There weren’t many responses to my tweet last Friday asking whether anyone could recall a time when the three established UK-wide political parties had been in such a collective state of disrepair, but those I did get suggested the late 1920s and the 1930s. It took World War for the parties – and particularly Labour - to regroup, reunite and refocus.
Despairing Labour moderates can comfort themselves with the thought that it isn’t much better right now being a Conservative moderniser or an ambitious Liberal Democrat. The fundamental failings of national political parties – not just structures and processes but ingrained cultures – mean that, behind the electoral cycles and occasional burst of enthusiasm for a new leader, the trend of decay continues. Westminster political parties are withering hands squeezing the breath out of our ailing democracy.
But perhaps last Thursday’s ambiguous results offer Labour a road, albeit a long and winding one, to a national party fit for the 21st century. The best news for Labour was in the cities. Solid results in Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Southampton and Exeter, outstanding ones in London and Bristol. While MPs (like Tristram Hunt in this morning's FT) ponder Labour’s big vision, Sadiq Kahn in London and Marvin Rees in Bristol offer a beguiling combination of personal achievement against the odds, idealism and optimism about the future, and an impressive commitment to political inclusivity. Add in the possibility that Andy Burnham might set a trend for serious Labour figures abandoning unreal Whitehall ambitions in favour of real town hall prospects and a radical realignment is in the offing.
This is, after all, the way the world is shifting. Although Treasury policy often seems to be made up on the hoof, further devolution to city and county regions is backed by all the major UK parties. Government at all levels can be good or bad, but the modern world favours localism. Complexity, the pace of change the demands and expectations of modern citizens all put a premium on decision making closer to the people. Most national policy fails (in evidence, dear jury, I offer decades of welfare reform, health reform, education reform, prison reform…….), but some local policy succeeds. Around the world mayors are more popular and effective than Presidents and Prime Ministers. The most benign scenario for the nation state is as a platform for greater international collaboration and local initiative.
It’s about heart as well as head. While attempts to define Britishness and Englishness have got us nowhere fast, the weekend’s rejoicing of the diverse population of Leicester was infectious; we can all imagine feeling that way about out city or town. Local identities – although often underdeveloped – can be dynamic and inclusive in ways national ones seemingly cannot.
Put it together: the future is in the cities and Labour’s dynamism is in the cities. This makes the structure of the national Party seem all the more outdated. There are six times as many trade union representatives on Labour’s National Executive Committee as local government reps. Ambitious Labour MPs fawn over middle ranking union officers while often treating their local council leader with an odd mixture of envy and disdain.
A hundred years ago the Parliamentary Labour Party was created not as the ruling tier of the labour movement (which is how they have behaved ever since) but to be its representatives in Parliament. Had the cooperative movement been as instrumental in establishing the PLP as the trade unions Labour might subsequently have better balanced its workerism with a commitment to enterprise and consumerism.
Humility may be the path to redemption. The future for the Labour Party in Westminster - and could any future be worse than the present - may be to rediscover its origins as the Parliamentary wing of a broader movement, a movement whose potential future in now manifest in cities and their best leaders.
Labour’s modernisers are clearly failing to answer the question ‘how should we lead’, they should instead ask ‘how can we serve?’