So, what are real Labour values then? More often than not, the truth is the answer is like beauty: in the eye of the beholder. When a new member joins the party I always ask the same question: so why did you join then? Apart from the ones who answer – I want to be an MP- and I’ve had them believe me, you tend to get a mixture of reasons. ‘Labour is opposed to the cuts the government are forcing through.’ ‘Labour wouldn’t cut benefits like the government.’ ‘Labour is against academies.’ ‘Labour opposes the tuition fee rises.’ ‘Labour is against the war!’ All of these answers are genuine from the last two or three years. Apart from the obvious comment about the total lack of knowledge of Labour in power and Labour in opposition, it hides in many cases a deeper cynicism from those who quite frankly should know better. What do I mean?
Being in opposition is a thankless task and is totally dispiriting if you can see no end in sight to the onslaught of government legislation moving at break neck pace in an attempt to move the country in a direction which would then take any new government a whole parliament and more to undo. No positive changes could be made to stamp Labour’s imprint on the country as we did from 1997 to 2010. In light of this scenario it is tempting to say virtually anything to get your voice heard in opposition in the desperate attempt to get elected. Nationally, that’s exactly the opposite of what the party are doing or what they would want to do. It is right we keep for as long as we can our powder dry on manifesto commitments to avoid falling in to the trap of the Tories and the media who would gleefully pull apart ideas before they have had time to properly gestate or to be killed off or ridiculed. It is right we do this because no one can predict what state the economy will be like in 2015. No one can predict what the country will be like either and what impact world events will have on us because something out of our control will happen somewhere in the world, an event we can probably do little about yet will affect the UK profoundly. That’s how the world is now.
The same cannot be said elsewhere though. Two schools of thought abound in certain circles.
The first one I’ve heard many times yet still shocks me when I hear it. I’ve read that by the time of the last election, Labour was tired and there wasn’t much appetite to continue and to try and form a government. A ‘bit of opposition’ would do us good. I understand it was not an attitude Gordon Brown shared which was fairly obvious as the days dragged on after the election and he tried unsuccessfully to get a deal done. I know it was still unlikely because the parliamentary mathematics did not add up unless you got every last bit of opposition to agree to join a grand coalition. Nevertheless, it was right to try and not just in the light of the experience of this current government. It was right because as a party we have a duty to represent those who elect us. The Party exists to be in government otherwise what is the point in our existence in the end? This ‘bit of opposition’ is not a value I share. The offshoot of this bit of opposition is often the expansion of wider representation, admittedly after a few years of Tory government, in local government in particular. Suddenly, we win seats and councils we haven’t won for years which is great and to be celebrated. We have great representatives up and down the country doing a fantastic job under the most difficult of financial circumstances. This is not new. The scale and type of cuts may be different today but in reality we have been there before, most notably in the 1980s. But the cost of this representative block is clear for us all to see up and down the land. It is also the cost of a ‘bit of opposition’ which in the end benefits who exactly?
The second school of thought is this. Say anything to get elected. It’s not a value I subscribe to. We should attack our opponents but we must be positive too. We must offer people hope and a future. It cannot and should never be enough to just tell constituents how bad the Tories or the Liberal Democrats are. The people the Labour Party should be reaching out to know that already. They are living with the consequences and want instead to hear and see what Labour can do to change their life chances for both themselves and their families in the future. It is hard work though, to offer hope over despair. It’s much easier to tap into people’s fears and worries. Of course we must do that to put into context our answers for how we can change things but we should never just leave it there otherwise we end up doing the work of the far right or the far left. That is both dishonest and in the end is self defeating. That is the Grand Old Duke of York school of politics and we should resist it, otherwise we build on sand and as soon as the first sprinkle of rain falls we are washed away. If we build something solid it will last and survive in even the greatest of storms and will protect and shelter hard working, intelligent, honest and straight forward working class people to whom we must reach out.
It takes guts and determination and is hard work and trust is not easily won. But it can pay great dividends for our party and our country. That is what we should aspire to and those are the values that the people of this country will respond to. Hope over cynicism. Belief over distrust. A future to look forward to rather than to look away from. Those are values I understand.
I will return to how those that wish to represent people should ‘know’ them. The question is how?