Labour can be reformed if it looks outwards, not just inwards

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‘New digital businesses are fast emerging, and their impact on employment rights and practices needs balancing with the welcome new jobs they create.’ Photograph: peterhowell/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Earlier this week I wrote that “hard left factions seeking to control our largest trade unions should not have a guaranteed place in the governing counsels of the party”. I did not realise that affirmation would come so quickly from Aslef’s general secretary Mick Whelan, who chairs the national trade union-Labour organisation, Tulo. He demanded that Keir Starmer repudiate me and make clear that there would be no attempts to break or water down the union link; and he was instantly supported by fellow Corbynista John McDonnell.

Of course, I was not attacking the trade union link but the power of hard left factions that abuse it. I clearly touched a raw nerve. The Labour party gains from its trade union links with working people, but it is damaged by trade union leaders, such as Whelan and Unite’s Len McCluskey, who use Labour as a political plaything to pursue their ultra-leftism, which is completely unrepresentative both of their own members’ and Labour members’ views.

This is why Labour needs party reform. If we are going to flourish once more as a party that speaks for ordinary, decent working people like my former constituents in Hartlepool, as I desperately want it to do, Labour needs once again to reflect, and be a political extension of, those people, their values, their patriotism and their demands for social justice.

For too long the Labour party has behaved as if ritual incantations of the “labour tradition”, appearances behind union banners and invoking the spirit of past struggle were enough to maintain our efficacy in the eyes of working people. No wonder they have lost interest in what we have to say, because we sound old-fashioned and insult their intelligence.

They know automation and other technological innovation is transforming how we work, manufacture and provide services, and yet too many in Labour seem buried in an industrial past. New digital businesses are fast emerging, and their impact on employment rights and practices needs balancing with the welcome new jobs they create. Working people are not just experiencing this technological revolution in their jobs but in how health, education and other public services are being delivered. They are not Luddites, but they also look to a progressive party such as Labour to ensure that democratic values and social rights are embedded in these life-changing technologies, so that they reduce rather than entrench inequality.

The new policy review that Anneliese Dodds is going to steer should draw on the thinking of other social democrats in the US and Europe and be genuinely forward-looking and innovative, not just split the difference between old and new. There is vast scope for new policies to make a profound electoral impact if Labour has the courage and confidence to embrace the future. For example, an associated revolution in vocational and digital skills and lifelong training needs to accompany the dawn of the new technological era and must be incorporated into a radically reformed education system.

Boris Johnson’s luck will not last for ever. Politics isn’t like that. The vaccine delivery is the principal thing propping up the government’s popularity. Labour should draw important policy lessons from this for industrial strategy. The vaccine resulted from government investment in top university research, backing for high-risk technology ventures, nimble, accelerated regulation, manufacture by the private sector and distribution through the NHS.

This was hardly a model of pure capitalism – more a demonstration of the power of public procurement and dynamic government intervention across the public and private sectors in an open and international economy. Labour should be applying this model, at scale, to similar UK market and supply-chain opportunities linked to the transitions under way in life sciences, mobility, AI and clean energy.

This needs to be combined with our clear focus on regional devolution. The government talks about “levelling up”, but it does not realise that you can’t level up from the top down: local foundations of growth and inclusiveness need genuine transfers of powers, people and money.

The failure to deliver on social care, raising taxes while holding down spending rises on public services including the NHS, and deficient “levelling up”, as well as the independence battle in Scotland, are going to become major tests both of Johnson’s credibility and Starmer’s skills in forensic attack. Disappointment on any of these issues will puncture the prime minister’s braggadocio.

Labour needs first-rank politicians capable of going for Johnson on these and other Tory vulnerabilities. A different party culture and rulebook needs to protect them from party factionalism so that they can face the country and not just the membership. The members themselves need protection from harassment and bullying, and the candidates they select to fight future key seats need better to reflect our communities rather than the choices of union barons. Party activists need to be out talking to voters, not stuck in endless meetings arguing over minutes and matters arising. This programme of party reform is urgent, alongside policy changes that ensure we have a manifesto that wins voters over and does not just make the faithful feel virtuous.

We hold victory at the next election in our own hands. We can either talk about change while wanting everything to remain the same or we can face up to the task of transformation on which our success depends. This requires the whole of the party closing ranks behind change and giving Starmer his chance to lead so that the party we love does not lose, lose, lose, lose and lose again following our 2010 defeat.

  • Lord Mandelson is president of the Policy Network. He was the Labour MP for Hartlepool from 1992 to 2004

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