It’s time for Labour to be bold

The corrosive fallout from the EU referendum, the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic and the horror of the ongoing war in Ukraine have been deeply unsettling and have led many to adopt a somewhat fatalistic approach to the future. It seems that since the financial crash of 2008, UK politics has never reverted back to an even keel.

However, at a time when we need effective government most, we are instead being led by a Prime Minister lacking any moral authority to govern and the basic competence to face the looming challenges ahead. Johnson’s government, shorn of any dissenting voices, presents a clear threat to our democracy – and at the same time reveals its inherent weakness.

Labour now consistently lead in opinion polls, although they would still fall short of a majority based on current numbers. Keir Starmer recently said that “people don’t want a revolution.” This may indeed be true, it is not very British after all. However, I believe that unless we make fundamental changes to how we are governed, how power is held to account and how we protect the most vulnerable in our society, quite apart from not having a vision that will inspire enough people to succeed at the ballot box, we face the prospect of the continuation of a deeply unequal society.

Labour may be relying on the Conservatives to implode, and let’s be honest they are doing a pretty good job of it so far. However, treading too cautiously and trying to please everyone does have its risks as voters, I would suggest especially in the ‘red wall’ seats Labour are so keen to win back, will sniff out any lack of conviction. As one of my ‘swing voter’ friends posted recently, Labour should aim to win on merit, not by default.

I voted for Starmer in the leadership election, so have no factionalist axe to grind here, but if we set out to be relatively passive bystanders in the expectation that the current government will destroy itself, we may well end up empty-handed. As Alistair Campbell said of the Blair years, it is vital to seize the initiative and once you have it, never let it go.

Starmer has done a pretty good job of ripping Johnson to shreds at the despatch box, but there is a world of difference between success in the Westminster bubble and electoral success across the UK. The electorate is likely to have much to vote against, but they must have something to vote for. The Tories have no qualms about increasing inequality and trashing our democracy and indeed our reputation around the world. Abhorrent as many of their policies are, they do enact them with conviction. Tinkering around the edges, presenting a form of ‘Tory lite’ is unlikely to cut it with the electorate, and even if it does result in success at the ballot box, will do little to alleviate the struggles of the most vulnerable in our society.

So if not quite a revolution, what could these fundamental changes look like?

  • A move to a fairer voting system. For many, the walk to the polling station is a forlorn and pointless ritual. The current ‘first past the post system’ is inherently unfair and can create, like in the case of the current government, a huge majority on a minority of votes cast. At each General Election, a small number of ‘swing seats’ decide who governs the UK, while most seats never change hands. A proportional system of voting would mean that each vote has an equal value. Everyone would have an incentive to vote as everyone’s vote would count. However, a fairer voting system is just the start of the road toward the public becoming more engaged in the political process. We need to decentralise power from Westminster and place it back into our local town halls across the country.
  • The current political patronage seen in the House of Lords must end and be replaced by an elected chamber that represents all regions and communities across the United Kingdom.
  • The power exerted by the current government, and the lack of effective checks and balances to that power, have highlighted the weakness of our democracy when we are governed by those lacking any moral compass. It is vital that we create a written constitution to replace the current conventions and reliance on personal integrity.
  • A fairer and simpler tax system where those with the broadest shoulders pay a greater share of their income to support a just society. It’s just not right that a quarter of all wealth in the UK is held by the richest 1% 1. This is not about envy, it is about basic fairness.
  • A media held to account by a genuinely robust and independent regulator and an end to the often cosy if transactional relationship between the state and the oligarchs who control the vast majority of our national and local print and online output. Government should respect a free media, rather than fear the consequences of not playing to their tune.
  • Equal access to the law. Cuts to legal aid and threats to the availability of judicial review risk access to the law becoming available only to those with the deepest pockets. The years of pain endured by the families of those killed at Hillsborough is a stark example of how justice is denied to working-class people.
  • Promote a pro ‘ethical business’ approach. We shouldn’t resent profits, but the tragedy of Grenfell revealed what weak government regulation, combined with the pursuit of profit above all other considerations can result in.

I will concede that the above may seem somewhat academic and remote from the daily grind of many, but until we put in place the checks and balances of an effective democracy, there will always be a tendency for governments to revert to promoting the interests of corporations and individuals with the deepest pockets. Why is it always the case that when ‘tough choices’ have to be made, it is always the most vulnerable in our society that suffer, not the corporate fat cats? I would suggest that the constant lobbying by corporations and the lack of working-class representation in the Houses of Parliament results in our politicians’ heads being turned by those who already have a voice at the expense of those who have no voice at all.

Labour has been criticised by some for their “on your side” and “security, prosperity and respect” slogans and of course any political tag lines are meaningless unless backed up by effective policy. However, much like a football team needs to have an effective spine to achieve success, policies based around a spine of personal, household and job security and being treated with dignity in all aspects of life, are a strong grounding for a successful political campaign. We are not quite there yet and it is the nuts and bolts of these policy offerings that must be fleshed out sooner rather than later. Labour must also decide whose side they are on and be cautious about being seen to be backing big business over the needs of working people. How refreshing it would be to have policies based around the values of empathy and compassion, rather than the greed and division sown by the current government.

It is pretty clear that the shambles of the current government has given the electorate plenty of reasons not to vote for them. I am less sure that we have yet given the electorate enough to vote for us. If Labour tries to carefully toe a line which they believe won’t upset anyone, they run the risk of not pleasing anyone. I understand, if not totally agree with the move away from the policies of the Corbyn era, but Labour must be wary of oversteer, a drift too far into the centre ground . We face huge challenges ahead, such as the looming climate emergency and the impact of automation across our workplaces. The differing approaches to both of these issues are likely to be key battlegrounds in UK politics over the coming decade and beyond. They will require fundamental changes to how we go about our lives. They will both require high levels of government intervention and bold actions. Let’s inspire people now, let’s be bold.

The Tories have trashed the United Kingdom’s reputation around the world. Let’s set out a vision for a Britain we can be proud of, with the BBC and the NHS at its heart. Let’s judge our success by how well we protect the most vulnerable in our society, rather than the interests of a privileged few. That will be a United Kingdom we can all be proud of.

Julian Vaughan

April 2022

Further reading

The Grenfell Tower Fire: a crime caused by profit and deregulation.

Labour for Electoral Reform: voting systems explained.

Politics for the Many: the trade union case for political reform.

The Equality Trust: the scale of economic inequality in the UK.

Clive Lewis manifesto: transform to win.

Media Reform Coalition: who owns the UK media?

House of Commons Library: is the criminal justice system fir for purpose?

Resolution Foundation: the living standards outlook 2022.

Hillsborough Law will level the scales of justice: Steve Rotheram.

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