10 ways Labour can be radical while keeping the centre ground

Written by Nic Wistreich on . Posted in Politics & Society

The aftermath of the 2015 general election has given Labour a number of challenges, not least how to simultaneously appeal to lost voters who've shifted left to the SNP and greens, and right to the Conservatives and UKIP. Much of this debate, focussing on the question of whether Labour needs to shift left or right and it feels like this misses the key shift that has happened in British politics since 1979.

Thatcher, Blair, and Cameron all offer variations on a theme — and it's not unreasonable to assume the next Labour Prime minister will need to do the same. It is more than possible an entirely new politics is being invented, but it's really too soon to see if the new left of Podemos and Syrizia will sustain themselves amidst a deeply entrenched global neoliberal architecture; in other words, other than austerity, can countries become more Scandinavian, the sort of rich, democratic, left-wing country most aspire to be.

So surely the main question for Labour leadership candidates is not how faithfully they can mimic Cameron's appeal, but how they can distinguish themselves? How is Labour in 2020 going to be different, without abandoning the same centrist position that every government in 36 years has been elected on?

In other words, if Blair was Labour’s answer to Thatcher’s 'nation of shopkeepers', and Cameron the Conservative answer to Blair, what’s the left’s answer now? Assuming there's not going to be any change to the inclusive, reformist but big business-friendly neoliberalism Britain currently adopts, how exciting can Labour still be?

For the last few weeks I've been thinking about the ways Labour could stay on that centre ground and still produce a manifesto that would excite people enough to take a risk on a new government, rather than sticking with 'the devil they know' in five years time. Here's 10 of them:

1. Proportional Representation: it's time.

It's impossible to deny that our voting system is broken and systemically unfair. Four and half million UKIP voters are not equal to 26,000 SNP voters; first-past-the-post doesn't offer representative democracy, but an imbalanced form of block voting.

Denmark and Sweden — with PR and regular coalitions — get 85% turnouts because everyone feels that their vote matters. The compromises demanded of a coalition aren't so distinct from the compromises Cameron will be making within his own party to the left and right of him. Importantly, the left and right blocks would always exist, but no more would all of the left and all of the right have to agree on everything. It's likely that future elections would still be about a Labour prime-minister vs a Conservative one, even if either would always govern as head of a coalition. We're naturally still suspicious of coalitions as it's new, and Clegg's keenness to partner with the Conservatives in 2010 was unexpected by many, but it allows for a more diverse and representative range of debate at parliamentary level, and would force the kind of inclusive collaboration and cross-fertilisation of ideas that is the norm across business, science/tech and the social sector.

It's off-putting to Labour as in the long run it would probably cost seats, but it would prove a commitment to real reform and proper democracy, and best of all be a way to guarantee the votes of a huge chunk of UKIP, Green, LibDem, SNP, Plaid votes in 2020. No other single policy could guarantee Labour more votes without ruffling the feathers of the establishment.

2. Scotland: the right of self-determination

Shortly after the election John Redwood pointed out in an interview with the Telegraph that the Union can only work if by desire; it, obviously, couldn't happen against any member's will. If Scotland want another referendum, they must be able to have one. So while Labour should feel free to keep backing the union, it will never recover in Scotland if it opposes giving Holyrood the right for Scotland to call a binding referendum whenever it wishes. Few things, I think, would regain the trust of Scottish ex-Labour voters, than them arguing forcefully that Scotland should be fully in charge of its own destiny regarding this. Making Scottish Labour independent of Westminster Labour — as the Greens in England & Wales are separate, but allied, with the Greens in Scotland — would also be a constructive step to counter Johann Lamont's 'branch office' criticism.

Of course both fully devolving Scottish Labour, and committing to a likely future of coalitions with PR, both run against a deeply rooted instinct for centralised control long running through Labour.

3. Isis: we can't turn our backs

Let’s form a bit of perspective here. We know that the actions of Britain and American’s invasion of Iraq, coupled with much mismanagement of the post-Saddam country has helped created the situation in Iraq now. Secondly, importantly, it seems that major crimes against humanity are taking place.

As a pacifist, firmly opposed to war, I've found myself increasingly considering what was once unthinkable for me — that we need to intervene. I picture a block of flats opposite my house, imagining they are overrun by people who are executing homosexuals and racial minorities, selling children as sex slaves, and threatening with death and torture anyone who doesn't following extreme and strict laws over every aspect of their lives; who have not been elected but instead arrived by force, supported by fighters from my own country, often wielding weapons I'd paid for and left in nearby arms depots. There would be no question of wanting to intervene.

While there may be other regions with situations just as desperate (?) with this there is no doubt that the war we all marched against but our leaders went into anyway, funded through our taxes, means Britain is involved.

To not be involved is like Begbie throwing a glass over his shoulder in a Glasgow pub. We’re not that. Are we?

How do we limit the crimes against humanity that Isis are committing without intervening? How else will peace arrive? The aftermath will take decades to heal, not least the number of radicalised fighters they have, not to mention the millions of refugees that countries like Greece, Turkey and Italy are left to deal with.

At the moment we’re neither putting in army or serious aid. At the least we need to be putting in substantial support to refugees, and there's reasonable arguments in favour of putting in more military resources. What if the refugees were more like evacuees who were accepted without limit, while the world does everything it can to bring about peace in Syria and Iraq so that they can get what almost all will want — the right to return home in security.

It’s here that a Labour leader could command the centre-ground, just as Milliband was rightly bold in not approving attacks against Assad (who may even need to be some form of ally in the containment of Isis). Labour needs to prove not only that they understand the responsibilities of an ethical foreign and military policy, but can appeal to the humanity in all of us to get our support to deal with refugee crisis in Syria and Iraq.

4. Snooping, security & data

Governments have so far tried to lead top-down on the issues here, creating bizarre (to tech experts) demands for technology that either doesn't exist (such as accurate automated web filtering for adult content) or makes no sense (encryption standards that have a 'back door').

A radical yet smart, tech-savvy approach is needed across data and technology. Is it right that Facebook can know the identities of terror suspects but the police not? Conversely should a total digital, bio-data and social life history for all citizens be available to any future government with all the potential use for dirty tricks and bribery that could encourage? How many bright people won’t consider a career in politics because of that one youtube video of them from when they were 20? Likewise, how many British business-to-business startups struggle to sell internationally because of the perception that any data stored on British soil is 'fair game' to our military/espionage complex.

The age has changed, data has changed and there’s a massive need – felt across the EU – for a redrafting of how citizens interact with data-mining companies and governments. There are some good solutions (such as Finland's My Data), but politicians need to acknowledge how far out of their depth they are and put the advice of tech-savvy sector experts — be it Open Knowledge Foundation's Rufus Pollack, Electronic Frontier Foundation's Cory Doctorow or the Open Rights Group's Suw Charman-Anderson & Jim Killock— central to their policy-making.

5. Drugs & mental health policy

The banning of psychoactive substances, or anything that ‘makes you feel nice’ as the Telegraph and Guardian both gladly point out, confirms what most of us have long suspected: drugs policy bears no relation to scientific rhyme or reason. It’s to appease one narrow segment of voters, nervous about what their kids get up to.

This is understandable, but it’s not helpful, especially amidst the huge cost of mitigation, and the consequences of a confused and contradictory set of messages to young people about the acceptable forms of intoxication on mental health. There are links between cannabis and mental health – but people also self-medicate with it in part because of the abominable state of mental health provision in Britain, where talking therapy is hard to come by and of very mixed quality. Prohibition increases risk to the end-user where without a licensing system as in America with cannabis, people have little choice, quality assurance or knowledge about what they take.

What's strangest about Britain's drug policy is quite how much of our culture that powers both the economy and what we self-identify with as British - is linked with drugs. We know that the Beatles created their best songs after Dylan introduced them to cannabis and later LSD. Picture British music history, or Soho’s media companies, the grime scene, city traders or weekend ravers with a prohibition that was 100% effective. And of course if the state regulated the licensed sale of drugs, they could charge vat on it – which would raise the billions for mental health and addiction treatment programmes. It would have a huge impact against organised crime, money laundering and the terrorist networks linked with much of the production and sale of drugs.

Prohibition was led by an America in the early 20th century anxious about how mind-expanding drugs could allow communism through the back door. In the 21st Century, as America increasingly legalises and decriminalises cannabis, the environment is different: an awake, smarter populace won’t bring about bloody revolution – we’re no longer angry peasants who need dumbing down and mollifying with booze. Instead we need a state that treats grownups like grownups — and who we can trust to be honest with us about all the risks, not least around alcohol.

6. Defence: scrap Trident, secure 2% defence spending

Even Michael Portillo agrees Trident shouldn’t be renewed and is a waste of money. The defence sector faces ongoing cuts, which seems unwise given the gains from Isis this last year and tensions in other regions.

Labour could make a simple double move here: simultaneously pledging to scrap unpopular Trident, expensive and irrelevant in today's world; while redirecting those funds to support more needed areas of military spending, from equipment to training, peace-building and veteran support.

7. Education: here's to the drop outs

It was because I was paying for tuition fees — we were the first year — that I quit my degree to run Netribution with fellow-student Tom Fogg in early 2000. If I was going to end up in debt on the path to becoming a filmmaker, I might as well get in debt trying to run a web business, which if not making me rich as we originally intended, would at least let me sit down with the likes of Darius Khondji, Roy Disney, Stephen Daldry, Marlene Gorris or Christopher Eccleson, one-to-one, and ask them anything.

So two thoughts: what about allowing those who wish to self-study, or create a startup, rather than going to university, have access to the same level of loans, on the same terms? If Bill Gate, Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson as university drop-outs contributed so much to the economy: why not offer financial support to young people wanting to go the same way? For a country that fetishises enterprise and aspiration, it's a narrow form of incentive that only recognises a degree as a step up. Indeed why not offer every citizen up to the equivalent in undergraduate debt for any form of personal study, research or development in their life, provided the outcomes can be verified (such as through a published book, completed course or startup).

Secondly, now that education is a service at point of purchase, it seems like the customers, i.e. students, get a rough deal. Imagine a product that you must take every day for three or four years. You have to apply to be allowed to take this product and you have no real way to be sure in advance how good it’s going to be. You pay for it, up front, and if you don’t like it, there’s not a huge amount you can do beyond pay the same again for the next two years or cut your losses and quit. 

Why not make it something paid for on completion? Either with the certificate, or at least each year in arrears. And therefore reward universities where students actually graduate, rather than start paying their £9k, and then drop out because the course just isn’t that great. 

8. Immigration: refugees vs economic migrants

Migration is one of the first notable things the human race did together, as we headed North from our cradle in the south of Africa, and is something we'll probably never stop doing; it defines our entire racial make-up and collective history. The combination of a tough and long recession, austerity and new eastern-EU country migration (318,000 net migrants in 2014 alone) has been a challenge to many parts of the UK, and it's not pandering to UKIP to concede this strongly. Still, it's very different to what Greece, Turkey and Italy face with non-EU, mostly Syrian refugees, fleeing with nothing, probably traumatised, perhaps no language, a different education, no money, and arriving in countries with high unemployment and limited resourced. 

Comparatively we have it pretty easy in the UK: indeed, imagine how quickly our economy would crash if all the current Eastern European workers had to go home tomorrow.

Labour needs to argue that immigrationis only a problem in a country without enough jobs or resources to support public services. But that if these areas are taken care of then in a modern world with great inequality, migration is inevitable and, given migrants contribute billions to the economy, also good. 

In other words, provided there are jobs for everyone, and public services have the capacity, then it’s rational and in Britain's interest to have managed immigration. We need to start saying, 'welcome Polish migrant! Thank you for choosing to live here for a few years and share your work ethic with us (on normally very good rates)'.

Conversely, as Poland gets richer as Poles return home with new skills, trade networks, savings, etc, should Poland not be also taking a greater share of non-EU migrants? It cannot all be on the shoulders of Greece and Italy. Why not see every country do their bit in Europe for supporting the process of migration, be it internal or external. It needs to be managed and carefully planned around as it must not strain resources or lose people jobs, and racial integration requires much work. But it’s also how we can stay vibrant and connected as an ex-empire in the current highly networked world. We took a lot, historically speaking, we have room, there are jobs.

9. Trade: everything's changed.

The non-millennial left has been trying to define a new, better capitalism for some time. Those of us who grew up online, are web-native or embedded with open source, look puzzled, for to us it's already here. Instead of clamouring for something that doesn't yet exist, we need to talk of the newly formed capitalism still in its infancy: networked capitalism or open source capitalism (my essay on the subject) or what could be described as potential transition period before Cory Doctorow's post-scarcity Whuffie world arrives.

From a trade perspective, over the last 15 years we have gained a full-scale, person-to-person, networked global market, a network economy with almost no entry barriers where anyone anywhere can sell anything to anyone anywhere, pretty much. Everything changes, from the regulation and tax needs, to pricing, standards, what people are taught in business school and how investment calculates risk.

Because it's still being defined, there's much potential for Labour to define the arguments around it in years to come and their silence on the subject just makes them look out of date — the Labour 2015 Digital Policy review at 122 pages mentioned neither Open Source or the sharing economy. Yet from workers-on-demand, as with Uber and asset-sharing of Freecycle and Couchsurfing, to the shifts in consumer campaigning and activism through social media and the impact of this on the  'third wave' of feminism — Labour should be all over this, yet few other than Stella Creasey and Tom Watson seem to be, perhaps because few others have the same tech skills. But lack of skills shouldn't translate to lack of trust, if any old left hope to see a system that matched 'each according to their skills to each according to their needs' that's what the web has been trying to build for some time. A long lack of government involvement — dating back to non-email-user Blair — has seen this matching of needs, assets and skills undertaken by US, well-funded companies; but there's no reason why much of the large scale infrastructure couldn't be funded and owned by the public.

The network shift ripples into other areas — devolution, equality and housing: surely the quickest answer to London's property crisis is to make it more effortless to remote work in a cheaper city or area: through a mixture of improved regional/rural broadband, upgraded transport (bullet trains, not HS2) and regional networks, hackspaces, hot-desk communities and hubs. This in turn would mitigate against rising inequality, a remote worker in Sheffield or Motherwell does not need to earn less than a London-based worker, if both are doing the same work to the same standard.

The digital economy has another benefit: in a renewably powered country it could offer environmentally-sound investment growth at a time when society is beginning to attempt to limit resource use and depletion. As we approach an age of limitless renewable energy, a resource-free growth in digital goods whose footprint is almost only energy, would supports rising growth in GDP and wealth without depleting resources.

For all those saying economic growth is ecologically unsustainable, the elephant in the room is that the growth potential for ecologically-and-ethically-sound digital goods/services has no fixed upper limit, as there are with all traditional resources like oil or corn. Startups, investors & governments who understand this stand on the edge of a binary oil well that will never run out — and indeed only grow as workers become more skilled, technology becomes more ubiquitous, and people, losing jobs to automation on a significant level, have more free time.

10. Tobin Tax & Citizen Wage: rule nothing out yet

While a Tobin Tax is popular, without support from the City of London it may never take off in the UK, so frightened would any government be of losing advantage to other cities such as New York or Hong Kong. To succeed, the financial sector would need to believe that such a transaction tax could be in its interest.

High-frequency algorithmic trades come with considerable risks, and potentially devastating consequences, as was seen in the 2008 crash. Investment houses are spending increasing amounts of money on technology and 'quants' to exploit this sector, not least because they cannot let their competitors dominate it, but potentially exposing themselves. A transaction tax would offer a drag on such high-frequency trades, raising the level of the profit margin required for success and in turn reducing the amount of players in the market and the need for investment in the area just to 'stay competitive'. I would imagine there are divisions between 'traditional traders' investing primarily in commodities, bonds and securities; and the algorithmic traders who don't care, provided their trades make a profit. Perhaps appealing to traditional traders with the logic that a tiny transaction tax will only really impact the algorithmic traders, might gain support.

Likewise the arguments in favour of Citizen Wage, although a Green Party manifesto pledge in 2015, come from the left and right — Nixon was the last leader to explore it. It needs serious investigation, not least as we move towards greater automation and ever more sophisticated AI. The economy depends on people both having disposable income, and having time to study and develop new things. A citizen wage, managed well, could underwrite a huge programme of skills, training, volunteering, R&D, start-up growth and so forth. I won't pretend to know how it would in practice deliver it or not, but Labour will look terribly tired if they don't, at the least, commission some further study into it, and to not rule anything out until the evidence is in.


This last point sums up what citizens and business will increasingly demand from their national governments in a networked world where they could base themselves almost anywhere: evidence-based, rational, progressive and fair policies — as opposed to tribal policies driven by instinct and inertia. Both the old left and the Blairites are their own form of conservative force. Labour today has the chance to blend a new flavour, deeply infused with the past, building on it, but also reflecting off Cameron, Obama and the long-emerging digital world. There should be no timidity, at least not yet, in how big Labour dares to dream, and getting caught up in defining themselves relative to the politics of the 70s or late 90s is a terribly uninspiring distraction.

Of course, being competent and backing PR might be all that Labour needs to win in 2020. But it feels like that could be missing a unique opportunity. For, what if this is the moment? This is that age where the world, heavily networked, comes together to solve the majority of it's problems. Because if we don't adapt fast, climate change could wreck untold havoc, and rising inequality fuel ever-greater regional and terrorist problems.

Hopefully Labour questions and chooses its new leader with the awareness that for the world this could be that time we either act sanely as a species or die out. Maybe we all get hooked on VR when it arrives, maybe we get smarter and come together.

Dare to dream, Labour.