Both of last night’s by-elections tell us much about the toxic state of mainstream politics. The Liberal Democrats, sadly, were nowhere, the Tories are all over the place, but it’s Labour chickens coming home to roost that must concern us most.
Politics in Britain today is not really about UKIP but about the failure of Labour in particular to present a coherent, desirable and feasible alternative to the Tories.
Whether you are a Labour supporter or not, everyone in Compass, in the short term at least, needs the party to deliver but right now, intellectually and organisationally, Labour feels like an empty vessel.
Yes some big moves have been made – on energy prices and against Murdoch but none of it adds up and even where the policies are right too few believe they are deliverable. One Nation, always a mistaken move, not least because of Scotland, has been dropped but nothing has taken its place other than the word ‘together’. The theme of responsible capitalism was never developed. Austerity has been accepted. Living standards and NHS are all that’s left to campaign on. There is no coherence and there is no real alternative. Jon Cruddas is developing a rich mix of policies on the devolution of power but the leadership largely ignore it. Arnie Graf the community organiser has been rejected.
The Tories could still be toxic enough to lose next May, but then what? With its talk of benefit cuts, austerity with a human face and concerns about immigration Labour are simply building a cage for any victory that might fall into their lap.
Meanwhile the debate, because of the space given to UKIP, veers off to the populist right. Let’s get this straight. Most people don’t vote UKIP for any other reason than they hate and despise mainstream politicians. They don’t think UKIP have any answers but they don’t care. They just want to stick two fingers up to Miliband, Clegg and Cameron. Come May, UKIP will find it difficult to win seats as their resources are spread thinly but that doesn’t mean the underlying issues go away. Below the water, discontent and alienation fester. In Scotland, the SNP could make a big break through and frankly they might deserve to, so bad is Labourism north of the border. Labour has taken its core vote and the marginalised for granted for too long – believing they had nowhere else to go. Now they have UKIP, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, or they can just stay at home.
So what do we do? We need a politics that totally, one hundred per cent, addresses the social and economic alienation that people feel. We need good jobs, fair pay, investment in affordable homes for all, an adequate social safety net and public services that are there for us whenever we need them. We need politicians that listen and political parties that are driven by their members.
But we also need leadership. Progressive politics right now needs leadership that says “we understand you feel powerless and anxious but this is not the fault of people in your community or in your country that are different from you.” This is about bankers not Bulgarians. We need leadership that says that our common humanity is what makes us and our country special. We need leadership that says the richness and diversity of our country is something to be cherished and embraced not ditched at the first whiff of Nigel’s cigars and beer. We need leadership that says we are better because we are different and that tolerance, empathy and love for others are the hallmarks of a good society. These values cannot be traded for votes or hidden from view until an appropriate moment. There will never be an appropriate moment, only a worse moment, unless we stand up and speak out now. Even it was just about wining votes, progressives can never out UKIP UKIP. That way only misery lies.
And one more thing we need from our leadership. The Tories, as they pander to UKIP, are now gung ho in their determination to rid us of The Human Rights Act. Compass bangs on a lot about democracy – and rightly so. Democracy is the means by which we help ensure equality, participation and knit our multi-cultural society together – as we have always managed to do. But democracy isn’t enough on its own. It has to be underpinned by a basic and essential framework of Human Rights. Democracy can lead to division and oppression. Last night it started doing just that in Clacton and Heywood and Middleton. It’s why we need a legal foundation to underpin our common humanity.
Back in 2010 Ed Miliband said a lot of these things – but has been too silent since. But leadership isn’t something we should expect from others – it’s something we have to create and do ourselves. As ever, we are the people we have been waiting for. We should wait no longer.