Jon Cruddas: We're talking a language that's failing to resonate

Our policies have to flow from an understanding of the kind of society we want
Click to follow
The Independent Online

You don't need to have read too many of the headlines over the past few days to get a sense of the febrile mood that is sweeping through the political class. The papers are full of plots against the leader – within and beyond the Cabinet. Yet in stark contrast to this media frenzy, the mainstream within the Labour Party recognises that there is no on-off switch that we can hit to redress our political problems; they are deeper than issues of mere personality. We are going to sink or swim together.

So, though it may not suit journalistic mindsets, a slightly calmer analysis is needed. In my view, those who are calling for a snap change of leader are as wrong as those who insist we can carry on with more of the same policy agenda. Recent election results are serious. On the one hand, the Tories are better organised and motivated than at any point in the past 20 years; on the other, there is now strong empirical evidence that our own electoral coalition is disintegrating.

The Labour Party should take this as a final wake-up call. The next election is far from being decided two years out; voters haven't necessarily given up on us. Yet, unless we change over the next six months, the election defeats of the past few weeks could solidify into a durable anti-Labour voting block.

Some seem to think we need a game of musical chairs – a leadership election, or just a reshuffle of names and faces in the Cabinet. To boil down the problems we face into some sort of political top trumps is the wrong approach. Government is a team game and elections are not decided on which suit has which Cabinet portfolio. Viewing the situation entirely through the prism of personality represents a fundamental failure to recognise the profound challenge that we face.

Elections are decided by which party can convince voters they have the right vision for Britain and the ideas to implement it. They are decided by which party can forge a message and consequential policy agenda that is emotionally in tune with the contemporary challenges of our time; one that is understood across classes. The Tories have changed, and simply banging on about posh boys misses the mark. Our opponents are seeking to develop a basic emotional connection with the people. The search is for a new pro-social, compassionate conservatism that appropriates the language of relationships, values, even social justice.

David Cameron has sought to fashion a modern Conservatism that recognises many of the problems of modern British society, even seeking to colonise some of the language of the centre-left – the notion of the "good society" or a "social recession". The key for Labour is to identify and understand these shifts in Tory thinking; to scratch beneath the veneer and point out their tensions and contradictions.

Despite the empathy offered by Mr Cameron, his solutions are still fundamentally Conservative; based around a model of atomised exchange. Their policies, where they have them, are still based on hostility to collective action, especially through the state. Labour, at its boldest, understands that collective action is vital in a world where individuals feel more powerless than ever before. The Government needs to identify new forms of social solidarity to remedy today's uncertainties and insecurities. Where the Tories would rely on market forces to bring down living costs, Labour can enforce fairer prices. Where the Tories want more individualised (read privatised) care for the elderly, Labour can use revenue from fairer taxation to share the responsibility of caring for our people. Where the Tories will "exhort" corporations to be "socially responsible", Labour can provide a tough framework for balancing companies' desire for profits with the needs of ordinary people. Where the Tories would empower bad employers, Labour can guarantee better rights for those who work hard on low wages. Where the Tories can only hope the private sector can solve Britain's housing crisis, Labour can let councils step in to provide decent homes.

All our policies have to flow from an understanding of the type of society we are seeking to create; one that is more equal, sustainable and democratic. In 1997, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown implemented a package of progressive measures like the windfall tax on the privatised utilities, the New Deal and the minimum wage. These progressive initiatives gained political traction because of an overall agenda of economic and social modernisation.

In 2008, voters still want Labour to be bold in addressing their day-to-day material concerns. People do not understand our apparent timidity over issues that cut across all social classes: like fairer taxes, social immobility, debt, insecurity at work, or housing. And they often fail to understand even the good things the Government has done, because our political language does not resonate. We do not speak about what this distinct Labour government is for.

The nature of the material insecurities that people face has changed since 1997. The fundamental need for a fairer society hasn't. What we need to do now is regain our confidence in the bold measures we can deploy to make Britain fairer. As Brown himself said, we are at our best when we are at our boldest – and when we are Labour.

Jon Cruddas is the Labour MP for Dagenham

Comments