Modernising Modernisers

First published on the Huffington Post September 2015; updated 24 September 2016

The result of the Labour leadership election was hurtful – to pretend otherwise would be untrue. I think the candidate that I supported did a brilliant job – tough though her task was. As Jeremy Corbyn said, Liz Kendall ‘absolutely stands up for what she believes in’. Yvette Cooper came out and changed government policy on refugees. Andy Burnham showed he was one of the nicest guys in politics. Congratulations are due to Jeremy Corbyn and his team.

It is horrid losing elections. Internal ones are often more painful. While May’s general election result was hard to take, losing within the party for which you have worked your whole adult life is more personal, especially when your very motive for doing so has been brought so firmly into question.

Not content with simply winning, Corbynistas want to rub moderates’ noses in it, dishing out advice as if they totally understand the surprise victory. Owen Jones tweeted, ‘A thought for New Labour supporters. Turn away from the negativity of your media champions. Come up with a vision. That’s how you win.’ Such fortune cookie wisdom is always helpful, but hardly necessary.

A period of reflection is needed. Writing this month’s editorial was almost heartbreaking. It starts with the words, ‘A chapter has closed. The era of New Labour is over.’ It is right – obviously – but not without regret. I say this not to show my reluctance to accept this reality but because it did not have to be this way and some of us fear that we risk missing the important lessons that took Labour into government.

But also – to be frank – because it is personal. The last Labour government changed my life in profound ways. No one in my family has ever been interested in politics let alone worked in it. My great-grandfather once wrote to his member of parliament and was granted his request but that is it. Equally, as a child we were hardly loaded; the exact opposite to be precise. But the change ushered in by Tony Blair was palpable. First, the government – I assume we have Harriet Harman to thank for this – changed the rules, allowing single parents to keep the maintenance money and not have it deducted from benefits as it had been before. Real money in our pockets. Second, that government’s changes to compulsory competitive tendering meant the GMB was able to win compensation for my mum – then working as a dinner-lady. This in turn paid for us to be able to have our first family holiday. Third, Aim Higher – the then Department for Education scheme – came to my school to dispel myths about free school meal kids being ‘more likely to go to prison than university’. And, as a young gay man, I cannot tell you how the changing nature of the law towards LGBT people gave me the confidence to hold my head high. Every change was voted on by parliament and only granted because of a Labour majority in the House of Commons.

So if you ever detect a reluctance to trash the record of the last government, it is real. It gave thousands, if not millions, the opportunity to reach new horizons.

It is also true that this sense of rejection of the moderate and modernising wing of the party is not without historical parallel. Every Labour government has left power with the left of the party claiming the term of office was a letdown. New Labour was no different. Forget that this is just uncomradely, it is simply ridiculous. Even fair critiques should not be used to tarnish the entirety of Labour government successes. It was Hugh Gaitskell who promised to fight, and fight, and fight again, to save the party we love’, as the party took a hard-left turn away from the electorate in the 1950s. We must do the same.

What will come next is not easy, nor obvious. But one thing is for certain: it will require a radical shift in how we approach our politics.

It is time for the ‘Blairites’ – for desperate want of a better word – to take some of their own advice. Dan Jarvis told Progress annual conference on 16 May this year to, ‘Remember how you felt when they called Nuneaton, and Vicky Fowler lost. Bottle that feeling and hold it tightly for the next five years.’ I was with Vicky the day Liz got 4.5 per cent of the party selectorate and will bottle that feeling forever more.

Progress is here to stay. Moderates and modernisers need a home in Labour. A platform for new ideas. Someone needs to be a bulwark against the bullying and intimidation already channelled towards supporters of the ABC candidates by some on the hard left. Talk of ‘virus’ in the party should not be tolerated, and definitely not rewarded. We know from when we interviewed him for this magazine in July that Corbyn, ‘would never be so intolerant’. The attacks on our organisation and politics over the last five years have ranged from the fair and comradely to the downright untrue and unwarranted. I know Progress cannot carry on as it is. It must change and reach out further. This will be tough. Those who will never be convinced will try and act as judge, jury and executioner. They are not. Change, if real, is neither quick nor painless. My rule for the coming months as we head ‘into the unknown’ is this: if it is not hurting, it is not working.

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