Throughout his impressive and highly effective leadership campaign Jeremy Corbyn made it clear that he wants a truly open, inclusive and constructive conversation about the future of the Labour party: how can we craft an inspiring new vision and narrative? What should our new policy priorities be? How can we regain the trust of the British people, become an effective opposition, and ultimately return to government in 2020?
In order to be able to answer any of those questions, we must first of all understand where it all went so wrong. For me, the fundamental weakness of the last five years was that we talked a lot about what we were against, but said little about what we were actually for. We rightly expressed our outrage about growing inequality and injustice, but did not speak enough to people’s hopes or ambitions. The electorate did not understand our vision for society, because we did not really tell them what it was. They heard us repeatedly hammering the bedroom tax and zero-hours contracts, and their response was: ‘I agree with much of that, but what does it mean for me when I’m not on zero hours, or liable for bedroom tax? How would a Labour government help me and my family to do better?’
On 7 May, the message from the majority of the British electorate was clear: we think that you do not really care about us, the hard-working families who are trying to get on in life. That feeling was wrong, but it was strong. Labour was rejected because we seemed to be focused exclusively on a narrow, disadvantaged section of the population, when it is blindingly obvious that political parties only succeed when they have broad appeal.
In my recently published pamphlet – A New Nation: Building a United Kingdom of Purpose, Patriotism and Resilience – I argue that if Labour is to have a chance of winning in 2020 then we must do three things.
First, we have to convince the British people that we can once again be trusted with the economy. We have to make it crystal-clear that our top priority in government will be to balance the books by modernising the welfare state, and by delivering purposeful policies that foster investment, competitiveness and sustained growth. Rebuilding our relationship with large and small businesses, heeding their good ideas, must be a vital part of this new approach.
Second, we have to reclaim patriotism. I am proud to be British and I love the United Kingdom as a united country of fair play and liberty, bound together by our shared values of compassion and of courage. Decentralising power and resources, putting the English regions on a similar footing to Scotland and Wales, making governments listen, celebrating what is best about Britain: these are the qualities that should drive our new patriotism. And this renewed sense of localism and civic pride will provide us with a platform upon which we can stand tall in the world, inspired by the confident patriotism that flows upwards from cohesive communities. In this age of insecurity it is more important than ever that we engage constructively with Europe and Nato, if we are to have real influence on the decisions that impact directly on our national interests and security.
Third, we have to show that Labour is the only party that can deliver the radical changes that are necessary if we are to build a more resilient country. In a world that is in a constant state of flux the successful countries will be those that are quickest to recover from unexpected events and adapt to new realities. High skills, properly funded research, flexible labour markets underpinned by real investment in reskilling and re-entry, an economy that is not dependent on huge household debt, and a manufacturing renaissance: these must be cornerstones of our new resilience.
Between 1997 and 2010 our appeal was broad, but ultimately it proved to be too shallow. Between 2010 and 2015 we narrowed our offer by prioritising issues like the bedroom tax and zero-hours contracts. This enabled us to deepen our support among certain sections of the electorate, but on 7 May we learned the hard way that a narrow offer is electoral suicide.
A 21st century Labour party that is truly ‘for the many, not the few’ must therefore be based on an inspiring vision, narrative and policy programme that will secure broad and deep support. It has to be sound on the economy, strong on reform, and resolute on our place in the world.
There must be no going back to the wilderness years of the 1980s: now is the time to renew, not to retreat.