Sunday, 5 September 2010

Dear David, Ed, Andy, Ed and Diane- An open letter to the Labour leadership candidates.

Haven’t you all been busy since May, what with the debates, the back peddling from the decisions made under Tony Blair and writing all those emails to potential supporters you can hardly have had a moment to yourselves.

Ok so your ‘people’ wrote the emails, but you all expressed an interest in hearing my views along with gaining my vote. I can’t promise you the latter, not all of you anyway, politics is a game for grown ups with winners and losers; as you’ve discovered over the past few months, but I can spare you a few ideas about what you might do with the job when or if you get it.

The first thing you will have to recognise, and you won’t like it much, is that Labour lost the election because it lost its way as a party its core support for granted for far too long. You might point to the thirty thousand members the party has gained since the election as proof that things are improving, it is nothing of the sort; the membership gains of recent months are dwarfed by the net losses made since 1994.

The good news is that you can start to really turn things around by following a few simple steps, none of which, I admit, will help you to win the next election, but they will, hopefully mean there is a party in existence to fight it and be an effective opposition afterwards.

First of all you should apologise for the multiple mistakes of the Blair/Brown years; issues like Iraq, civil liberties and the slow dismantling of internal party democracy that have alienated so many people who would naturally turn towards the Labour Party. This won’t be easy, no politician likes to admit to being wrong and in the short term the media will give you a hard time, but in the longer term it will detoxify some truly poisonous issues and allow the party to move on.

At every opportunity you should get out of the Westminster bubble and meet real voters and party members. In the nine years for which I was a member of a constituency Labour party we did not receive a single visit from even a junior minister, it was hard not to draw the conclusion that this was because the party largely took our votes for granted. There is also the impression that needs to be corrected that politicians feel awkward around and are out of tune with the feelings of ‘ordinary’ voters. Politics is about people, real ones not tame focus groups, you might not like what the man and woman in the street says to you, but in many cases it will be worth listening to.

Embrace, don’t fight against the Big Society, it might be a Tory invention but the ideas behind it are ones with which the Labour Party should feel an affinity. Yours is a party built on a desire to empower individuals and communities and much of the anger directed towards Labour in recent years has focussed, rightly, on the leadership’s attempts to gather ever more power in towards the centre.

A good way to start this process would be to revive grassroots democracy within the party. Ask any group of former party members what they left and the majority will tell you they were pushed over the edge by the feeling that their concerns relation to policy, often based on an understanding of local conditions unavailable to party mandarins, were being sidelined by a cabal of officials who put advancing their own careers first and everything else second.

I don’t usually make predictions but my guess would be that the winning candidate will be related to one of the losing ones; whoever wins will be taking on a tough job in even tougher times. The only thing they can be certain of is an onslaught of media criticism between now and the next election, at which it looks unlikely they will dislodge a coalition that appears to be stronger than anybody expected.

It is also an important job, for much of its history the Labour Party was the voice of the people who are obliged to live at the mercy of the markets. During the Blair years that voice became muted in the rush to the centre ground, for the good of the people who will be hurt most by the impending cuts the new leader will need to make it heard again. To do so whoever wins the leadership race will need courage and luck, I wish them both; they’ll need it.

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