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Ivan Lewis: What 14 years on the frontbench taught me

My fourteen years as a member of Labour’s Frontbench came to an end with a text message. It would be easy to use this as a moment for bitterness and rancour; instead, it provides an opportunity to share some of what...


My fourteen years as a member of Labour’s Frontbench came to an end with a text message. It would be easy to use this as a moment for bitterness and rancour; instead, it provides an opportunity to share some of what I learned during those years.

Our duty as progressives is to live in the real world not the world as we wish it to be. But our mission must always be to change the world so it unleashes opportunity, aspiration and compassion. Lecturing people only about the world as it is not only grates, but also fails to give people hope that progressive politicians can make different choices which are fairer and will make their lives better.

The former is the curse of the left in our party, but the latter has been the failure of too many of the modernisers and moderates in recent times. Hard choices about finite resources either because of austerity or the changing demographic balance of our society between the working and retired population will be an unavoidable reality for the long term. But Labour and moderate progressives across the world, as well as offering reassurance about capacity to manage the public finances prudently, must also inspire with an agenda to reduce widening inequality, promote dignity at work and support business to develop the good jobs of the future. Reassurance and inspiration are required in equal measure if we are to win the argument against the Conservatives and the populist left.

I once wrote that being a minister or shadow minister is a daily struggle between pragmatism and idealism. The most effective frontbenchers combine and sustain the impatience of insurgency with the capacity to co-opt the establishment as allies for change. Navigating a difficult course between our values and promises to the electorate, with finite resources and the forces of conservatism, which permeate both some political colleagues and bureaucracies, whether in the civil service or the party machine.

As a minister and shadow minister, I frequently had to fight the system in the pursuit of progressive change. At Education I was told my campaign to tackle bullying in schools was a distraction from raising school standards. Introducing apprenticeships for young people from the age of 14, so they were motivated by learning and not alienated, was heresy to some in the educational establishment. Despite our perennial productivity challenge, skills were viewed as a nice “add on” to schools and universities but not central to our priorities. At the Treasury, having attempted to submit some ideas to Gordon Brown for his Autumn Statement, I was told by a political advisor that such ideas should only be proposed via him.

Imagine my surprise to arrive at the Department of Health and find that the NHS was “age blind” and that Social Care was treated with barely disguised contempt. This was in the context of the ageing society that even back in 2006/7 was so obviously one of the great public policy challenges facing our public finances. As for mental health, during that period we filled a largely blank piece of paper. Publishing Putting People First blueprint, which sought to shift the care and support system to prevention and early intervention, alongside giving people greater control over their own lives through personal budgets and quality advice and information, was groundbreaking. A new carers strategy moved things forward, despite inadequate resources, and we worked hard to ensure elder abuse was taken more seriously and the distinct needs of adults with Asperger’s were at least recognised. Our dignity campaign focused on the treatment of older patients in acute hospital wards and shone a spotlight on an issue which continues to challenge our NHS.

I’m proud that we had a vision and plan for the integration of health, social care, housing and other community services, long before it became fashionable. However, progress was resisted every day by an arrogant Departmental NHS empire, which looked down on social care, public health and mental health as “irritants”, and seemed to disregard what patients and their families told us time and time again about organisational silos undermining their care.

There were other examples of radical, progressive change with less resistance from the system. During my time at DFID I worked with Sarah Brown, who provided excellent global civil society leadership so that the scandal of the unnecessary deaths of women in childbirth became a top priority for developing countries and donors alike. Shadowing DFID, we also launched a global campaign led by Tessa Jowell to ensure investment in early childhood development would be at the heart of the new sustainable development goals determining future priorities for developed and developing countries alike. Most recently, in Northern Ireland at a time of UK Government disengagement, we applied pressure to ensure David Cameron and ministers adopted a more proactive approach at a time of serious political fragility.

In summary, my message to colleagues who have joined the frontbench for the first time is this: it is essential we hold this Tory government to account. However, simply exposing their unfairness and divisiveness is not enough. We must also use every opportunity to highlight their incompetence through national scrutiny and local campaigns.

Equally, through creative and innovative ideas, we must show how Labour in opposition is relevant and has answers to the great challenges of the future. Some of this should be done in partnership with Labour Local Government, who in many parts of the country are leading the way on doing more with less, and galvanising communities and businesses as partners for change. Where appropriate, shadow ministers should come together to develop cross-departmental policies, which showcase how Labour would adopt a genuinely joined up approach in government. Genuinely “joined up” means shared objectives, shared strategy, shared delivery plan and a pooled single budget.

I am honoured to have been given the opportunity to serve on the Labour’s frontbench for fourteen years. I never forgot that the chance to serve was only possible because of the continued support of my constituents in Bury South and the activists in other Labour and non-Labour constituencies who make our party strong. It is not the title you hold but the difference you make in pursuit of our values that really matters.

Ivan Lewis MP

Ivan Lewis is MP for Bury South and Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. He is also the author of the Purple Book Chapter “One Nation Labour: tackling the politics of culture and identity”.

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