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Opinion


Henry McLeish henrymcleish@holyrood.com


Leading the way to change THE election of the new leader of the Labour


Party will inevitably provide a reminder of Labour’s defeat in May. More importantly, it could provide the start of a new era for a party that has much to do to rebuild trust and confidence in our politics, strengthen our democracy, reconnect with the British people and start to provide effective opposition to a less-than-progressive Conservative- Lib Dem coalition. Te hope must be for a leader who can create a


new collective mindset in the party that will embrace change and leave factionalism and personalities behind. Te challenge for him/her must be the politics of the common good – based on progressive values, political identity, civic virtue and engagement, equality and a moral perspective – because that can build a progressive coalition which dominates the next century. Labour, in this new era, has to redefine what it stands for and what


it now offers an electorate that is more volatile, disillusioned, insecure, apprehensive and more worried about the future than it has been for a generation. Austerity politics is also damaging national morale and lowering expectations. Labour is right to argue about how quickly we need to cut deficits and the impact this will have on economic recovery. A Britain gripped by fear about the future and accepting, with little obvious protest, austerity medicine from the coalition is not the most promising context in which Labour has to embark upon building a new politics. A look at our politics and elections since 1945 reveals an


uncomfortable set of truths for Labour and the Conservatives. Party membership figures are dramatically down. Electoral turn-outs have slumped. Party loyalties and allegiances have weakened. Voting patterns are changing. Devolution is changing the face of our


politics and our governance. Te ‘Balkanisation’ of the Labour vote in Britain in 2010 resulted in only Wales, Scotland and the North of England remaining loyal to Labour. Te impact of the global recession, the economic, financial and banking crisis since 2008 and the crisis of confidence in our politicians and political institutions in the aftermath of the expenses scandal merely serve to underline the scale of the challenge that Labour has now to address. Making this worse is the relentless assault on politicians, politics


and political institutions by a cynical, corrosive right-wing media collectively eroding the integrity, effectiveness and worth of politics in Britain; the trivial, the sensational and the irrelevant are not the substance of politics or people’s lives. Labour needs to understand three key issues: why is our democracy


and politics at risk? Why are the links between electors and the elected weakening? How do we build stable, secure and sustainable politics in Britain? Te party also has to acknowledge that our democracy is in danger


of being devalued as a way of dealing with the big issues facing us in Scotland, in the UK, in Europe and globally. Labour has to be aware that David Cameron is seeking to reframe the political discourse in Britain by adopting the Republican Party’s approach where the big


state, big government, free-loading politicians and liberal attitudes – they really mean socialist – are all anti the public interest and need to be constantly vilified and undermined. Progressive politics has to be framed differently.


Labour needs to escape from policy details and talk instead about mission, values, principles, ideas and language which address what Labour stands for and what kind of society and country we want to achieve. Progressiveness rejects partisanship, narrow


party politics, tribalism and an artificial political solidarity around declining party membership or


class-based politics; a political system and democracy fashioned in the 20th century is of little use to people living in the 21st century. All the political parties, including Labour, should recognise that no party has a monopoly of wisdom on every issue. In a future of AV or electoral reform for Westminster coalitions will replace majority governments. Party politics in its current form is dated and constraining when


it should be about inspiring people, enriching our debate and our democracy and enthusing people about ambition and aspiration. Labour should never retreat into old habits and comfortable territory.


Inclusiveness means serving traditional interests but always reaching out to build a bigger, better and more enduring coalition of left-of- centre politics and ideas; not just building for the next election, at Holyrood or Westminster, but building for the long term. Two generational issues should influence Labour’s thinking. Young people are interested in politics but not of the party political kind. Te Twitter and Facebook generation are important and Labour must renew its efforts to connect with young people. Similarly, there is an issue with the wider electorate. In the late 20th century, we developed individuals as consumers but failed to develop them as citizens. Labour has to build citizenship as a vital element of our democracy. David Marquand, writing in Te Progressive Dilemma in 1991, posed


the challenge: “How to transcend Labourism without betraying labour interest; how to bridge the gap between the old labour fortresses and the potentially anti-conservative but non-labour hinterland; how to construct a broad-based and enduring social coalition capable of not just giving it a temporary majority in the House of Commons but of sustaining a reforming government thereafter.” – And a reforming state of mind among the electors! Tere are real benefits if a broad left-of-centre coalition can


govern Britain for a majority of the time: more real change could be implemented. Te benefits of a sensible, sustainable and stable future could be realised with the idea of social justice, embracing equality and social mobility, as the number one priority. Labour needs to ensure progressive instincts become rooted in the institutions of the nation, and in the hearts and minds of the electors. For far too long conservative instincts have dominated and to a large extent still endure. Tis is why “reframing” the political debate is so important. Looking beyond single elections, Labour has to adjust the thinking of electors to believe that continuity and the absence of disruptive change are in the national interest. Tis would be modernisation for the many: a real challenge for the new leader!


20 September 2010 Holyrood 71


“Party membership figures are dramatically down. Electoral turn-outs have slumped. Party loyalties and allegiances have weakened”


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