Ayesha Hazarika: Labour moderates need to wake up and smell the soy flat white

Written by Ayesha Hazarika on 23 May 2016 in Opinion

The Blair/Brown way of doing Labour politics is long gone and we need to let it go with fond memories and dignity.

I caught up with an old adviser friend recently. She had worked for a very senior Labour figure for many years. She’s smart, dedicated to Labour and a great progressive. We were all talking about the state of the Labour party and trying to game out different scenarios and she cut through the waffle with these words which stopped me in our tracks… “Don’t you get it? It’s over.”

Her words were almost heart stopping in their starkness and truth. It is over. For everyone but the Corbynites. For people like us.

When I say ‘people like us’ it’s a broad church known as the moderates which include the Brownites, the Blairites, the Milifans, the Fabians, the feminists etc etc – there was a fight and we got beasted. And we need to get it through our weary heads. Our strand of Labour politics has had its day. And that message is very slowly sinking in.

There have just been two important political conferences over the fortnight – Progress and the Fabians. Very sad people like me, with no life but who care deeply about the Labour party, have sat in the basement of Congress house for two Saturday afternoons in a row pondering this very issue and coming to the same conclusion.

The Blair/Brown way of doing Labour politics is long gone and we need to let it go with fond memories and dignity. Truth be told, it didn’t die on 12 Sept 2015. It had withered long before that. We have to stop clinging on to the Blair/Brown years and the Blair/Brown operation and what went before.

Yes. It was phenomenal. It broke the political mould. It drew thousands of new voters to the party and it most importantly it won. But one of the reasons why it was so successful was that it tapped into the political, social and cultural zeitgeist. It captured the mood of the country right then – it was brilliantly of it’s time. And that time was really the mid to late nineties.

If we’re brutally honest, the euphoria and the quality of that 1997 win was never quite repeated and as the Labour government carried on, the realities of government and all the difficult issues took hold and the initial gleam inevitably clouded. That’s of course the reality of government and winning power. Your popularity starts ebbing away from the moment you win.  But we should never submit to the now fashionable view that Labour in power was this ghastly thing – it was not.

Labour saved the NHS which had been starved of investment for years, rebuilt schools and hospitals, ended poverty pay with the National Minimum Wage, introduced proper family policy with children’s centres, paternity rights and better maternity pay and leave, and helped give expression to the social and cultural change that was happening in Britain through anti-discrimination laws and civil partnerships. We did good. We did real good.

But, just as we shouldn’t trash the record, we must not fetishise it either. Many of us do feel quietly that we had run out of steam towards the end of our time in Government. We had become the people we set out to defeat in many ways – the dreaded incumbent. We were not in the ideas business anymore. We were very much computer says no.

I remember being at Warwick in 2008 where our National Policy Forum (local activists and trade union members) met with all the frontbenchers and special advisers to agree on the manifesto and it was clear that we had become timid, institutional and unambitious. Now we were in the midst of the crash so no-one was expecting huge spending giveaways but we were not behaving like the agents of change we once were. There was a frustration from people that we were out of touch with a lot of the frustrations people had and they were right. Our own activists and trade unionists felt we were out of touch with them and they were right.

When the crash happened, let’s not forget, it was Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling who stopped the economy going off a cliff. It was a Labour government who was able to cauterise the crash. But we failed in the years that followed to answer the exam question we all set ourselves. There was rarely a speech from a Labour person at that time that didn’t ask the question “What kind of economy and society do we want to build post crash?”. But we never quite managed to answer it. We had lots of analysis which was spot on. Things like “an economy which doesn’t work for working people” was a brilliant description of the situation but we didn’t really come up with the solutions for change.

None of that takes away the brilliance of Blair and Brown. Anyone who saw Gordon speak at the Fabians on Saturday or who watches any of Tony’s old conference speeches or PMQ outings knows just how exceptional they were; how they combined serious political and intellectual heft with spirit, passion and wit. But those days are gone folks. They were the future once. Not any more. And we need to wake up and smell the soy flat white.

Anyone who’s not a Corbynista faces an existential crisis. What do we do? What can we do? Who are we? Has it all been a pointless existence?

Well no. But we need do need to understand the scale of our defeat. Instead of just hating Jeremy Corbyn’s victory and Momentum, we need to understand why it happened.

I went an Africans for Momentum event recently. I was a bit nervous. But the organisers had reached out to me and it’s not like diversity is all the rage in politics and I was curious. I’m glad I went, apart from the lady who shouted at me as I was leaving for being a dishonest Blairite but you know….. What did I see? Most of the people were kind, compassionate and cared about deeply about social justice, they felt hopeful about politics for the first time in ages and they absolutely bloody adored Jeremy Corbyn – probably in the way we all did Tony to be fair. And what they were crying out for was not managerial politics – but politics with some heart.

Whether we like it or not, we have to understand that the membership is still really into Jeremy (as a recent Times poll confirmed) and that love-rush is going nowhere for a while.

And we can’t just bypass the party as tempting as that may be. Because of the new rules, the members are the gatekeepers to the leadership – so there is no point in a kamikaze-like attempt at a coup. Yes, it would be interesting to watch but it would make the media and the Tories’ day but ultimately, it would be embarrassing and it would fail. And to be fair to Jeremy – he won. He won big. And just because we don’t like it, we can’t magically hoof him out when the rules and the membership are against that.

Instead of getting bitter, we need to get better.  Instead of holding out for a hero and trying to magic up a new leader, we need to go away and do all the boring difficult things we know we have to do but haven’t done for a long time.

Have a proper look around the whole of the country and figure out what’s really going on in people’s lives. Understand the stories of their lives – the easy nice hopey bits and the not so nice difficult bits like their fears and anxieties. Let’s not have ‘no go’ areas when it comes our politics. Instead of just platitude filled slogans which go on about how terrible everything is, let’s also offer some actual solutions and test some ideas out – many will flop but hey we’ve got the time to burn and in amongst them, we may just discover some belters. Let’s speak a language normal people understand and try to fit into their lives instead of trying to get them to come to us.

The list goes on. But I would add one more – let’s get to try and to know the new membership because they aren’t going away. And they are not bad people. They were largely frustrated angry people. Bit like the public in many ways. In the same we mustn’t fight the electorate to win power, we mustn’t fight the selectorate to one day get back on the pitch.

The ultimate goal is of course a vision which appeals to the public, but it must also speak to the values of the new gatekeepers of the party the members and the three pounders. I would hope that one glorious day those two audiences would converge in some way but I suspect that will not be for a long time.

I hope the moderates will use that time to do this work and find some answers. Many talented younger MPs who were hoping for a Ministerial role but who now find themselves in the depths of opposition may leave either for big jobs in local government where the political action is for Labour, or leave politics all together which would be a shame. There is important work to be done to save the party and one day get Labour back into power to be a force for good.

We don’t have a lot right now, but we do have time. We moderates must use our defeat – in every sense – wisely.


About the author

Ayesha Hazarika  was a senior Labour adviser to Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband and is now a commentator and stand-up comedian.

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