Steve Richards: Change from without is the key to Labour's future

The decline of the big parties is not a healthy development
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The Independent Online

The former cabinet minister Peter Hain has returned to the political fray with a frank assessment of what is wrong with the Government. Hain is not alone in daring to think beyond the narrow confines of his party. Suddenly there is much challenging of orthodoxy as defined by the leadership of the two main parties. The challenges come from within and beyond with the proliferation of smaller parties, some of them silly, some of them dangerous, all of them reflecting an unease with the mainstream. Disparate voices get louder when a long-serving government loses its way, the Opposition lacks clear definition and the recession bites.

Hain's headline-making article in The Independent On Sunday made a series of important points. Some have interpreted his arguments as a flexing of the muscles from the left, but they seem more to be about coherence, shape and momentum as opposed to fearful, shapeless expediency.

Hain argued that New Labour judged it necessary to go with the grain of Thatcherite free market orthodoxies in 1997. Like Charles Clarke, another former cabinet minister making some significant interventions, Hain implies that New Labour was an act of expedient adaptation, confirming my view that it was always a timid, defensive political force rather than a movement of any lasting substance. Hain argued that the economic volcano currently erupting changes the terms of the political debate, but that, unlike Barack Obama, the Conservatives are not well placed to be the agents of change with their support for smaller government and 80s-style solutions.

That is the easy bit for a Labour MP. Hain then goes on to remind us of the Government's current agenda: "Whatever their individual policy merits, identity cards, Trident, nuclear power, Royal Mail part- privatisation and Heathrow's third runway do not add to a programme to get the pulse of potential Labour voters racing." Such a list is unlikely to get the pulse of any voter going. The technocratic, rootless changes, part managerial and part aimed tamely at wrong-footing the Tories, leaves a tired Government looking even more exhausted.

Hain's prospectus for a more compelling narrative is at times conveniently vague and includes some policies that are being implemented already, but he also highlights important gaps including electoral reform for the Commons, House of Lords reform, better public transport, new micro-generation and renewable energy. His broader analysis reflects what a lot of ministers and Labour MPs are saying in private: that there needs to be much greater sense of direction if they are not going to be slaughtered at the election.

Hain's intervention is one symptom of politics in a state of flux. There are many other symptoms, too. Neal Lawson, who founded the left-of-centre, Labour-supporting pressure group Compass, has also called for the introduction of electoral reform and for Labour to work with other progressives in the green movement, the Liberal Democrats and elsewhere. In his article, Hain predicts that the Lib Dems will get more than 20 per cent of the vote at the general election and I suspect he will be proved right; the strength of the third party is another symptom of unease with the mainstream.

Lawson made a revealing choice of political activity the other weekend. He could have gone to Bristol for a stifling meeting of Labour's policy forum. Instead, he attended a non-party event at Bow in east London organised by several voluntary groups. The meeting was packed. The average age was about 30. Lawson says the gathering, although slightly chaotic, was full of energy and ideas relating to sustainable development and social justice, one example of many in which politics is alive but party politics is pretty moribund.

This applies across the board. The rise of David Cameron has been accompanied by an increase in the membership of the Conservative Party, but not one that compares with Labour's soaring membership in the early years of Tony Blair (the last time a political party breathed with deceptive life). The decline of the bigger parties is not a healthy development. Already the consequences are depressingly evident. They include the lack of any credible candidates to be Labour's next leader, the limited talent on the Conservative benches and the rise of fringe parties, with the BNP expected to perform well and possibly pick up a seat or two in the European elections this June.

If there are any solutions, they are complex and risky for those involved. Partly, the parties must look outwards. Lawson regards Compass as an agent for dialogue outside the currently narrow confines of the Labour Party. The supposedly tribal Gordon Brown became more aware of the decline of parties when, a few years ago, he delivered a speech to a packed hall under the auspices of Make Poverty History, knowing the same address for a local Labour group would attract far fewer people. Parties must engage more with outsiders; similarly, outsiders must engage with the main parties. In the end, the parties have the chance of power and the means to bring about real change.

More fundamentally, new pressures must be applied to the leaderships of parties to make them more responsive. Under New Labour and the Conservatives, the pressures on the few who pull the strings come from focus groups and the media. In his diaries, Lance Price, deputy to Alastair Campbell in the Blair era, revealed that only three people mattered when Tony Blair was taking decisions: Brown, John Prescott and Rupert Murdoch (not necessarily in that order). Under Brown, some cabinet ministers have despaired at the paralysis in No.10 as the Prime Minister reaches decisions that will please the focus groups and the newspapers that frighten him most.

This alone provides a powerful argument for electoral reform – a change that would expose governing parties and their main opposition to a greater range of pressures. At the moment, only former cabinet ministers dare to break with orthodoxy, but they will make very little headway in the build-up to an election where the views of a few voters in marginal seats in Middle England are all that matter. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that both Lawson and Hain place electoral reform high on their list of necessary changes.

Hain has struggled at times to reconcile conviction and hungry ambition. His critics will argue that ambition prevailed by a mile over principles, but a political vocation is never that simple. I remember the first conversation I had with him in the early 1990s. He had just written a book that placed him firmly on the party's left at a point when the leadership was accelerating rightwards. What was he going to do about his desire to get to the top of his party and, at the same time, stick with his beliefs? I seem to remember he did not have a precise answer at the time. Now he has one of sorts. If he still has some ambition, it will do him no harm stating in public what he believes and what others are saying in private.