The Labour Dilemma: LLS Chair on why we must not forget the centre left
Joshua had been a keen Labour supporter for most of his life and has this year taken up the position of Chair for the Leeds Labour society. He’s worked in Washington and Parliament, and campaigned hard with Ed Balls during the general election. Oisin Teevan talks to him here about life after Brexit, the leadership result and a look back over the New Labour years we grew up in.
What was your vision of Labour when you joined the Party and how does that compare to your vision of it now?
So I grew up in a Labour household with parents who both worked in the NHS. As I began to study politics more I learned that the Labour Party has been the greatest movement for social change this country’ has ever seen. When I grew up Gordon Brown was prime minister, and to be honest, I thought the best days were ahead of us. I saw some great leaders coming through the party and I saw the party as a party for all people, for Britain. What I fear now, to answer the second part of the question, is that the party is a narrow sect of people who have a very narrow view of the world, and don’t necessarily understand the needs of the people from other parts of society.
So is that an open criticism of the party?
Well, yeah. I don’t think it’s the failure of any one part of the Labour party. I think those of us on the middle-left side of the party failed towards the end of the last Labour government and in 2015, during the leadership contest, to offer a clear, coherent – but compelling – vision of what Labour stood for. I think we became lazy with power and because of that I can understand why those on the left of the party, including Jeremy and his supporters, rose up into the party and got new supporters to join.
Looking back over the past decade or so what do you think were the major turning points for Labour?
Well of course winning in ‘97 was the high point. You know we won three successive general elections after eighteen unbroken years of Tory government. I wasn’t alive to experience what it was like to live under Thatcher, but it was an awful time for the country and an awful time for our movement. We turned away from the country and we gave the Tories the opportunity to do what they wanted, we all know what happened there. As Tom Watson said in his conference speech only a few days ago “I think we’ve got to stop trashing New Labour”. I think we did a lot of good from the minimum wage to Sure Start, rights for part-time workers as well as full time workers, I could go on forever. Clearly the financial crash was the next big turning point. People turned against us because of that, but they also turned against us because we’d been in power for thirteen years so I think that in a way it was a natural part of politics.
Do you think that Labour’s move towards the centre, arguably away from white working class people in deprived areas, is a precursor to the Brexit result?
I think New Labour in government did more for working people than any Labour opposition has ever done, because we had power. We took a million children out of poverty because we’d been in government; you tell me that’s not improving the lives of working people. I think there are a whole range of factors that led to the Labour party taking one view at the referendum, and a large share of Labour voters, particularly in parts of northern England, voting differently. I think a lot of that comes down to immigration, but some of it has to do with sovereignty and democracy, with pay and conditions. If you’re not getting a fair deal with work, or if your community is suffering because of the cuts that this government has imposed on it, then of course you’re going to say ‘What’s the EU doing for me?’
So do you think when it came to the referendum itself, Labour could have done more to help the Remain campaign?
Absolutely. I spent the campaign knocking on doors day-in-day-out, as did thousands of Labour Students across the country, and too often Labour voters just weren’t aware of our position or thought that we were against. I think that was because our party leadership should have been clearer about the position we had agreed as a party, and that criticism has been levelled at Jeremy and the leadership already. I think that’s definitely a reason why the Labour vote wasn’t as firmly in Remain as it could have been, and I think we could have done more as a party than did.