone who wants a good society.