Politics is in crisis – both internationally and here at home. Trump, Brexit and the rise of populism and nationalism pose a huge challenge and threat to a weakened left, in this country and elsewhere.
The dilemma this presents for Labour, as Andrew Harrop suggested in his recent report ‘Stuck’, is that we’re left too weak to win the next election, with only little over half of Labour’s 2015 voters saying they support the party today – while remaining still too strong to be displaced as the UK’s main opposition party. If the level of support Labour commands right now were replicated in a general election, the party would win under 200 seats, around 40 fewer than in 2015, and 70 fewer than in 2010.
No-one can be complacent about such a possibility, as Rebecca Long Bailey pointed out when she argued that no Labour seat can be taken for granted as a safe seat. The scale of the challenge that we face demands we move out of our comfort zone. Lazy policy thinking or easy assumptions about the electorate’s views simply will not do. Every idea, every assumption must be subject to challenge and debate. As Fabians, with our long history of radical thought leadership, we have a special responsibility and the ability to lead the way with rigorous, evidenced and radical ideas.
But we need also to cast the net widely in promoting thinking and discussion. Politics has become increasingly discredited over the last few years, with politicians seen as out of touch, an elite, disbelieved, even despised. One policy response to that has been to argue for pushing power down and out, using cooperation, localisation and devolution to work with, rather than for, people.
That is right – as far as it goes. But if more power is to be devolved to local communities and individuals, that comes with the responsibility to exercise power for the common good, and an understanding of what is responsible citizenship. It requires a level of political sophistication, a willingness to understand complexity, and to consider how political decisions and solutions are negotiated. It requires the confidence to make a case, and to consider others’ views.
It’s not just the young who may lack that experience, but if we want to spread that knowledge, they’re a very good place to start. In my constituency I’ve begun working to develop political education programmes with local schools, to create opportunities for young people to experience and practise political decision-making, and to harness their interests and enthusiasms.
Political education will not do everything, of course, but an understanding of how to make processes works builds the confidence to participate. If we want to liberate the best ideas and engage the imaginations of as many people as we can to take on the challenges that we face, let’s make sure they have the tools for doing so.
This article is based on a speech Kate delivered at The Scottish Fabians AGM on the 21st January.