This is a version of the inspiring speech Jon Cruddas gave to the Compass conference last week.
Jon Cruddas argues that poverty of aspiration is the biggest hurdle to a revival of bold Labour
LABOUR appears to be in political freefall without a parachute. This is partly because of the collapse of many “new” Labour orthodoxies – the triangulations and trimmings based around a mythical middle England. This model now almost appears to belong to a different era, but to many it seems there is no coherent alternative to put in its place or too little time to implement it. That doesn’t have to be the case. I believe there is a way to regain the trust and support of those who are deserting Labour by meeting their aspirations for their place in a fairer society.
Recent election results demonstrate that support for the Labour Party is disintegrating. In Crewe, London and across the country in the local elections, the verdict was damning. But, as many of us have been flagging up over the last few years, this did not fall out of the sky, with the biggest shifts among public services workers and more generally among working-class labour voters.
In response, all we heard was: “Let’s not go back to the 1980s”. As if anyone wanted to. The other false accusation was that we wanted to retreat to some “old Labour” comfort zone. These are trite responses to a careful analysis of the trend in electoral decline. A year ago change was promised, but little delivered, as the general election that never was meant a rewind back to the old playbook of triangulation and tacking to the right.
Increasingly we are outflanked by a modern conservatism than maintains a more literate language. It talks about values and relationships, it empathises with people who are struggling, it appears to be going with the grain of people’s vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, some on our own side are adding to this topsy-turvy atmosphere by pitching for public spending cuts and tax cuts. We are in danger of trading off the very essence of social democracy.
At the heart of the debate is what the people of this country aspire to. These aspirations are not defined by individualist, Thatcherite, pro-private, anti-public greed, but by expectations of a political process that will focus on removing the barriers to realising aspirations in terms of poverty, child-care, access to housing, leisure, arts, culture and so on. It is not the aspiration of climbing the ladder and breaking the rungs after you. There is a formula at the heart of the Government based around a fundamental rupture between marginal seats and Labour’s heartlands. It cynically counter-poses aspiration and our core vote. We need politicians to break from this disparaging segmentation of the country and its associated patronising in terms of who is and isn’t aspirational. Politically, we need to reclaim the very nature of aspiration. We need to decontaminate it from the toxic interpretation of those such as Business Secretary John Hutton who see aspiration as a call for more millionaires and tax protection for fat cats. Voters are leaving Labour because of our failure to deal with their real aspirations, in terms of housing, their working poverty, their scramble over limited resources, their desperate desire for mobility and resources. These aspirations depend on collectivist social democratic actions.
So we need to start again. Simply put, why don’t we say that our purpose is to build a fairer, more equal and sustainable country and planet? With that as a goal, we need to get behind some policies which are promoted in a language and story that allows people to render intelligible their concerns and aspirations. They could include:
* a windfall tax on oil companies to help those struggling with escalating fuel bills, specifically those in fuel poverty;
* a new fair employment clause in all public contracts to end the race to the bottom in the world of work;
* building homes for families, allowing councils to build for renting;
* a fairer tax system with a new top rate and a cut in taxes for the low paid with all new revenues hypothecated to boost benefit levels for the poor;
* a moratorium on the private sector role in delivering front-line public services;
* protection for the universal service obligation of the Post Office;
help children get healthy with free schools meals for all;
* access to all local authority sports facilities free for children under 16;
make work pay by ending the national minimum wage rates and paying the rate for the job;
* abolishing health inequalities through proper funding of primary care;
democratising the police through greater local accountability and elections;
* pioneering local area agreements to offer real and enduring devolution drawn up and delivered locally;
* a new radical covenant between the people and the military funded by the scrapping of Trident;
* workplace environmental reps to make work healthier and more fulfilling;
* greater working time flexibility for parents;
* tackling the legacy of Home Office failure with the introduction of earned regularisation of unregularised migrants.
These will meet the real aspirations or real people in real need – not least that half of the population which shares just 6 per cent of Britain’s wealth, while the top 1 per cent owns a quarter of it. The very rich have become the new untouchables through the myth that their massive wealth will somehow flow to the rest of us and that, if we dare tax them fairly, they will jump ship to another country. A new politics of hope must start with idealism and the belief that another world is possible. No one’s life should be compromised by the brute luck of birth.
Utopianism has been given a bad name by those who want everything to stay the same. The National Health Service, full employment and even the minimum wage were all initially decried as hopelessly utopian, but people had the courage and the desire to struggle to make them a reality. Political leaders are reluctant to take a lead. They play it safe, caught in the trap of electoral timidity when the moment demands bravery. This is not a surprise. History teaches us that lasting changes – from the vote and the NHS and on to greater women’s equality – were not handed down from on high by benevolent politicians, but fought for by millions of people, convinced that the time for change had come.
The bottom line is this. We can fight to change the direction of the party – but only if we have the political will. Given the patterns of injustice that we see every day, it is no less than a categorical imperative that we accept the challenge to change this country. It cannot be beyond our collective wit to do so. We could start by organising – and quickly – a lurch to the centre-left.