The Forward March of Labour

Tristram Hunt MP’s Speech to Demos on Wednesday 20 May 2015

It is, as ever, a great pleasure to be here at Demos.

Particularly so because it played such a formative role in my own political education.

For I was an intern here in those giddy pre-1997 days – before Brian Cox sadly abandoned a very successful career as a keyboard player to go star-gazing – and we all believed “things can only get better.”

Located in a grotty basement in Blackfriars, it was an era of exciting intellectual ferment, as the likes of Geoff Mulgan, Charlie Leadbetter, Helen Wilkinson and Anthony Giddens helped to shape the philosophy of Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way.’

So where better, almost twenty years on, to come and give a speech dedicated in no small part to explaining how things can also get even worse?

Tony Blair once famously said that he was not born into the Labour movement; he chose it.

Me? I was born into it before choosing it.

Not far from here, my great aunt, Peggy Jay, served as a Labour councillor on the London County Council.  Her husband, Douglas Jay, was the Labour MP for Battersea.  And my own father was the leader of the Labour Group on Cambridge City Council.

However, the truth is that I expended a good deal of effort in my early years resisting the inexorable drift towards parental approval.

It was not until I went to study at the University of Chicago in the mid-1990s that I ‘got’ politics.

And not in any intellectual sense either – had I been more studious I might have enrolled upon a very popular course upon constitutional law taught by a Professor Obama.

No, what radicalised me was the jaw-dropping poverty, dysfunction and destitution of Chicago’s South Side, where I lived.

Whilst Milton Friedman, George Stigler and Gary Becker preached the virtues of monetarism, trickle-down and public choice theory, outside of the Ivory Tower stretched a waste-land of crack-houses, boarded-up projects, shoot outs, and deep, deep poverty.

And this, I remember thinking, in one of the richest cities in the richest country in the world.

I felt then and I feel now a sense of outrage about allowing this staggering inequity

A sense of outrage that anyone should think this is the price you have to pay for economic dynamism, competitiveness and freedom.

But what hit me still more was the blindingly obvious fact that without shelter, food, warmth, people are not  free;

that in the so-called land of freedom and opportunity the rights that I had taken for granted when growing up were being denied to people on an epic scale.

It was when I woke up.

I left Chicago, returned to Britain and got involved in Labour politics.

Working right here at Demos

Then helping out on the 1997 General Election campaign.

I saw New Labour – alongside the New Democrats and social democrats across Europe – winning the argument that economic efficiency and social justice could march successfully hand in hand.

It was a project rooted in a belief that the fundamental task of progressive politics is to make sure the freedom and opportunity enjoyed by the powerful is spread to the powerless.

I remain passionately committed to that project.

It is a just cause.

And a winning argument.

This morning, I want to set out how I see that Labour project going forward into the 21st century – amidst the pressure of tight public finances, a growing politics of national identity and the grind of globalisation.

And I want to set out the task of a future Labour Party leader within that context.

THE CURRENT CRISIS

Now, in contrast to some other recent front-benchers, I still believe Ed Miliband was right to use his leadership to criticise New Labour for becoming too relaxed about inequality.

Inequality loosens the ties that bind.

Scars our social fabric.

And threatens individual aspiration and wealth creation.

Economic efficiency and social justice not only can march hand in hand, they need to do so if either are to advance.

So I do not regard a stronger commitment to tackling inequality as a component in Labour’s recent electoral failure.

But the last thing the Labour Party needs right now is to retreat further into an abstract, echo-chamber discussion about our values.

The coming contest for our party’s leadership is as much about how we are led as who leads us.

And we need to avoid reducing our defeat into a simplistic and partial analysis.

Jon Cruddas said at the weekend this could be the greatest crisis the Labour Party has ever faced.

I agree.

And the causes of this crisis and our defeat are complex.

No one – no faction, think tank or leadership candidate – should pretend they have all the answers.

Not since 1983 have we been so out of step with the prevailing mood of the nation.

But worse still for perhaps the first time, we now face an electoral battle across three distinct fronts.

The rise of nationalism in Scotland;

A lack of trust in historically Labour communities across the Midlands and North of England;

And a loss of confidence in Middle England about the Labour Party’s ability to manage the public purse and protect family finances.

Let’s be blunt: there is no quick fix.

No obvious route back to power.

But we do know the ingredients.

Every successful election victory contains them.

Economic competence.

Strong leadership.

An acute antennae for the country’s concerns – from immigration to public services to housing.

And a tin-ear towards partisan preoccupations.

What is more, every successful Labour victory must also contain an extra element that is more difficult to achieve.

Because our successes always come with an emotional connection to the electorate that the Tories rarely emulate.

A sense of social mission.

A shared anticipation of a brighter future.

And a growing impatience to embrace it.

We had that in 1945 when winning the peace.

We had it in 1964 when forging a new Britain from the ‘white heat’ of a technological and cultural revolution.

And we certainly had it in 1997 when we combined our compassion for supporting the disadvantaged with a sense of optimism for those who aspire to climb life’s ladder.

THE COMING CHALLENGE

As I say, we are fighting on three fronts.

But micro-targeting policy solutions for each will not work.

Instead, our task across every front in the battle ahead must be rooted in the same mission:

the need to demonstrate you are on people’s side.

And earn the right to be trusted with their future.

And I believe that only comes when we offer a broad-based, forward-looking Labour project.

A 100% strategy.

Not the timid, institutionalised caution which led so many to believe we had a 35% strategy.

In short, what we need is to see the country through the same eyes as the electorate.

Which is why I am so concerned now.

Because the truth is we are so far away from achieving that at the moment.

From 1983 it took us another 14 years.

Indeed, that journey, New Labour’s long intellectual pre-history, is far less well understood than its political one.

That glorious, euphoric walk down Downing Street on that hazy May morning eighteen years ago was the culmination of a journey which began on the pages of Marxism Today in the early 1980s.

Because it was there, whilst wrestling with the widespread conversion of the manual working classes to Thatcherism at both the 1979 and 1983 elections, that historians and theorists – such as the late great Eric Hobsbawm and Stuart Hall – began to shine an unflinchingly brutal light upon the real not imagined political attitudes of the British working class.

Carrying out the painstaking work of placing, as Eric memorably put it, “the future in our bones”.

Let me read you this one astonishing quote from Eric’s 1983 essay Labour’s Lost Millions. 

It reads:

“Unless Labour can once again become the party of the majority of the working class it has no future, except as a coalition of minority pressure groups and interests. Yet there is only a modest future for a party which represents only such groups, and social forces on the decline. If Labour cannot get back the sort of communities represented by Stevenage, or Harlow, or Swindon, or Slough, we can forget about the British or any other realistic road to socialism.”

Written thirty years ago…

…it could have been written 30 minutes ago.

Ten years after publishing that essay Martin Jacques, the editor, set-up this think-tank.

An organisation dedicated to the project that would finally recapture those communities for Labour.

And now we must start again.

Because the names of those constituencies in Stevenage, Harlow, Swindon (thank God for Slough!) should be echoing through our heads for the next five years.

We know we cannot afford to wait another 14 years this time around.

Just look at what the Tories have got planned:

Scrapping the Human Rights Act;

£12bn welfare cuts;

The demolition of Sure Start;

The dismantling of the BBC;

Threatening our European status…

…and all this in the first Parliamentary year alone.

So we need to begin the heavy lifting now.

We need leadership and deputy leadership contests which resemble proper political arguments – not the allocation of Shadow Cabinet posts.

And the whole country must bear witness to them.

THE ROOTS OF LABOUR

Because our recent defeat represents far more than an ordinary electoral or political failure.

For me, it is a symptom of a profound cultural collapse.

I see it in the city I represent – a city which can lay a credible claim to being the first city of the Labour movement.

It was in Stoke-on-Trent – at Josiah Wedgwood’s Etruria works – that the Industrial Revolution began.

And it was across North Staffordshire that non-conformism and in particular John Wesley’s Methodism first energised the English working-class.

And, since the 20th century rise of our party, Stoke-on-Trent has never been anything other than Labour.

We had the pits, the pots, the chapels, the co-ops, the steelworks, the unions and with all that came the unequivocally progressive politics.

Representing Stoke-on-Trent has shaped my politics more than Chicago, more than 1997 and more than anything else that came before it.

But I can see that these foundational institutions – which for so long have provided British social democracy with its cultural anchors – are barely a presence in the vast majority of my constituents lives anymore.

The chapels are empty.

The working mens’ clubs have closed.

Trade union membership is down – close to non-existent in the private sector.

And despite some encouraging recent signs, deindustrialisation, driven by global competition, has laid waste to most of our manufacturing economy.

This withering of our Labour roots is striking in two important and connected ways.

Both of which were captured by the election result.

First, the erosion of the sentimental and electoral loyalty to our party in white working class communities.

And second the weakening of class-based forms of identity when compared to local or national pride.

You can see this with UKIP in England.

And with the SNP in Scotland.

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that class-based identity has disappeared.

But when it comes to my constituents’ sense of belonging, I would argue that they are first and foremost ‘Stokies’, ‘Potters’ and English.

For better or worse, their class identity trails a distant third.

So we have a bigger challenge than electing the correct leader.

A bigger challenge than alighting upon the correct electoral strategy.

And a bigger challenge than simply rediscovering, in my colleague Andy Burnham’s words, ‘the beating heart of Labour’.

Of course, we need to stop haemorrhaging support in our traditional heartlands.

But we must ensure that same heart sends our message –  pumps the blood – to parts of our country we no longer reach

We need to win in Scotland.

We need to win against UKIP.

And we need to win whole swathes of Southern England where, early New Labour aside, we have long since lost any pretence at an emotional connection.

The process of finding the answer must begin by grounding ourselves, as before, in the real not imagined concerns of peoples’ lives.

If we turn further inwards now, we could wither away.

And there is no surer way to let down the people in our heartlands.

So, let us clear out the political hurdles which prevent people listening to Labour.

The first steps to regaining trust.

Yes, we spent too much.

Yes, we also rebuilt the public realm.

And no, our spending on schools and hospitals here didn’t cause the Lehmann Brothers to go bust in New York.

But we could and should have prepared for tougher times.

We could and should have regulated the banks far more effectively.

And we could and should have used the good times to develop a more balanced approach to wealth creation.

One less reliant on property and financial services in the South East.

And more driven by exports and engineering in the north, midlands and Scotland.

WORK, FAMILY, COMMUNITY

However, for many people the Labour Party has issues of trust that run deeper than their misgivings about our economic responsibility.

Because from my conversations on the doorstep before, after and throughout the general election I get the sense that people do not think we understand what I would describe as the country’s three most cherished institutions.

Or if you prefer the three aspects of life which ultimately all political projects must seek to improve.

They are:

Work.

Family.

Community.

And I believe if we could demonstrate we understand their modern condition better than the Conservatives we may begin, not only to develop a political strategy for the next Parliament, but also to answer who and what we are for.

However, with each I feel that we currently suffer a credibility gap that damages our broader relationship with the British people…

Denying us the chance to articulate our broader, transformative ambitions – whether on education, social mobility, health, or eradicating poverty.

And what’s even more depressing is that during the last five years I think we did develop the radical policies which could have us granted us a hearing in these crucial three area.

The work of Lord Adonis on growth and regeneration;

of Jon Cruddas and the IPPR on social renewal;

Sir Richard Leese, Jules Pipe and Sharon Taylor on local government innovation…

…commission after commission came back with radical reforming agendas.

We did not lack for ideas.

What we lacked was political courage.

In our strategic straightjacket we refused to accept them, to make the argument for them, or to build them into a new sense of mission.

Perhaps the biggest of these failings was on work.

We just did not seem to understand that ambivalence – or even hostility – towards businesses would translate into a deep anxiety with their workers.

We lacked a bold welfare reform agenda based on Labour values with which to counteract the Tories’ punitive cuts.

We gave the impression we were against every and any new idea.

We offended the British people’s sense of fairness by appearing to oppose the benefits cap – of £26,000 a year tax free.

Rachel Reeves was right – we should be the party of work.

The party that aspires to a universal entitlement for work.

Not the party that delivers a universal entitlement to welfare.

And, to borrow a phrase, the party that is just as tough on worklessness as it is tough upon the causes of worklessness.

Because the truth is the Tories have an incredibly deficient agenda when it comes to welfare reform.

Everything they do is motivated by saving money.

A little cut here.

A little snip there.

But no coherent reform.

No fundamental re-think of the principles that sit behind the 21st century welfare state.

No sense of restoring fairness.

No sense of recognising contribution.

No sense of rewarding work.

I believe Labour can and must seize the initiative here.

Go back to Beveridge.

Begin to restore the contributory principle.

More important than ever in an age of mass migration, as a sense of unfairness about welfare contributes to resentment towards new arrivals.

The rule should be: You pay more in.

You get more out.

Because right across the world countries with an entitlement based system such as ours are gripped by diminishing social support for the welfare state.

Whereas in countries that recognise contribution, like the Netherlands and Austria, consent remains resolutely stable.

The IPPR’s Condition of Britain report proposed big reforms to restore the principle of contribution – too much of which ended up on the cutting room floor.

We should establish a clear principle with out-of work benefits.

If you have a strong record of work, you should receive more help and protection for your home when you fall on hard times.

And I think if we move the welfare state in this direction then you will also see an impact in people’s concerns about immigration.

But we also need a similar, game-changing breakthrough on community.

Ed Miliband had a big devolution agenda.

He understood that handing power back is not just about local decision-making and democracy but about meeting the great challenges of our time.

Rebalancing the economy;

Raising productivity;

Tackling inequality;

But the truth is that collectively we dithered.

The Shadow Cabinet was not united.

And when they devolved extra powers to a Labour council in Greater Manchester the Tories effectively stole our clothes.

Now, the Northern Powerhouse did not exactly translate to a corresponding Northern breakthrough.

But it sure as hell helped them hold the line.

So we must not let the Tories steal this agenda.

Our history of municipal, ‘gas and water’ socialism gives us a localist heritage.

In Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds, it was progressives who built a vibrant civic democracy, confronted vested interests, and created the great age of Victorian and Edwardian civic pride.

But both parties then colluded in the century of centralisation;

Too often we have allowed the command and control culture of our statism to poison the community well.

Labour needs to win the race to hand power back to people and local communities.

Yet even more important: radical devolution must surely form a big part of our answer to the rise of nationalism – both in Scotland and in England.

One of the challenges of contemporary politics is that in the era of global competition and rapid technological change you must use every last drop of available power to spread fairness and opportunity to the powerless.

Yet at the same time people need power to reside closer to them, to feel a deeper connection with those responsible for the decisions that affect their lives.

A modernising approach to devolution must be about growing local pride and local prosperity.

And using both as a way of empowering people to come together and transform their community.

We are one of the most centralised countries in the world.

Practically nowhere else in the world does the capitals of finance, culture, commerce, politics, media, fashion and sport all reside in one city.

But this is about more than the powers of local government – and indeed the Labour Party’s approach to community.

It is about the integrity of the United Kingdom itself.

The Labour Party can no longer ignore the deep questions concerning English representation.

And that starts with big and bold English devolution.

Because devo-max shouldn’t stop at the Scottish border.

If it’s good for Scotland and Scottish business it’s good for England too.

We need a devo-max settlement for England.

We must shelve our timidity, match the Tory offer and go beyond it by giving city and country regions the power to vary local taxes, including business rates from a baseline which takes account of regional disparities of wealth.

We need English councils and English cities slashing business rates, attracting inward investment, cutting red-tape and setting up their own enterprise zones.

Finally, on family too we need a radical agenda in order to regain trust with the British public.

All the evidence shows how stable, loving, family relationships are absolutely crucial to child development, early education and life-long wellbeing.

The impact of those nurturing relationships in the early years – so beautifully captured by Robert Putnam’s new book Our Kids – cannot be overstated.

In fairness, I do think we put forward a credible, pragmatic offer to strengthen family life at the general election.

Yet it was nowhere near enough to compensate for the historical deficiencies of our approach towards the family.

Nowhere is this truer than in the belief that child poverty can be solved largely or even entirely through material redistribution.

It is clearly deficient to believe the whole complexity of 21st century social problems facing modern families – from domestic abuse, to crime, alcoholism and child neglect – can be solved purely through tax and transfer.

For too long this approach has bloated our welfare system: we spend as much on redistribution as the famously egalitarian Scandinavian countries.

But with far less effect.

We need institutions that tackle inequality at source –  by raising parents opportunities to work, children’s opportunities to learn and families opportunities to plan their time together.

We need to ween ourselves off the monetary sticking plasters that take effect far too late.

The Condition of Britain report proposed a radical childcare package which could:

revitalise Sure Start centres;

substantially raise the quality of the early years workforce;

and make fifteen hours a week free childcare available to working parents of all children between the ages of 2-4 all year round.

Free childcare, all year round, for every working family.

Such ambition would not come cheap.

The IPPR suggested it would mean hard choices like freezing child benefit for school age children.

But if we are serious about public service reform;

Serious about early intervention;

boosting maternal employment;

unlocking growth potential;

tackling inequality;

raising educational standards;

and making Labour the party of family life;

Then we need to have these grown-up conversations and take these tough decisions.

We need to be big, bold, brave and above all positive.

Because whilst the politics of caution, calibration and fear may win you the odd pyrrhic victory…

In the long-run they are always found wanting.

LEADERSHIP

So, these are the challenges and the issues which the next Labour leader needs to confront.

An inclusive Labour project which appeals to lost voters in Scotland, traditional Labour communities, and marginal seats.

But one in which the entire United Kingdom can have confidence.

A marriage between new Labour’s desire to back wealth creators with Ed Miliband’s urgency to tackle inequality.

A new political landscape of family, community, work and national identity at its heart.

It is a leadership that prioritises the organisational changes the party desperately needs – transforming our industrial model of party management, born of the 1890s, into something that resembles the modern world – more digital, embedded in civic society and better funded.

And it is a leadership hungry to project an optimistic, future vision of Britain confident about its ability to manage the challenges of mechanisation, globalisation, climate change and an ageing society.

The way in which that Labour leader is chosen needs to reflect the seriousness of the crisis in which our party finds itself.

We need a debate that is open, vigorous, iconoclastic, fraternal and sisterly.

We need more of the Demos – the individual members, supporters and affiliated supporters who make up our party.

And we need less dictation by individuals and individual factions that still seek to wield and influence that is both disproportionate to what they deserve and contrary to the egalitarian principle of one member, one vote.

I want party members, registered supporters and affiliated supporters from the trade unions to have an effective choice about Labour’s future.

And it is why this morning I am announcing that I will not be entering the race to be Leader of the Labour Party.

Like other potential candidates in recent days I have made a lot of calls to potential supporters among my parliamentary colleagues.

I found that the bulk of MPs are already committed to just a couple of candidates.

It is surprising that the nomination process to select a leader for at least the next five years appears to have been largely decided within at most five days of a devastating General Election defeat.

But it is clear to me that I do not have sufficient support to be certain that I can run for the leadership myself.

And it is also clear to me that in trying to gather the names I need, there is a real risk that I might help restrict the choice for the party.

That is not a risk I am prepared to accept.

Instead, I am offering my endorsement to my colleague, Liz Kendall.

I have known Liz for 20 years.

And has she has shown in the past 20 months she has the confidence and courage to lead our party.

I believe she has learnt the right lessons from our time in office and opposition.

She is open to the big challenges confronting our party and our country.

And I believe she has the right leadership mettle to lead Labour.

The most important choice for Labour is not just who leads us into the challenges ahead but how we are led.

The most important choice I have had to make today is not whether I run for the leadership – or how to advance my career in Shadow Cabinet.

No, it was how to get a candidate who understands the challenges ahead on the ballot paper for September.

I have made my choice.

I hope it turns out to one which opens up a real choice for our party.

Thank you.