Throughout this year ‘Labour Affairs’ has been making two connected arguments. The first is that the national economy is not like a household. The state can mobilise resources by issuing its own currency, it need not worry about debt and deficit if it is strengthening the productive powers of the economy, creating skills and jobs and enabling enough goods at affordable prices to be produced.
By itself this is an abstract point. What does it mean for the inhabitants of the cities, towns and villages of England and Wales? It is possible to revive their fortunes if the political will is there, the resources are provided and the hard work required to prioritise local and regional needs is put in. The state has the power to revive local economies and communities if the government and local and regional institutions work together. The Labour Party, working with unions and other civil society institutions, can work out what is needed most, what inhabitants want most and propose solutions. A Labour government can provide the money, prioritise resources, advise on feasibility, advise local bodies to avoid duplication of effort and co-ordinate national with local and regional priorities.
People are concerned about the availability of good jobs, training and education, quality housing, a safe and attractive environment, good amenities for young and old and cheap and effective transport. Without these, communities find it difficult to flourish and it is difficult to persuade young people to stay in them. At the moment the expectations of many are so low that even some moves in the right direction will be met with approval. One only has to look at the success of Ben Houchen, the Tory mayor of Teesside, to see this. It is no accident that central government money has been sent in the direction of Teesside. The Tories realise that if you can quickly show tangible benefits for your constituents you will be rewarded. For the time being it doesn’t matter too much if the Tories’ efforts are haphazard. People have now got Brexit and they can see some improvements in Teesside and the West Midlands. The Tories are being rewarded for that.
Labour need not promise the earth. In any case voters will not believe them if they do. They need to set out some carefully considered priorities for localities that can be implemented fairly quickly. But the time to start doing so is now. A general election could be called in as little as two years’ time. There really is no time to lose. The point is that central, regional and local labour need to work together. It is no good making large gestures about jobs for a ‘green new deal’, if no provision for training, and no timescale and no distinction between short term and longer term measures is made. The fact is that measures like low energy retrofitting of buildings will take years to train the workforce, let along retrofit the houses. There needs to be a link between the short term, like immediate measures to provide work for young people, improve the environment, revive high streets and improve bus services on the one hand and longer term skill and technology development on the other, so that people can see what Labour is going to do NOW and what it hopes to achieve in three to four years time.
There are some in the Labour Party who understand this. Mayoral elections in places such as North of Tyne, Cambridge and Peterborough, West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Bristol suggest that a pragmatic focus on local priorities will bring electoral dividends. Areas that are out-competed by the Tories such as County Durham, Teeside and the West Midlands will fail. Working class areas will no longer vote from intergenerational habit, they make up their own minds. Labour in Wales was successful because it understood the need to focus on the priorities of communities (and had stiff competition on this from Plaid Cymru) and was careful to set out a manifesto that looked both attractive and do-able to the electorate. Their achievement is all the more impressive because Wales does not have its own money and has to do what it can with meagre resources. A Labour government in Westminster would be able to provide resources for local initiatives to ensure a realistic but even better offer to the electorate. This does not mean that Labour should just listen to focus groups and then do what they suggest. Labour needs to listen to what people are saying and then decide priorities and what is feasible and explain what they intend to do and why. A political party that cannot show leadership is not going to win a national election.
At the moment the national Labour Party is poorly led. The leader seems to prefer factional fighting and virtue-signalling his respectability and patriotism to actually attending to the needs of the electorate. There is a focus on Westminster tittle-tattle and trivia, a continued obsession with identity politics and ongoing grieving about Brexit. These are all tendencies that will seriously repel Labour’s traditional electorate. Removing the current, failing leader will not solve anything unless his successor understands what needs to be done and mobilises the Labour Party and the broader Labour movement to do it. Unfortunately the Labour politicians who do see this are mainly ensconced in Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool or Cardiff, not in Westminster. Corbyn’s Labour saw the need for radical action across the country. But it had neither the capacity nor the interest to engage with the detail of working out how to benefit the different parts of England and Wales. Figures like Rebecca Long-Bailey and Angela Rayner talked a big talk, but ultimately there was too little of substance in what they had to offer. Once you have made a big gesture you need to follow it up in ways that show voters how it is going to change their lives for the better. Unless this changes Labour will continue to decline into irrelevance. There is no time to lose.