My first chance to vote Labour was at the 1979 general election. Election day was a few weeks before my 20th birthday. Fast forward 18 years to 1997 and I voted for my first Labour government, a few weeks before my 38th birthday. Eighteen years: a good chunk of one life time.
In the 36 years since my first vote for Labour there have been nine general elections. Labour has lost six and won three: a hat-trick under one leader. We all know who the leader was, and to mention his name, in some quarters, is to be automatically disparaged as a Blairite, such is the lazy thinking of some in the media and indeed my own party. Back then, however, and for that time, Labour did have a winning formula.
The formula, in my view, enabled Labour to portray the Party’s commitment to fairness in a non-ideological way by offering, on the one hand, collective aspiration through a fair income and reformed public services, and a commitment to individual aspiration on the other.
At this year’s general election, Labour’s formula did not work. Labour’s campaign became trapped in the no-man’s land between council estate and private estate. Our pledges were sentences lost without a narrative. We could not win over the wealth creators because our rhetoric was anti-wealth. Before we share the wealth we need to convince people we know how to create the wealth. I do not believe the electorate wanted the Conservatives, but they wanted us even less.
Our once winning formula needs to be unpicked and refined because, even though our main opponent remains the Conservative Party, the equation has become more complicated. Yesterday’s alchemy does not entirely fit today’s needs. The wizardry required is different. That is why if Blair were leader in 2015 he would not be a Blairite. The basic impulse would be the same, but applied to a new situation. Today, fairness and aspiration have been joined by the search for identity. At present it is exposed as a raw nationalism. In Scotland it is clothed in anti-austerity rhetoric. In the rest of the UK it’s a rejection of the rest of the world, especially Europe.
Fairness and aspiration remain Labour’s fixed goals. They can never be secured through narrow nationalism founded on grievance and insecurity. Our common endeavour does not stop at the Scottish border or at the English Channel. More than 30 years ago, when I joined Labour in Sedgefield, it was a constituent part of the British Labour Party, not just serving the English electorate. I want to ensure Labour values find renewed favour in all four parts of the United Kingdom and they can be, because they are not restrained by the cynical nationalism practised by the SNP and Ukip.
When decisions taken on the other side of the globe affect our communities here at home, we cannot, and should not, pull up the drawbridge to the rest of the world. To do so is unfair, without aspiration and unpatriotic. Climate change, the international financial markets, Isis in the Middle East or rampant technological change are all global forces that swirl through the towns, cities and villages of the UK. That’s why I want to see Britain remain an active global player and this means being an active supporter of our global institutions, being confident in them and also ourselves. Be it the UN or the EU or some other international organisation they are the means by which we can pursue our common endeavour. Yes, we may need to reform and renew them, but surely we are part of such institutions because we know we achieve more together than we ever do alone.
But all that Britain wants and can achieve is put at stake if this country is dismantled and its component parts diminished. The problem will be compounded if we also leave the EU. Questions would then quite rightly be asked whether Britain should remain a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Surely, if we believe this country is a force for good, we should not be undermining our role in the world by bringing uncertainty into our discourse with the international community. But that is exactly what we are doing.
We should not allow the UK’s future to be put at risk for party political reasons: leave that to the Conservatives. Nor should we allow the UK to become the play thing of nationalism: leave that to the SNP and Ukip. Labour does not believe in a little Britain. Through our common endeavour we can pursue fairness, aspire to a better world and find national identity in our common cause. I am a patriot, not a nationalist. Nationalism can lead us down dark cul-de-sacs and divide community against community.
I do no not want to see a return to 1997, and I definitely do not want to see a return to 7 May 2015. I want to look to the future and learn from the past. Fairness, aspiration and patriotism should be the tools we take with us as Labour sets out to build once more on the centre ground of British politics.
And we better be quick, because if it’s another 18 years in opposition before I see a Labour government again, it’ll be just a few weeks before my 70th birthday. That would be 36 years in opposition since 1979. Now that really is a big chunk of one life time.
Phil Wilson succeeded Tony Blair as Labour MP for Sedgefield in 2007Reuse content