As ever the excellent John Harris provides much food for thought about the challenge ahead for the Labour party to regain power (Labour is stuck in the past. Its rivals have sped on to the future, 27 January). I’m not sure the Tories are speeding into the future by regressing back to a 19th-century nation state in an era of transnational blocs, but he is right to point to the difficulty to persuade lost Labour voters about the positive role of the state, especially after 10 years of austerity which has severely reduced the role of local government and particularly in the depressed towns that turned from red to blue last December.
During canvassing in the general election I observed that talk of inequality did not cut it with voters on the doorstep. However, talking about fairness does get through and can provide a narrative to engage our lost voters. New Labour believed in the enabling state through the creation of Sure Start, investment in education and spending on the NHS in line with the European average.
This narrative needs to be rediscovered in the 2020s by spelling out in more detail how investment in education can improve the skills and prospects for young people and attract high-skill employers to the post-industrial towns. How reinvesting in local community services with input from local people can give communities a better sense of place, and how investing in housing and a green new deal can enable people to feel more optimistic about the future. Beyond Brexit, Boris Johnson offers crumbs to the new Conservative voters who left Labour. Now is the opportunity to win them back, but more listening and new thinking is needed.
• Labour’s 2019 manifesto sought to address the huge challenges facing the country following the faltering recovery from the 2008 economic crisis, the 10 years of austerity imposed by the Tories and the Lib Dems, and the existential threat of climate change.
John Harris implies that Labour is clinging on to some old remedies for modern problems. However, the manifesto shows not only that the plans were designed to address these challenges, but included a shift from top-down state initiatives to a combination of much-needed investment through national and regional investment banks and involvement of local initiatives. The manifesto said: “As well as large-scale national and regional projects, smaller loans will be available through our new Post Bank based in Post Office branches, enabling thousands of bottom-up transformational changes by startups, small businesses, local cooperatives and community projects in towns and villages up and down the country.”
These plans were developed through wide consultation and endorsed by many economists. They were considered in detail in the book Economics for the Many, published in 2018. It is difficult to see how any of the proposals in this book or in the Manifesto are “stuck in the past”. To suggest Johnson, by comparison, is “speeding into the future” is nothing short of bizarre.
Prof Nick Spencer
Leamington Spa, Warwickshire
• While I agree with much of John’s interesting and perceptive article, it should be remembered that Labour has been soundly beaten by a party which has almost none of the features suggested as improvements for Labour. The Conservative party has been responsible for most of the ills visited on the very people who have now given it a majority, with few links to the wider community, especially in “red wall” towns, and it is led by an out-of-touch, old Etonian, Bullingdon boy who probably had to be shown where Stoke-on-Trent is on a map.
If this is what John means by Labour’s adversaries “speeding on to the future” then it is a future where avoiding scrutiny, dog-whistling, overt racism and lying is electorally rewarded. While, obviously, Labour has made a huge number of errors, the mendacity and manipulations of the political and media campaign it has had to face over the last few years should not be discounted.
Dr Paul Cope
• It may well be true that the Labour party is harking back to earlier times, but the Conservative party of today is hardly a beacon of modernity. Once again, as in the early part of the last century, there is a preponderance of rich, over-privileged men who have had an expensive private education and regard running the country as a pastime for their middle years rather than a heavy responsibility. Not exactly “speeding on to the future”.
• John Harris’s analysis of the changes Labour should make to win an election contains a couple of obvious flaws.
Harris says that in “the internet age … people now have a voice, and don’t like being told what to do, or who to be”. He implies this is bad for Labour, but a majority of the “online generation” (over 50% of the under-30s) voted for Jeremy Corbyn. Harris also dismisses “selling the idea of big government” to an electorate sick of “an unresponsive public sector”, but he doesn’t explain that a decade of Tory austerity is overwhelmingly to blame for destroying decent levels of services.
More seriously, Harris completely omits to mention the media’s role in Labour’s defeat. The Loughborough University independent news audit already makes it clear that, after the close-run elections of 2017, the press wasn’t going to take any more chances – with editorial negativity towards Labour in 2019 doubling from the previous election. Harris needs to step down off his journalistic high horse and get more personally involved in backing whoever is the next Labour leader.
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