Few of us can remember a more turbulent year in politics than 2016. And it has only been a taster of what is yet to come. Especially for the left, the challenges are mounting, internationally and here at home. As I take over from Seema Malhotra, who has done such a brilliant job as Fabian Society chair over the past two years, I’ve been thinking about how we in the Fabians, with our long and authoritative reputation for excellent policy thinking, discharge our responsibility to shape a better world.
Our New Year conference recognises this. It’s divided into two parts. In the morning, we will be thinking about the changes and challenges we face here in the UK. The afternoon takes a look at the global challenges we face.
The issues are not that different. Nationalism, Brexit and Donald Trump are shades of the same phenomenon. The rise of the far right and the fearful slide towards fascism across Europe are a heightened version of the rise of populist politics in the UK. The challenges of inequality and economic insecurity, conflict, population growth, population change and population movement, famine, drought and climate change are interconnected, experienced in different ways and degrees in virtually every country in the world. They can only be resolved by acting collectively, as Labour has always believed. Yet in recent times, the left has seemed quite unequal to the scale of the task we face.
What is needed is a step change in the way we think about and respond to these challenges, rediscovering the radicalism and dynamism of previous Labour governments. Our track record is one of groundbreaking change: think of the establishment of the welfare state, the NHS, a mass programme of council housebuilding, comprehensive education. Think of the introduction of the national minimum wage, the Equal Pay Act, the extension of maternity pay and family leave. Think of Sure Start, the Open University, the creation of the Department for International Development. Think of civil partnerships, the Macpherson inquiry, legal aid, the Human Rights Act. These are the achievements the left takes pride in – and they’ve transformed lives. In the face of the challenges of today, we must be as creative and courageous now.
That means, first, we must be bold in our thinking, not content with improving the status quo. No sacred cows, no institutional ‘right to exist’: the old ways won’t be fit for the new world.
Second, in recognising the difficult questions that divide our movement, we must remain principled, true to our values of equality, collectivism, justice and rights. Expediency for the sake of political gain is the route to failure – and contempt.
Third, we need to resist post-truth politics. For Fabians, evidence has always mattered.
Fourth, we must be future focused. The solutions to tomorrow’s problems lie with the next generation, not the last. Investing in our young people must be our top priority.
And finally, we have to learn to stop doing politics ‘to’ people. The counter to populism is empowerment: we have to push power down and out. But the right for all to be authors of the future, and of the lives we lead, comes with the obligation to exercise that power responsibly. And for that, we need a far-reaching programme of political education. Let’s put the Fabians in the frontline.
The Fabian Society New Year conference takes place on 14 January 2017 at Friend’s House, Euston Road, London, NW1 2BJ.
Image: Mike Mertz