Compass Annual Conference

Thank you very much Gavin and thank you to everyone here who supported my election campaign – we could not have done it without you. Before I begin, I just want to say a little something about our man here – Mr Cruddas – and Compass itself.

I know many people in this hall were extremely disappointed when Jon decided not to run for the leadership of the Labour Party. I know many more, out in the country, share that disappointment.

Jon said he could not stand just to contribute to a debate; he said he did not want to be Labour’s leader or prime minister because both roles require certain qualities that he does not possess. To stand for election to Parliament, let alone to be leader of a political party, involves a certain amount of self promotion – one might say a touch of ego.

Just consider what politicians do to get elected. How many people do you know send out copious amounts of self promotional literature to thousands of people, most whom they have never met? It is rather odd behaviour, isn’t it?

The thing about Jon is this: it has never been about him. Jon has always been about the politics and the ideas, not grand plans and personal ambition. That is why, when he ran to be deputy leader, he made it clear he did not want to become deputy prime minister.

Ironically, that’s why so many people thought Jon would have been such a fantastic leader. But Jon has made his decision and we must respect it. In making that decision, he makes an important point: politics is not a career, it is a mission. Too many people forget this but Jon certainly hasn’t. Robin Cook – after whom this conference is so appropriately named – certainly didn’t when he left the cabinet out of principle.

Though we might not have Jon as our leader, thank God we have him there to keep us on the straight and narrow and to remind us, when we lose our way, what this is all about. In making such a huge contribution and mapping out a vision of the good society, Jon has raised the bar in what we expect from those who are on the ballot paper. Wishy-washy platitudes and generalisations will not do. We need an honest appraisal of what we got right and where we went wrong. And above everything else, we need a vision – the kind of vision that was wholly absent from the General Election campaign – a vision around which policy can be built and society can be changed.

Over 1000 people have been discussing what that vision of the good society should look like at this Compass conference today. And Compass is not an organisation that simply “talks the talk”; it is a pressure group that “walks the walk” as last year’s successful campaign to stop the ludicrous part privatisation of the Royal Mail demonstrated. So today, as always, is just the beginning.

In March this year, the Sunday Times published a list of prospective newcomers to the Parliamentary Labour Party. It was headlined “Look out, here come the red barons”. In the piece I was described as follows: “Chuka Umunna – Streatham May dress and sound like a Blairite, but do not be fooled. He sits on the management committee of Compass, the left-wing group that has called for a renationalisation of the railways and a ban on all outdoor advertising.”

Think about a few things. Politicians from all the major parties now talk about the Social Recession, The Good Society, and the limits of consumerism. Compass was there five years ago. To his credit, Ed Miliband supports the creation of a High Pay Commission. The first coverage of that idea came when Compass started campaigning on it a year ago. Calls to review the replacement of Trident seem to be reaching a crescendo; Compass led the parliamentary rebellion on that issue in 2007.
Electoral reform is this season’s most fashionable proposal; Compass places it at the core of what we believe. There’s a world of difference between the political fringe and the cutting-edge. And we all know where Compass is.

I joined Compass in 2003 when I was most disillusioned with New Labour. I joined because I felt my party was losing its way. I thought Compass could help us get back on the right track. How did I feel we lost it? Remember Labour’s famous 1997 pledge card. Among the pledges were the commitments to implement a national minimum wage and get 250,000 young people off benefit and into work by using, wait for it a windfall tax on the privatised utilities. We abolished the assisted places scheme and used the money to reduce class sizes in primary schools. It’s easy to forget this, but lots of good social democratic stuff was achieved in that first term.

The second term saw record investment in our public services come alive in a very tangible way in every constituency, including my own and Jon’s, with initiatives such as the Building Schools for the Future programme, transforming school buildings across the country, and New Deal in the Community zones, regenerating areas of deep poverty.

So we started on the long journey away from Thatcherism, towards a more social democratic future. But from the middle of the second term we got stuck in various pot holes en route to the promised land – top up fees, foundation hospitals, 90 days detention.

Labour’s thinking was clouded by a new emphasis on marketisation and privatisation. The government was too keen on rhetoric and policies that were shrill, sour and authoritarian. And there was that massive, era-defining mistake – Iraq. But this was only part of the story. By the beginning of the third term, it was obvious that we’d failed to capitalise on the huge wave of popularity on which the Labour government was first elected. And I think this had much to do with the collective state of mind of New Labour.

As a young Labour Party activist in the late 1990s and early noughties, I was forever advocating that we go further. I was determined that we should be embedding and advancing OUR politics so they would endure as powerfully as Thatcherism.

But that failed to happen. Why? Because tax credits are all well and good, but a more progressive taxation system would have truly embodied our values. Because the national minimum wage was one of Labour’s greatest achievements, but we could have used the public sector to pioneer a living wage; Because SureStart is Labour’s values incarnate but so too is the comprehensive school ethos which we should have more passionately and consistently argued for; Because there is greater equality of opportunity after 13 years of Labour government, but the average FTSE 100 CEO still earns over 120 times the average salary of his workers. I could go on.

So New Labour did lots of good things and I’ve just spent many months telling people about them on the door step. But, lets face it, we should have done so much more and we should been so much more radical. The reason we did not do more was because of our collective lack of self confidence.

Every time one agitated for more radical change, the leadership would tell us it was not politically feasible. “We live in a conservative country, you just cannot talk about these things”, they would say. Less “yes we can”, more “no we can’t”.

And let’s get one thing straight: we were not asking for a return to the policy platforms of the 1970s and 1980s. My generation are lucky. We did not fight the battles of the 1980s. When Labour published its suicide note manifesto – an appropriate description – in 1983, I was 4 years old. When the party was left bewildered after the 1992 General Election defeat, I was just 13.

My generation wasn’t scarred by those experiences. But I think the ’80s and the early ’90s destroyed too many people’s faith in the electoral appeal of centre-left politics, despite the huge size of that landslide in 1997. In fact, by the late 1990s, the world was very different, and there were openings for our ideas that people of that generation either failed or didn’t want to recognise. And by the time of the great financial crash, the need for a renewed kind of social democracy was obvious. Yet still Labour stuck to the politics of caution, and fought shy of a really progressive vision for the country.

My experience tells me that if you don’t have the confidence to be who you are and popularise what you believe in, you may as well pack up and go home. And the problem with that “no we can’t” approach is that it becomes circular. Research carried out by the respected election expert, Professor John Curtis, shows that as the Labour Party ceased to talk, loudly and proudly, about progressive ideals and policies, so those ideals and policies became less popular.

So we have got to get over the past and move forward to the future. Yes, we must learn from our history but we cannot be prisoners of it. It must not set the parameters for what we do now in these changed times. We must go forward with far greater self-confidence.

Take the big challenge of this parliament: the economy. The Liberal Democrat-Tory coalition argues that the debt is so high because of public spending profligacy before 2007. They now say public spending should be sacrificed at the altar of deficit reduction.

The Prime Minster even claims the action he will take to address the deficit will affect our whole way of life. “Our” whole way of life? Here’s a question: when it comes to the Tories themselves, how are these public spending cuts going to affect their way of life? In times of austerity, maybe we’ll all have to take a leaf out of George Osborne’s book – if you can’t get the bus, there’s always a yacht.

Conservative ministers let the cat out of bag on Thursday when one of them said that “those in greatest need ultimately bear the burden of paying off the debt”. Another referred to university students being a “burden” on the taxpayer. This is what we should be saying: our debt did not rise because of spending on public services before 2007. It rose because the global financial crisis caused tax receipts to fall and spending to rise – and, yes, we should be big enough to say we should have better regulated the bankers who caused it.

We should acknowledge that there need to be cuts, but the best way to reduce our debt is to go for growth and job creation. This will lower benefit payments and increase tax revenues. The CIPD estimates that the measures the coalition is contemplating will throw 750,000 workers on to the dole queue and do the opposite. So now is the time for us to build a progressive coalition for growth and jobs.

Take our public services. When free-market thinking has been so comprehensively discredited, should we presume the introduction of choice and the market into public services is the only way to reform? Perhaps we could start, as they have done so successfully in Newcastle City Council, by encouraging trade unions, workers and end users to put together and implement “in-house” plans for improving services.

Maybe we ought to finally think about democratising education authorities and hospital boards, and giving people a meaningful say in how things are run. Talking of which, look at our democracy. For years we thought that electoral reform was not a mainstream issue. It is now. People are hugely frustrated with our outdated First-Past-the-Post electoral system and the lack of choice it gives them.

They are also fed up with the adversarial, punch and judy politics, which the current system promotes. What we have now is coalition of small state neoliberals determined to force through boundary changes purely for party political reasons; it aint the new politics. New politics requires a new system and the people are crying out for it. The Alternative Vote solves some of these problems but when it comes to electoral reform we need to be bolder and more ambitious in our thinking.
So, we should walk tall, get out there and popularise our politics.

In some of the polling districts in my constituency people queued around the block, waiting to vote at polling stations for more than an hour – South Africa style. We saw turnouts of over 70% in places. After a terrible 18 months during which the awful underbelly of politics with all its sleaze and the expenses was exposed, who would have thought it?

People are interested in politics again. You hear people talk about it on the bus, on the train, in the restaurant. They want to be inspired. But the reason no party won this election was because no one really inspired them.

So we have a mission. Let’s make history and not be prisoners of it. Let’s stop doing social democracy by stealth but do it in the most clear and exciting way possible. Let’s hold fast to the three ideas that brought us all here today: Equality, democracy and sustainability. And let’s remind ourselves that after the crash, and in a world where people expect involvement and transparency as a right, and at a time when the planet continues to burn, those ideas have never been more needed.

It all comes down to what Martin Luther King called “The fierce urgency of now”. This, surely, is no time for the politics of out-of-control markets. It’s no time to be leaving our most vulnerable people to sink or swim, while the super-rich remain untouched. It’s no time to leave corporate power unchallenged, and bankrupt political systems basically unchanged.

We have a plentiful supply of passion, but we also need to rediscover our confidence. If today is anything to go by, it’s already happening. But its not enough to walk out of this hall feeling good about ourselves. Tomorrow, next week, next year – we’ve got to roll up our sleeves and take our politics to the people.