Diane Abbott: Back to the future with old Labour

We used to provide intellectual and political leadership for the best impulses of society. We had hard-headed finance policies and genuine egalitarianism

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In the recent general election Labour had a near-death experience. Many people at the top of the party were assuming that we were going to be annihilated. Some jumped ship to spend more time with their directorships. Others were clearly more focused on winning the leadership battle, which they assumed was to come, than on winning the election immediately ahead.

And yet the result was far better than we had any right to expect. We locked the Tories out of Scotland. We held seats all over the country that we were expected to lose. And in London we swept the BNP out of office, regained a number of borough councils, Emily Thornberry triumphed in a tight Liberal Democrat/Tory marginal in Islington South, and in Hackney I doubled my majority.

But paradoxically we held on all over the country against the Nick Clegg surge because of the one thing that New Labour faction most despised; the loyalty of the Labour base. So, after 13 years of rule by the New Labour faction, is it not time that Labour returned to mainstream Labour values? Is it not time to start doing things which our supporters would actually welcome and value rather than doing things (as Tony Blair often seemed to do) almost to spite ordinary Labour voters?

The first step would be to revive internal party democracy. If we had had genuine party democracy and a real voice for members, then the Labour government would have avoided some of its more obvious blunders, like raising pensions by a provocatively tiny eight pence, doing away with the 10p tax rate and (above all) the illegal war in Iraq. Furthermore, the reason we now have such a narrow choice of candidates to choose from is that the internal democratic structures of the party, which once provided a ladder for talent from all its wings, have been allowed to wither away.

But we also need to start appealing to people's idealism again. We should never have allowed the Tories to position themselves to our left on civil liberties. Labour needs to reclaim its role as the defender of ordinary people's civil liberties which New Labour cynicism and obsession with polls allowed us to fritter away. And why did it take last- gasp negotiations with the Liberal Democrats to get the Labour leadership to consider dropping ID cards? Ordinary Labour supporters had been calling for the jettisoning of this ludicrously expensive and authoritarian scheme for some time.

And we need to reject the notion, which virtually every other leadership candidate seems to be pushing, that somehow immigration lost us the election. By all means address the underlying reasons why (black and white) working-class people grumble about recent immigrants. Chief amongst these was New Labour's ideologically driven insistence that the market could somehow provide housing for all, when we should have been promoting a building drive of high quality, well-managed public housing.

But we also need to address job insecurity and the rise of the agency worker. And we need to recognise that the way in which New Labour chipped away at the welfare state in the name of "choice" has left ordinary people frightened of the future. Above all we should be wary of appearing to collude with making immigrants the "scapegoat" in the middle of a recession. History teaches us where that can lead.

And as the worst economic crisis for a generation plays out, we need to step back from the uncritical support for banks, bankers and financial services that was the hallmark of New Labour in its pomp and power. There was never a time when the Labour party did not support business and wealth makers, as the New Labour revisionists would have us believe. So there is no need to go in that direction. But there was a time when we would have treated increasing inequality in wealth more seriously and been a touch less wide-eyed about big business.

We also have to engage in a serious debate about whether we fill the hole in the nation's balance sheet largely through public sector cuts (either this year or next) or whether we tip the balance towards increases in taxation. This is vital for people in areas like Hackney. The majority of my voters work in the public sector; there are no private sector jobs waiting for them if they are made redundant. And many of these workers are women, often heads of single-parent households. We need to remember that one man's public sector spending cut is another woman's job loss.





Unlike any of the front-runner candidates, I voted against the Iraq war. This (not immigration) has been the single thing that most disillusioned the Labour party faithful. We need a serious debate about our place in the world, including what we are doing in Afghanistan, bogged down in a conflict where no Western power has actually "won" a war for over a century.

The Labour party used to provide leadership, both intellectual and political, for the best impulses of our society. We used to be able to provide both hard-headed financial policies and genuine egalitarianism as in the era of the famously austere, but undoubtedly left-wing, Chancellor Stafford Cripps. Britain needs a Labour party renewed for the 21st century with a genuinely diverse leadership which looks like modern Britain.

But it also needs a Labour party which deserves the loyalty which made millions of people swallow a decade of no little disappointment and disillusion and queue patiently to cast their vote for a party which, despite everything, remains the last and best hope of ordinary people.

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

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