How Labour becomes relevant and future-facing once again

  • Only by confronting our weaknesses – such as immigration policy and providing an alternative to austerity – can we build the coalition required to regain government.

  • Chuka Umunna MP

The contest is over, the result was decisive and the question of the Labour leadership is settled. So Jeremy Corbyn is right to move things on and put the Labour party on a general election footing, given that this may well come next May or sooner. It is a recognition that, while creating a “social movement” has its place, the primary function of a political party is to seek to implement its values in government. How else could we have established the modern welfare state, the NHS, the Equal Pay Act, the minimum wage and more?

Divided parties don’t win elections, but the unity we need won’t come through demands and threats. It will come through dialogue and understanding. That is why the nod and wink given by the leadership to threats of deselecting good, hardworking, popular MPs must cease. Our leader has already said he sees no need to change the rules on the selection of parliamentary candidates, so he shut down that counterproductive debate by making it clear that the only talk of removing MPs that will be entertained is replacing Tories with Labour ones at the next general election.

Believe it or not, we all share the same values in the Labour party, but there will always be differences of opinion on policy – that is in the nature of the broad-church political parties we have under our flawed first-past-the-post electoral system. We can’t win under FPTP if any one strand of the Labour tradition is forced out of the party for not being slavishly “on message”(I thought we had rightly given “control freakery” the boot several years ago) – we need to build a coalition of support spanning from left to centre-left to be successful.

There are some MPs who will choose to rejoin the frontbench. Fine. Some, like me, will seek to hold the executive to account through parliament’s increasingly important select committees – as Margaret Hodge and Tom Watson did in the last parliament in respect of the Murdoch press and big multinationals on tax. Others will run campaigns from the backbenches, like Stella Creasy’s crusade against loan sharks. Wes Streeting recently tabled no fewer than 30 amendments to make the higher education bill work for students. There are many ways of contributing, and all are vital parts of Labour’s campaign for social justice.

To win at the next election we have to be future-facing and relevant to those we represent – and those we aspire to represent, too. Currently we fail this test. So we must all drag ourselves out of the trenches and look forward. This starts with dumping the obsession with redundant labels, and ending the online thuggery and abuse to which too many lifelong Labour members have been subject. “Blairite” is a redundant term – Tony Blair ceased to be leader almost a decade ago and New Labour is over. Calling Labour people “Tories”, “Red Tories” or “Tory-lite” is not only juvenile but hardly sends the right message to the millions of people who voted Tory last time whose support we need to form a Labour government – giving potential converts to our cause the impression we think they are the devil incarnate is a curious way to win them over.

And to be relevant it is no good endlessly talking about the things we like to talk about to those with whom we agree. In order to grow our support and win an election, I want to see our leadership addressing our weaknesses and engaging on the difficult issues where many take a different view from us. You cannot duck the difficult issues in the middle of an election campaign. True courage requires us to find a Labour response that talks to those concerns, heals the divisions in society and is consistent with our values.

It is extraordinary – given that a third of Labour voters opted to leave the European Union and took a different view from the party’s official position on the EU referendum – that immigration hardly featured during this year’s leadership contest. As democrats, we should not ignore the referendum result, which is why I disagree with calls for a second referendum. Nor should we patronise those who voted to leave by simply dismissing them as bigoted and racist.

This does not mean aping and accepting the division and prejudice peddled by Ukip – that should always be challenged. But it does mean recognising that, while immigration has brought huge benefits, it has also posed challenges to local labour markets and to community cohesion. But it need not do so if we put in place the right policies to support communities and move away from a laissez-faire approach to integration.

Professor John Curtice, the pollster who came closest to predicting the result of the 2015 general election, found that it was concern about our ability to provide competent government, particularly on the economy – aside from any considerations of ideological positioning – that did most to deny us office in last year’s election. Even if voters did not believe the economy had improved under the Tories, too few believed it would get any better under Labour. This is still a widespread concern, more than a year on from that election. We rightly oppose the austerity of the Tories, but what exactly is our alternative?

A prerequisite to the inclusive prosperity that will increase equality and reduce poverty is growth. This requires an innovative economy in which productive businesses, the state and citizens work together to create wealth and ensure that globalisation works for many more people. Investment is important – particularly in affordable housing – but a simple arms race on investment spending will not solve the long-term challenges presented by automation displacing people’s jobs and the competition coming from emerging market economies.

Nationally, we must take a view on which UK sectors can be winners globally and back them to the hilt through active government. Locally, we must give each area, particularly the English regions, the tools to find their niche and compete – another reason for ensuring that Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheramand Sion Simon are elected as the mayors of Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham respectively next year.

Green growth is one vehicle through which technology, globalisation and environmental challenges can be turned from obstacles to solutions for problems related to growth, jobs and competitiveness.

But the immediate task is to ensure the government secures the most progressive Brexit deal we can get that maintains as many of the advantages of our EU membership as possible. Labour’s demands should start with membership of the single market, retaining vital EU legislation protecting our environment and working people’s rights, and close co-operation on counterterrorism. It also means guaranteeing the right of EU residents in Britain to remain here, not using human beings as bargaining chips.

By campaigning to broaden our support and get Labour elected decade after decade, our party and our movement has been the biggest motor to spread prosperity, increase equality, reduce poverty and redistribute power since we were founded in 1900. Our leader is right – being in a position to do this again in government must be the priority.