The future of the left since 1884

Making change happen

To win again, Labour must show it is ready to meet voters’ hopes for a better future, argues Rebecca Long-Bailey MP.


Long read

There’s an old saying that “the cause of Labour is the hope of the world”. And as a Salford MP who grew up in the North West, that is the inescapable lesson of our history, from Peterloo to the Chartists, from the formation of the TUC to the birth of the suffragette movement.

Of course, history also teaches that the struggle to realise our hopes and aspirations was never easy. Sadly, the march to advance the interests of working people suffered a huge setback in December. I was devastated watching the results come in across Labour’s ‘red wall’ and in the last few months we have mourned, we have got angry and we have gone through all of the stages of grief.

But now is the time to set our sights on a new horizon, and I would like to set out the four key elements of what I believe is our path back to power.

Aspirational socialism

The first is aspirational socialism – addressing the hopes and dreams of the electorate, understanding how aspiration is blocked in mainstream Britain and setting out convincingly how a Labour government will enable people and communities to live the lives they deserve.

When I grew up, the future looked bleak. There were job losses, shops closing and high streets being run down. I know what it’s like to be told you will never get there, that you don’t have the right background or the right CV.

People from backgrounds like mine tried to escape the insecure lives our parents had. We tried to educate ourselves, to give ourselves choices, and some of us did well. But if we’re honest, that success was probably down to luck. People no less clever and no less hard-working didn’t enjoy the same success. If we lived in a world where how hard you worked or how clever you are translated into success, we wouldn’t be on our 20th prime minister who went to the same school.

I know that for too many people, pay is too low, work is too insecure, bills are too high, housing is too expensive, too few jobs are rewarding and many feel they won’t get the better jobs if they don’t go to university and take on massive debts. Living standards aren’t going up year on year and the next generation isn’t set to have a better life than the last.

Our hope for a better future for our children is being stifled at exactly the time when we need to think and act big to face down the crises that confront our people. This is no time to be timid.

I believe we need to set out how, through collective and universal policies, we will enable people to make the most of their talent and enthusiasm to realise their aspirations. And here are just some ideas of what that means in practice.

I want every child to get the best start in life, with high-quality, universal childcare for all two, three and four-year-olds. Those children should then go on to well-staffed and funded primary schools, where they all eat free school meals together, and every school has in-house mental health support. The homes children live in should be fit for habitation, without damp and mould, and if they fall ill, they should be able to see a GP easily. As they enter their teenage years, young people should be offered choices in school and support in their community, with well-funded youth services – spaces to play, learn and hang out.

We should support our young people as they begin to enter adulthood with an education maintenance allowance, free education, high-quality apprenticeships or decently paid and secure work. Starting out in adult life is not always easy – but it does not have to be so difficult. Everyone should be able to afford decent housing, time with their friends and family, a holiday every now and again and some spare cash to pursue their passions. We can help make that a reality with a mass council housebuilding programme and rent controls, proper funding for public services, a real living wage, a huge expansion of rights at work and lower fares and bills through public ownership of transport and key utilities.

With that start in life, many more people will realise their dreams by the time they are in their 40s. Most people want to settle into a supportive community, with clean and safe streets, green spaces and places to eat, drink and socialise.

As people approach retirement, they should be able to enjoy their successes, but also those of their family. They should feel secure in the knowledge that their children and grandchildren will have an even better life than they had. They themselves should feel financially secure, with a decent pension, high-quality public services and secure housing. They won’t have to worry about losing their home, as everyone will get free personal care when they need it. And with more public transport, local services, like libraries and community centres and a more cohesive society, loneliness will be on the retreat.

A Green Industrial Revolution

The second key element of our path to power is rallying our members, trade unions, civil society groups and the wider public behind a plan to tackle the greatest challenge we face and that arguably any society has ever faced: the climate emergency.

I am proud to say that I led on the development of Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution, setting out policies to create over one million good green jobs, bringing new investment and wealth to all the UK’s regions and nations. I believe we can turn the climate crisis into an opportunity for national renewal, one that delivers social justice and repowers our economy while honouring our obligation to current and future generations.

But what we failed to do at the last election was to tell a concrete, detailed story in every constituency of what this change could mean and how the people in that community will be the ones driving and delivering that change. The Green Industrial Revolution will never take off if it is something done to people rather than done with them.

Let’s take the example of Falmouth, a lovely town on the south Cornish coast. It is part of the Truro and Falmouth constituency that used to be a Tory-Lib Dem marginal where Labour is now a strong second. We targeted the seat in the general election, looking to take it off the Tories. We were right to do so. It’s not just towns in the red wall that have been held back and need aspirational socialism. We need to win right across the country.

Our Green Industrial Revolution would have transformed Falmouth’s fortunes – but we did not get that message out. Alongside local businesses, the community and energy experts, we developed plans to expand Falmouth’s historic docks, which are a big part of the town’s identity. We worked out
how we would use public investment to crowd in private capital to create marine technology jobs and floating offshore wind farms.

We should have given our activists in the town a detailed vision to sell on the doorstep. The new high-skilled, high-tech jobs wouldn’t just benefit those working in the docks. Those extra salaries would be spent supporting local businesses, helping revive the high street. The whole town could be renewed through the docks that help define its identity and give it pride and purpose.

Of course, rapidly shifting the way we power our homes, our businesses and our vehicles will bring new, skilled jobs and opportunities across the country. But it would be disingenuous to say there are no risks from disruption. The UK does not have a good record managing transition, and many communities are still living with the social consequences of the Tory deindustrialisation in the 1980s that shut down entire sectors, with no plan and no support for what should come next.

That is why tackling the climate crisis isn’t just about developing great policies. We need to work with trade unions to develop concrete, detailed and place-specific plans that are worker-led and properly resourced. We need to win trust across the country, and build a movement that is fully inclusive and broad enough to propel us to power in 2024.

I have a track record of doing exactly this, bringing together trade unions, experts and climate campaigners at 2019 Labour party conference to negotiate the most ambitious climate platform of any political party anywhere.

Empower our movement

The third key element of our route back to government is to empower our movement. We are not just a different team of politicians in Westminster, alternating power with the Tories. Our party was born out of a movement in communities like mine – and many of those we lost in the election. To win again, we need to look and sound like we’re ready for power. And it’s our members and our trade unions, on the front line in workplaces and communities, who will make that a reality.

That is why under my leadership, Labour will back workers in every dispute and strike against unfair and exploitative employers. And we will launch a mass trade union membership drive, supporting hundreds of thousands of young activists who have been inspired by our party to become active trade unionists in their workplaces. We will fight any Conservative threats to further restrict our trade unions and continue to fight for trade union freedoms and stronger employment rights that end insecurity and improve pay.

Labour’s members don’t just pay to keep the party going; they are our greatest organising asset. But let’s face it: the pace of change to empower members has been too slow. We need to trust and support them. That means helping them organise: to raise up popular demands in their workplaces and in their communities.

But if we ask our members to do more, then we need to give something back, and open selections are a part of this; the chance for members to choose who represents their party, their efforts, on behalf of their community. I have heard the line about wanting to deselect Tory MPs, not Labour ones. But this is not about that. It is about creating a party full of motivated, engaged members who can then sweep those Tory MPs away.

A democratic revolution

And that brings us to the fourth key element of our path to power – a democratic revolution, without which serious, lasting change won’t happen.

I will always champion the idea that democracy takes power away from the offshore bank account and places it on the ballot paper. But Westminster feels as distant to many people as Brussels. We need a democratic revolution to break the hold of Westminster and the City over our politics and show people that they can and will have the power to achieve what they want to achieve.

Six of the 10 poorest regions in northern Europe are in the UK because for too long the fate of our regions has been in the hands of people who only visit them for a photo opportunity in a high-vis jacket. Power needs to be closer to people geographically, with meaningful new powers and funding devolved to local level to grow local economies, invest in communities and build council homes.

We spoke about the economy in the general election, but we had nothing to say to people who have lost trust in democracy. And after the Iraq war, the expenses scandal and the austerity lie that ‘we’re all in it together’, who can blame them? To follow our path to power, we will champion a democratic revolution. And just the first step would be scrapping the House of Lords and creating an elected senate representing our regions and nations, to scrutinise how every law impacts inequality, the environment and our people’s wellbeing.

A democratic revolution can deliver a seismic shock to British politics, to prise it open at all levels to the people – their knowledge, their skills, and their demands. That way, we can show people how change can happen, with power closer and more open to them, with big money and other corrupting interests forced out of politics.

To win again, Labour must become a force capable of uniting the majority in our country to bring about a democratic revolution. The people’s path to power is our path to power.

Rebecca Long-Bailey MP

Rebecca Long-Bailey is the Labour MP for Salford and Eccles. She has served as shadow business secretary since 2017.


Fabian membership

Join the Fabian Society today and help shape the future of the left

You’ll receive the quarterly Fabian Review and at least four reports or pamphlets each year sent to your door

Be a part of the debate at Fabian conferences and events and join one of our network of local Fabian societies

Join the Fabian Society
Fabian Society

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.