openDemocracyUK

And the new Labour leader says...

What the new leader of the official opposition could say if....
Guy Aitchison
24 September 2010

On Saturday afternoon we will know who the next leader of the Labour party is. This is the speech I hope they give:

Conference, I’m immensely humbled to have been chosen as leader.

We face huge challenges in the years ahead - and this demands an honest appraisal of our past.

The speech I make here today will not be comfortable listening at times, but I believe that a full and open debate is needed about the kind of party we aspire to be.

Over the last few months, we’ve heard plenty of old voices from the past urging us to suppress our true values and instincts to appease the wrath of powerful vested interests.

This approach has been tried – and it failed.

It led us to become remote and detached from the very people we came into politics to represent.

Between 1997 and 2010 five million voters deserted the Labour party and our membership halved.

We avoided the calamity some were predicting at the election, but we should not be complacent.

This was a defeat.

It would be exactly the wrong response to sit back and wait for the Coalition’s spending cuts to kick in, in the hope of sailing back into power on a wave of popular anger.

If we wish to become an electoral force once more, we must win back the trust of the British people and set out a vision for a fairer and more just society.

At the core of New Labour’s electoral strategy was the belief that if you shifted the party to the right, working class voters had nowhere else to go.

In 2005 we scraped through against unpopular opposition on a third of the vote thanks to the distortions of our electoral system; in 2010 the same strategy led us off a cliff. 

Our natural supporters stayed at home or voted for the Liberal Democrats – who were giving a plausible impression of a party of social justice – while many others voted for extremist parties such as the BNP.

Only one million out of the five million votes we lost since 1997 went to the Tories.

Re-connecting with our values, and re-discovering what it means to be a party of progressive change, isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the only way we can win.

So let me say as clearly as I possibly can: "New" Labour is dead and it won’t be coming back.

It is time to move on.

There are many things we can be proud of from our time in office.

We achieved great reforms that many said were impossible: the minimum wage, investment in public services and the arts,  rights for gay and lesbian people,  the Human Rights Act, Parliaments in Scotland and Wales, the Good Friday Agreement and a Mayor for London, reform of the Lords, Freedom of Information – and, yes, contrary to what one of my predecessors has said, that was a great achievement, of which we can rightly be proud.

Britain is a fairer and more democratic country today because of these changes.

But the longer we stayed in office the more we lost our reforming zeal. We became too comfortable with power – instead of challenging elite interests, we cosied up to them at every stage.

Ultimately, this was our downfall.

Three defining issues came to symbolise the hubris of our time in government: the Iraq war, the economic crisis and our approach to civil liberties.

Iraq

Let us not mince our words over Iraq.

This was a truly catastrophic decision: for the one million-plus Iraqis who died as a result of the invasion and the four million refugees, for the stability of the region, for our own security, for the credibility of international institutions and the rule of law, for the health of our finances and for the state of our democracy and public life.

Contrary to what some of my fellow candidates suggested during the campaign, this isn’t simply a case of hindsight now that we know Saddam Hussain had no Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The late great Robin Cook, who resigned over the war, recognised that Saddam did not represent a threat and that WMD were being used as a pretext for a war of choice by a dangerous right-wing US president.

So did the millions who marched against the war in London.

So did our closest friends and allies who refused to play any part in the invasion.

If elected Prime Minister, I pledge to you, that I will never again take part in a war of aggression.

At all times, I will work for peace, justice and human rights, pursuing our aims through international institutions in accordance with the rule of law.

And so we must end Britain’s shameful role in selling arms to some of the most vicious regimes on the planet.

We must seek a peaceful resolution to the standoff with Iran.

We must pursue a political settlement in Afghanistan where our continued military presence only exacerbates the threat of violence.

And when it comes to the conflict in the Middle East, which does so much to fuel anger and resentment around the world, we must work through Europe to put pressure on the Israelis to respect the humanity and right to self-determination of the Palestinian people.

I don’t pretend that this will be easy, it will require tenacity, perseverance and a willingness to stand up against entrenched interests to defend what’s right.

But it’s a worthy price to pay if we are to remain true to our ideals. And one of these is that when we speak to the British people about matters of war and peace we will always speak truthfully.

The economic crisis

When in power, it can be tempting to take the route of least resistance, to ally oneself with the strong, rather than championing the cause of the weak.

Unfortunately, this was the approach New Labour took at home, as well as on the international stage.

We were dazzled by the allure of the free market, buying into the self-serving myths of the masters of the universe and their financial alchemy and the supporters in the media.

Social justice was sacrificed on the altar of globalisation.

The filthy rich were celebrated whilst the poorest in our society were expected to make do with modest redistribution via the tax system.

Our natural allies in the trade unions were scorned whilst the pay of the chief executives at the top ballooned.

The result of this is that we are a more unequal society today than we were in 1997 - and that is to the lasting shame of New Labour.

Our uncritical embrace of globalisation also meant that we failed to regulate the City so that when the financial crisis came we were left dangerously exposed.

The bank bailouts saved us from financial ruin, and Gordon Brown deserves praise for his decisive action he took, but the price has been a legacy of debt which it will take years to pay off.

And so we turn to one of the central questions in British politics today: how to approach the deficit.

The Coalition has embarked on a savage course of spending cuts to which we are told there is no alternative.

Cuts of between 25 and 40% are planned across government departments, with devastating consequences for our public services and the economy.

Labour has so far failed to make the case for an alternative approach.

But make no mistake – George Osborne’s savage cuts are not written in fate; they are an ideological choice borne out of Tory preferences for a limited state and a society in which all must sink or swim.

In office, Labour was again too ready to swallow the self-serving arguments of the financial elite that the biggest and most urgent issue we face is cutting the deficit.

The problem of the financial crisis, a problem which originated in the private sector, in the greed of bankers, became overnight a problem for the public sector.

The issue was no longer how do we reform the financial sector and protect the poorest and most vulnerable from the damage the banks have wrought.

It was how do we slash the deficit as quickly as possible, with the Lib Dems promising “savage cuts” and our own Chancellor Alistair Darling saying he will cut deeper than Thatcher.

This was a fatal mistake.

It handed the initiative to the Tories and killed any chance of using the crisis to rebuild the economy on more sustainable and equitable lines.

The truth is that a slash and burn approach to the state won’t just cause immense hardship and suffering, it will destroy our prospects for growth.

With the economy emerging from recession, we need investment by government to stimulate production and sustain jobs.

All the evidence, both historical and contemporary, shows that withdrawing from the economy so quickly damages growth.

There is an alternative, which is both fairer and more economically credible.

It is the one Ed Balls so expertly set out in his recent speech to Bloomberg - and that is what Labour under my leadership will be advocating with Ed as Shadow Chancellor.

Together we will make the case for protecting jobs and public services and putting the country on the stable road to recovery.

We will not be punishing the poor for a crisis caused by bankers.

Instead, we will create a fairer, greener and more equal society with investment in education and a Green New Deal for the economy.

Civil liberties

The third issue we must confront if we are to come to terms with the legacy of New Labour is civil liberties.

This is about more than just ID cards, pointless and intrusive though these were, it is about how we understand the state and its relationship with the citizen.

Historically, as a party, we have been too uncritical of the state and its power to do evil, as well as good.

Since we were in power to represent the interests of the working class, we believed that anything the state did was, by definition, right.

This uncritical attitude towards the power of the central state was not the cause of the many abuses that took place under New Labour, but it created the conditions for them.

It was wrong to declare that “everything had changed” after 9/11 as if our proud traditions of liberty now counted for nothing.

Rights and freedoms are enduring values, common to all of us, not a luxury that can be tossed aside at the convenience of those in power.

Yes, we must protect ourselves from terrorism, but when we sacrifice our most cherished values, it hands a victory to our enemies, it fuels anger and resentment in our communities and it paves the way for an all-powerful leviathan state that none of us will be able to bear.

The collaboration of our security services in torture, if true, is an abomination and I welcome the Coalition’s decision to open up a full investigation.

We are not too proud to learn the lessons of the past and where possible we should work with the Coalition on their Great Repeal Bill.

We must never again resort to exploiting fear to appear tough on terrorism.

Nor should we fetishise technological change to the point where we discard privacy and freedom.

There would be no return of the “database state” under my premiership.

Political reform

The first task of government should always be to give away power to its citizens, not to hoard it and deploy it against them.

Over the coming months I will be setting out a radical programme of political and constitutional reform to empower citizens and replace the broken sovereignty of parliament with the sovereignty of the people.

Reform of the constitution was one of Labour’s greatest achievements in government, but it was partial and incomplete and the fundamental principles of our antiquated system weren’t challenged in any serious way.

The Coalition has now embarked on a programme of reform that is so timed that it looks more like an attempt to shore up the existing system than deliver democratic change.

The Liberal Democrat leadership has lost the radical zeal it once possessed, resigning itself to a timid referendum on AV rather than the proportional representation it once favoured.

Although I am not yet convinced of the merits of PR, I recognise that the public deserves a fair choice and will be working with Caroline Lucas MP and others in Parliament to ensure there is a proportional option on the ballot paper.

Through these efforts I hope to ignite a debate within our party about the merits of electoral reform and wider democratic change.

I plan to develop proposals for a deliberative citizens’ convention that will examine our constitutional arrangements as a whole with a view of taking us towards a written constitution based on popular sovereignty.

It will set out the powers of government, our values as a nation and the rights and liberties of the citizen.

This is the difference between the illusion of reform and the real thing.

It is the difference between change that preserves and strengthens the elite and change that empowers people and communities.

When faced with a choice as leader, you can be sure that I will always choose the latter.

You may ask, how do I know he can be trusted when so many have said the same and done the exact opposite?

Because you will be there to hold me true to my word.

Because the party I aspire to lead is a democratic party not a dictatorship.

Healthy disagreement and robust debate is a source of strength, not of weakness.

To all those people who left the party because they felt they had no voice, I say rejoin us and we will welcome you.

We must be the change we want to see –and we will only lead a democratic country once we have a democratic party.

Conference, I have given my first speech as leader of the Labour party in the spirit in which I intend to govern: with honesty, openness and an uncompromising dedication to our values.

Together let us take us up the urgent and momentous task of building a better alternative for Britain.

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