The future of the left since 1884

The opportunity of opposition

The last several months have been a period of deep introspection for Labour party members. We emerged from the election in May bruised and unsure about our future. Contrast then to now. However unexpected the direction of the leadership election may...


The last several months have been a period of deep introspection for Labour party members. We emerged from the election in May bruised and unsure about our future.

Contrast then to now. However unexpected the direction of the leadership election may have been, there is no doubting that we are by far the most talked about political party across the country.

There is now such an overwhelming mandate and a genuine enthusiasm among party members who voted for Jeremy Corbyn. If we combine this fresh energy with a frank look at where we went wrong four months ago, the next five years can be put to good use.

Setting a vision

One of our greatest faults in May was a vagueness and uncertainty surrounding our policies. People were not entirely sure what we stood for, and we did not deliver a clear message.

Policies which will affect jobs, health and education need to be laid out clearly, openly and as early as possible.

John McDonnell made an important point when he identified the Department of Health and the Department of Education as the two big beasts of any Labour government, versus the traditional status departments like the Foreign Office enjoy.

Whilst people may disagree, I see this as the same philosophy Tony Blair brought to government in 1997, where we had a clear vision for reform of our public services, and identified where our priorities were in government.

We have a chance to take the lead on a number of common-sense, progressive policies. Take healthcare, conditions such as obesity and diabetes are spiraling in cost, complications and unnecessary deaths.

Prevention is going to be huge over the next few decades, and we should be leading that debate. Otherwise the cost to our economy, and the ramifications of thousands of people out of work as a result of these conditions, will be unprecedented.

Being in opposition gives a party the opportunity to be innovative and to develop new ways of approaching problems. We should take that opportunity.

Straight talking

To deliver this message, we need to be bolder and braver than we have been in the past. During the election our engagement with the public was often too stage-managed and cautious.

The first issue is the leadership. Some may try to dismiss Jeremy as old school or out of touch, but they would be making a mistake. He has inspired a huge number of people and secured a large majority for the leadership platform. His plain speaking manner has resonated with people.

What we have seen is an Americanisation of British politics. As the anti-establishment figure, Jeremy got the backing of those unhappy with the status quo, and many more so will feel the same way outside of our Party.

Widening our appeal

There is a reason that ‘aspiration’ became the buzz-word after the election defeat (despite it feeling overused within the space of a few weeks), and that is because the Labour party appealed to only a narrow section of society in May.

Inequality, which was a significant theme in our message to voters, is a very important issue, maybe one of the most important we will face this century, but voters do not want to hear only of inequality or welfare cuts, we have to think more broadly.

Otherwise, I fear we will be seen as a party stuck in the Westminster Village, regularly protesting and getting excited with issues such as child tax credits, but without an equivalent narrative for important proposals on education, healthcare and business.

We need to cultivate the view of the enabling state, where we seek to give all people better opportunities for social mobility, more and better jobs, as well as developing business.

We must understand that the business community is the biggest driver of employment. We are a trading nation, in a unique position for people to start a business, design products and build a brand. To create jobs. However, not enough of our young people come out of school intending to set up their own small business, or would even know how to. This is where a progressive party can be innovative, and form policies which appeal to a wide array of voters. Britain’s first generation immigrant community are the best examples of being wealth creators.

Five more years: inventiveness or despondency

We are all members of this party for a reason. We believe in the importance of our public services, of education, the NHS, a social safety net and a progressive approach to society’s problems. Equality, opportunity and fairness.

Let us set out our priorities and present a clear alternative to the public, and not only to our members. I can remember two occasions when the Labour party has been on the verge of being the natural party of government, after two stunning election victories in 1966 and again in 2001.

At our electoral summit we somehow lost our way under our two most successful leaders ever, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair. The Wilson government ended its time divided because of rows with the trade unions and the Blair government over the interminable bickering between personalities. Both those eras were times when our party captured the imagination of the public only to lose it by looking inwards.

Labour must recapture that spirit and stop being an elite. It must appeal equally and at the same time to people in Beccles and Birmingham and in Leicester and Leamington. It must start representing the interests of the British people as a whole, not a part of it but all of it. The British people are ready to hear the case for equality and progress and opportunity and fairness. Let us start to make it. To be the party of Britain we must BE Britain.

Keith Vaz MP

Keith Vaz is Labour MP for Leicester East.

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