Every part of the Labour Party needs to learn a big lesson. We are too focused on formulating our response to issues, rather than shaping them. We must be more willing to work with our wider movement in order to embrace a working coalition for change.
Many will suggest that over the past few months we have seen further evidence that the student movement remains bitterly divided. Perhaps there is disagreement about the direction of protests, of rallies and occupations, but we would be doing ourselves a great disservice if we were to suggest that a bigger divide remains prominent – Not between the ‘loony-left’ and the ‘bureaucrats’, nor between those who fight for free-education and those who support the graduate tax. The real divide in our student, and labour movements is in fact; between those who are engaged and those who are not, between those who are involved, and those who are waiting on the side-lines and between those who understand and those who are confused. The future direction of our movement must not be based on bitter rhetoric, nor must it be built on complacency. Over the past few weeks and months I have grown increasingly frustrated at our ability to be side-tracked by petty disputes, instead of highlighting the real concerns at the thrust of our debates.
Labour needs to be at the heart of our communities if we are to be trusted again
This is not a time to be complacent about the future. To those who suggest that life as a student, or as a worker, in Britain won’t change under this Conservative government are disillusioned. The onslaught has already begun – we’re seeing youth centres close, thousands thrown out of their jobs and thousands of elderly and vulnerable people evicted from care homes. A fascination with statistics and figures will not break the case this government is seeking to argue. We are right to claim that this is an ideological attack on the future of our country – but simply blaming it on the Tories and slamming the Liberals isn’t going to turn voters against this government. One more hour that ticks by, the closer we are to feeling the real hit of these cuts in our public services – we need to act confidently in our message to stop them. But it is not enough to produce a leaflet and expect people to listen, let alone understand. We need to be more willing to educate and more willing to put forward our case rather than simply hide behind leaflets of ‘bad-man’ Cameron’s face. They may reinforce a point, but they do not help to win an argument we are already losing. Time and time again, the argument that the ‘private sector has felt it’s fair thrust of the economic problems’ in this country is unleashed through the media while day by day this government and councils across the country begin to slash into spending. This was proven in the past when ‘Mr 10%’ leaflets bombed on the doorstep. We need to be more articulate about what these cuts actually are and how they will change the face of the country for the future. To allow a debate to be won and lost on the back of statistics over participation in higher and further education does a huge injustice to our cause. The case we need to focus on is, that allowing students to begin their working lives with mortgage levels of debt is an injustice that society cannot afford. This is why I believe that Labour will only manage to win another election if it is able to begin to shape debate in our communities across this country.
Shaping debate means engaging with our communities on every level – not necessarily leading the debate, but having influence is, in my view, the key. We should be happy to support campaigns and action taken by our partners and affiliates. We would embrace community led campaigns – and not simply try to ‘water down’ our own brand. Labour needs to restate its mission, we need to understand that we cannot stand alone any longer. Why is ‘trade union’ still considered an evil word? Why are we not working more closely with our affiliated unions? I am not alone in thinking that continuing divides in the labour movement are because we are not educating our members enough about our history. We claim this government is ignoring the lessons of history – and yet at the same time, we think that reform can take place without consultation. New Labour was a concept that sought to reflect social attitude at the time – its lessons are still relevant, but it’s time to move on. It’s time to understand that the country is in a different place. We are not facing John Major, but neither are we facing the Thatcher years. This government is fractured, it is weak and it has no mandate. We need to work together to build a wider movement than we have done in the past. It’s time to heal those broken links. If it seeks to restore its credibility as a party of the working family, then Labour needs to embrace a coalition of its own. Labour’s brand need not be altered from the moderate social democracy this country needs, but it can be more influential across this country where the working person needs a voice in politics.
On issues where our communities have been active over the past five years, Labour has been frustratingly absent. The perception that Labour isn’t listening is still out there, and that’s because we are yet to prove it. So that’s why in meetings across the country we need to stop debating our response to issues – but we need to be out there shaping them. From the third runway at Heathrow, right the way through to tuition fees – Labour was not in tune with public opinion. We increasingly have become reliant on statistics and figures and that needs to change. Our own organisations need to encourage debate and involve the wider movement. When only 5 people attend a regional hustings event for a supposedly democratic organisation, you can sit back and suggest excuses – but the real issue is there is a lack of willingness to change. Our University Labour Clubs are not mouthpieces for the executive of Labour Students, nor are they brainwashing facilities for party policy. They are part of the heart and soul of our party and we need to claim them back. Our clubs need to be engaging and educational, they need to take the lead in rebuilding our party as one of the community. Campaigning solely for the local Labour MP or even councillor is not enough – we need to be more willing to ignite debate on campus and in the surrounding areas, to learn from the history of our movement – and of our rivals. Labour in your community is about learning from others, educating ourselves about the way people live, and using it to shape the policy of the future.
Our University Clubs, Labour Students, Young Labour and the party itself need to learn a big lesson. Labour members and supporters are a diverse mix of thousands of people from all over our country. They do not need egotistical arguments about how bad the Conservative Party are, to help massage the cost of donations and the membership fee. They need to be given the opportunity to lead in their communities, the tools to shape their own participation and to be educated about our movement. We need to break with the generic literature, we need to have useful resources that are easily accessible, and not party-centric. Only then, will we begin to see a ‘new generation’ of the Labour movement which embraces and encourages debate, participation and action. This government will not be held to account just by the shadow cabinet, nor can protests do it alone. We need to embrace a working coalition in each and every community, to change perception and to put people at the heart of government.