Labour leadership battle gives time to create future agenda


So the renewal has begun. Last Tuesday we were told Labour MPs would have just nine days to nominate candidates to go on Labour's leadership election shortlist. 

Colleagues across the spectrum smelled a stitch up and insisted the Labour party National Executive Committee think again -- "up with this we will not put" was the cry. The result: the deadline for nominations was extended by a further 13 days. 

The parliamentary Labour party of 2010, flush with 67 new MPs, is an assertive beast. We and our local party members deserve time to pick our new leader.

The progressive majority in the country wants to get in on the act too, which is why over 14,000 of them have joined our party since polling day, quite remarkable given we have just gone down to one of our worst defeats in history. The task ahead: to restore the historic strength of a party formed and led from its grass roots, and in so doing, offer a vision that is in step with the concerns of the electorate.

But first, there is the contest. It is vital we not only involve members but the wider public. Next to the more traditional leadership hustings and inevitable TV debates, why not get candidates out, in every part of the country -- not just London -- to do high-street walkabouts and town centre soap-box sessions? That way members will see the leaders-to-be in action and judge whether they can connect and talk "human".

Then there is the discussion on where we went wrong and how we must change. This cannot be some arid dialogue between Blairites and Brownites, left and right, modernisers and those who supposedly want to turn the clock back to Militant and the 1980s. Both of us were still crawling around on the floor in the early 1980s, more interested in TV cartoons than Militant -- the divisive politics of the time are alien to us. Equally, at the birth of New Labour in the 1990s there was no Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, nor had there been the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq war or a global recession. Yes, we can learn from history but it cannot be allowed to set the parameters of debate in this new era.

These are different times requiring a different set of policy responses -- people want to hear a response from the candidates. Undoubtedly, the City needs greater regulation so it better serves all of us and not a highly remunerated financial elite who are allowed to play fast and loose with our money. But what does "better regulation" look like? The centre-left is in danger of sounding as if capping bonuses and beating up on the bankers is the answer. This is neither credible nor gets to the root of why the credit crunch, which we are now paying for, came about in the first place.

Several candidates are already talking about immigration. Let's drop the cheap mantras and be honest with people: we allowed this issue to become a smokescreen for some of our biggest failures in government -- the failure to get to grips with the housing crisis and the failure to address the race to the bottom in respect of the wages and the terms and conditions of a great bulk of the workforce, particularly temporary and agency workers.

Our belief in markets and globalisation blinded us to the fact that many have been left behind by globalisation. How do we address this? Both of us like the idea of a minimum-income guarantee that makes work pay, but how do we put this in place in the context of public expenditure restraint?

And then there are the quality-of-life issues, which seemed absent from so much of the general election debate. We work longer hours than any other country in western Europe, yet we are neither more productive nor, above all, happy. We have so much more material wealth than many third- and developing-world economies, yet in so many studies British people are less satisfied. How do we tackle this social recession? Professor Richard Wilkinson suggests this might have something to do with the outstanding gap between rich and poor (despite the huge reduction in poverty under the last government).

There is so much to talk about. We found it impossible to properly consider where to go next while in government. We now have the time and space to map out an agenda for the future. It will be a gross dereliction in duty if we fail to do so this summer.