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Liz Kendall and Alison McGovern: Labour must think deeply about the future, rather than remaining stuck in the past

6 min read

Unless we start thinking much more deeply about the future – rather than remaining stuck in the past – Labour will be in Opposition for another decade to come, writes Alison McGovern MP and Liz Kendall MP. 

At the risk of stating the obvious, the UK Labour party – and in particular UK progressives - start this decade in a bad place. Nationalism and populism remain in the ascendance, whilst the principles of co-operation and collective action seem stuck in permanent retreat.

Many of us mourn Britain finally leaving the European Union. Yet whilst it is natural and necessary to grieve when you have lost something you hold dear, we cannot stay in a state of despair forever. It does nothing to help the people we came into politics to serve.

The challenges we face are huge, but so too is the Conservative majority. A new Labour leader is necessary but not sufficient to delivering the scale of change we need to win again.  We need a fundamental rethink about what we are offering to people in every part of the country.

Labour wins when we focus on the future. Our principles and values don’t change, but the policies that progressives fought for in the past won’t necessarily provide the right solutions to today’s problems.

The world is changing fast. The circumstances and challenges we face now (and not just in terms of Britain’s exit form the EU) are very different, even from those of a decade ago when we were both first elected as MPs.

For example, what does economic credibility look like in a world where growth has flat-lined for a decade, and political support for the trade gains of globalisation is on the floor? How should we think about financial stability when climate change requires fundamental shifts in domestic and global investment?

What are the implications of our rapidly ageing population - not just in terms of our health and care services but in the workplace, for our system of taxation, and the future of our villages, towns and cities? How can we ensure all young people have the chance to fulfil their potential, as globalisation continues to concentrate highly skilled work in fewer and fewer places? And what is a progressive agenda for tackling inequality, when the economic fortunes of different places are driving politics as much as the economic fortunes of individuals?

Answering these questions with the right policies requires a proper understanding of the world to come, and credible answers that can put our values into practice.  It also means being clear about what we are for, not just what we are against – something progressives have often failed to achieve over the last decade.

To this end, we have identified five big challenges that will shape our country in the years to come. Working with others, we are setting out to understand these challenges better and to shape a convincing response.

Firstly, climate change. It is vital that UK puts our own house in order, particularly in areas like transport. However, given the severity of the problem we face, focusing solely on what happens at home will fail to achieve the necessary global reduction in carbon emissions. Bearing in mind the size and relative influence of the UK on the world’s carbon footprint, how can the UK prevent further climate damage? Brexit will make this harder, but what other regulatory and diplomatic options do we have?

Second, our ageing society. Finding a long-term funding solution for social care is vital to meeting the needs of our ageing population, but the implications of demographic change go far beyond this. People need not just extra years of life, but more life in their extra years. What are the changes we need in the way our NHS works, to prevent ill health; in our housing stock, so older people can live independently for longer; and the world of work, which is still hostile to too many older people and the families who care for them, so that people can continue to earning for longer as they live for longer?

Third, globalisation.  Perhaps the biggest failure of progressive politics over the last decade has been our inability to provide compelling solutions to the issues raised by our changing economy. We cannot turn back the clock, bring back long-gone industries or dis-invent the rise of countries like China and India, but unless progressives provide credible answers to people’s genuine concerns we will continue to see Labour lose seats like Redcar, Mansfield and Sedgefield. How can we deal with the excesses of globalisation and the risks of trade conflict between major economic blocks when nationalism is driving countries towards isolationism not co-operation? How can we enable people to take more power and control over their lives in the face of continuing technological change, the growing gig economy and rising self-employment?

Fourth, inequality. Tackling poverty and inequality was at the heart of the Millennium Development goals globally, and legislated for domestically in the UK.  But we now face a new reality, in which people around the world, who are angry with inequality, are often voting for populist and reactionary Governments.  How must the left change to gain popular support for a more equal society of both individuals and places? With persistent barriers remaining for many based on race, class, age, gender, and other factors, are we moving from an era of seen prejudice to unconscious bias?

Finally, what should be the UK’s place in the world after Brexit? Since world war two, the UK has positioned ourselves as the ‘bridge’ between Europe and America. How will we deal with the emergence of a so-called ‘tripolar’ world -  with the EU, America and China – now that we have left the EU?  Nationalism is growing, and co-operation declining.  What role will the UK play in governance of this new world? What ideas are needed to gain public support for cross-border co-operation, and for reforming the institutions that uphold the international rules based order, and who will their champions be?

Providing answers to these questions will not be easy but unless we start thinking much more deeply about the future – rather than remaining stuck in the past – Labour will be in Opposition for another decade to come.

That is why we will be bringing progressives together from across the country to address these five challenges and provide compelling solutions.  We want to work with people with ideas, passion and real life experience from our workplaces, voluntary groups, the public sector, academia and business.

If you believe we need a different direction for our country and want to get involved, please get in touch, and help us shape a progressive future together.


Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South. Liz Kendall is Labour MP for Leicester West. Both sit on the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee.

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