8:38 am - July 2nd 2008
I think the Obama-McCain contest means that we have the chance to see the best of America in this election year.
During these last few months, as I spent time in Chicago and Wisconsin in February during parliamentary recess and then on the doorstep in Crewe and across Greater London in April and May, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what, if anything connects these events. What do they have in common? What direction do they point us in for the future?
There is something about these two outsider candidates that connects with people, whether that is with rural communities in Iowa, casino workers in Nevada or students in Wisconsin.
Now switch to Crewe and the issue of who does politics also comes to the fore. This time in the shape of the ‘Tory toff’ stunt, which began as a practical joke and mutated into a campaign theme.
And the reality, I think, is that the Crewe campaigners picked up on something: people do feel that politicians are out of touch with their everyday lives.
As with the US, people do feel that Westminster is made up of a small elite, that spends more time talking to itself than the rest of the country – and in a coded and managerial language that only it understands.
But the real problem with the Toff campaign was that it picked the wrong target. Because the issue is the political class, not the upper class.
The danger, in a world where Westminster has created its own industry of think-tanks, lobbying firms, PR agencies and media outlets, is that we lose the rich diversity to a generation of politicians who have emerged not from the professions, the business community or the unions but from within Westminster itself.
It’s dangerous because people struggle to find the connections with this political class that seems to operate in a different world. And the result is that people begin to channel their efforts into other spheres of politics where they feel they will be listened to.
At best this is single issue campaigns – climate change, poverty action groups, human rights. At worst people drift away from the managerial mainstream to the extremist fringes of politics. This is where people are offered simple answers to the problems they see around them – whether it is the BNP or extremists using religion as a way presenting the world in terms of black and white – good and evil.
And a distant political class is dangerous for a second reason. If parliament becomes filled with an elite that hasn’t seen and experienced the lives that people lead across Britain, then it will suffer from the blind spots that comes with.
Lessons from America
So the first lesson that I draw from America, but also from the events of this year, is that we need to find ways to break open politics beyond the usual suspects.
· So we should be starting early, involving young people in politics not through talking shops that can seem patronizing, but through ideas like young mayors who have real budgets to spend in local areas, as they have done in Lewisham.
· We should be closing the gap between the public and our Party by experimenting with open primaries, so carrying a Labour membership card in your wallet isn’t the be all and end of all of whether you can take part.
· And as the party’s finances recover, we should be doing everything we can to make sure that the financial costs of running for parliament aren’t a form of selection by the back door, whether that means bursary schemes, loans or other mechanisms.
· We should give back the power to political parties so that they can take positive action to make parliament more representative of the ethnic diversity of modern Britain.
· We should be creating more opportunities for political talents to emerge, which do not depend on the patronage of a few people at the top of a party. I’d like to see more local areas elect their own mayors, creating new ways for people to make a difference and make their name.
· And we need new ways for ordinary people to make their voice heard in Westminster. Five years ago around a million people marched in London against the war in Iraq. And whatever people’s views about the war itself, we need to recognise that people need somewhere to channel their views and concerns. So more direct democracy and new forms of accountability all need to be part of the mix.
Whatever the policy mechanisms we use, politics – and especially progressive politics – cannot assume people’s trust. It has to earn it, through becoming as open, as inclusive and representative of the wider public as it can.
The good society
Over the last decade both New Labour and the New Democrats got into the habit of defining themselves through what they were against rather than what they were for: Not the Old Left, not the New Right, but New Labour was the formula.
Some of that was political pragmatism, and some of it was a genuine search for new ideas after the lows of the 1980s. But the use of triangulation, of defining yourself against your own party, of a managerial language which drains the values from policy also became a habit – a reflex –which alienated people in the party and left the public disorientated.
So in 2008 we need to be much clearer about the kind of society that we want to create.
The narrative of the last ten years – a strong economy and strong public services – needs another ingredient: a good society:
- A planet that is livable for our children and their children
- Housing conditions that you would expect to see in the fifth richest country in the world
- A flourishing public realm with quality public spaces for people to enjoy
- Stronger social bonds in communities – between different generations, between different cultures
- Better quality of life for adults with busy working lives and more help for parents having children for the first time
- A safer, more fulfilling childhood for children who face greater commercial pressures than ever
- More structure and new opportunities for young people wondering what the future holds for them in life and in work
These are issues which go to the heart of inequality, but which will never be addressed by a new round of public service reform or even changes to tax credits.
They are about the places where the social, the personal and the political all meet. And the truth is also this: they are issues that only a Labour government can address.
This is an extract from a speech made to the Fabian Society this week, published with consent. The full version is here.
This is a guest article. David Lammy is MP for Tottenham and has served as a Minister in the Department of Health and Department of Constitutional Affairs. He is currently the Minister for Skills. His website is here.
· Other posts by David Lammy MP
Story Filed Under: Blog ,Foreign affairs ,Our democracy ,United States ,Westminster
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