So, Labour’s predicted summer of confronting hard truths in dark places is well underway. Things are a bit rough. Indeed, there is nothing to possibly be positive about in the Labour Party, right?
Wrong. Here are a few reasons to be cheerful.
1. A state of mind
Governor Martin O’Malley is the Democratic presidential hopeful you probably won’t have heard of. He has an innovative record of delivery based on harnessing data as Mayor of Baltimore and Governor of Maryland. Initiatives like CitiStat have broken down rigid decision-making hierarchies and facilitated faster action. Discussions about big data can sound wonkish and remote, but alleviating child hunger is not. If it can work in Maryland, it could work in the West of Scotland.
This is just one small example of the type of innovative governance that new technology can allow for, but there are two lessons I take from it.
There is more to governing than being in government at Westminster or Holyrood. There is an emerging momentum to support the idea that power should be decentralised, and examples like this show what can be done with it. Secondly, when Labour is able to get back into power, technological innovation is opening up new avenues for policy to be developed and implemented.
By the next general election, the state is going to be fundamentally smaller. We can bemoan this or, if we try and break away from traditional Fabian thinking about top down Government, we can become enthused about a smarter state pursuing progressive aims in new ways. (A hat tip to this excellent Prospect long read from Anthony Painter on this theme.)
2. Get organised
We should also remember that the Labour Movement has always been about more than seeking elected office.
George Osborne currently surveys the centre ground of British politics from his fortress at HM Treasury. It is important to remember that he didn’t simply move the centre ground, he uprooted and planted himself there as well. As frustrating as it is to see a Conservative Chancellor appropriating and abusing the term ‘living wage’, this angst can disguise the victory it represents. It is an acknowledgement of the deserving claims of the working poor, and recognition, albeit tacit, of the limitations of the free market. He might be the master of the centre ground, but he has ceded ideological territory to get there.
So, why did this happen? The Labour Party played its part but it is primarily due to the type of campaigning organisations that Stella Creasy writes about brilliantly here. These movements can come in many different forms.
In his hugely encouraging speech yesterday, the Shadow Scottish Secretary, Ian Murray MP, talked about his involvement in the Foundation of Hearts initiative. This saw ordinary supporters come together to raise funds, negotiate with administrators and save their club. This was about more than just one football team. This was an example of the Labour values of co-operation and solidarity in action.
This is not to pretend that being in Government isn’t important; of course it is. But we need to remember that we can do more than pass laws and distribute resources from centralised bureaucracies. Remember Scottish Labour is and always has been part of a movement. So don’t mourn. Organise.
3. Things can only get better
I doubt that that many of the people involved in saving Heart of Midlothian thought they were doing something avowedly Labour, and to some extent that is the point. There are lots of ways to make a difference. Some of these will be done as card carrying party members, some not so much.
People active in political parties can become blinkered and think that the wellbeing of the nation is reflected by the political health of their party. One of the frustrating things about engaged individuals who call themselves ‘progressives’ is that we can wilfully blind ourselves to the progress all around us. Even when the Conservatives are in power there are scientific, technological and social advancements that make huge improvements on the quality of life for people.
One of the failings of the left can be a myopic focus on the injustices of the world. It divorces us from the mind-set of ordinary voters, who most of the time are trying to see the light alongside the dark. We look angry and detached. We should remember that the world gets better.
Still, we should heed the reminder of Martin Luther King that progress is neither “automatic nor inevitable” and of course it doesn’t get better for everyone. Progress is never enjoyed equally by all, that is why electoral politics and the Labour Party still matters. But it is not all that matters. Moral arcs can be bent from playgrounds as well as parliaments.
Successful Labour politics needs to burn brightly with an optimist and forward looking vision. The fuel is there, we just need to remember to look for it. There really are reasons to be cheerful.