Leigh Wilson: We may not like it, but we could learn from New Labour after #GE17

Leigh Wilson argues that progressive forces from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour to the independence movement need an economic strategy

IN THE MIDST of the nascent populist rise immersing much of the western world, it seems somewhat outdated that I am revisiting a couple of documentaries charting the rise of New Labour in the mid 90s.

Being too young to experience first-hand the phenomenon of a moderately centre-left government gaining control of the UK for the first time in decades, it takes a collection of retrospective accounts for me to envisage the social movement which accompanied New Labour on their way to power. 

The symbolism of 'Cool Britannia', however idiosyncratic and vacuous that now seems, truly encompassed the optimism of that time while crystallising how a social movement can successfully merge with a credible vision to win elections. The success of demagogic politicians from Presidents Trump in the USA to Erdogan in Turkey, in contrast to the recent failures of the first Scottish independence vote and of Corbynism, is not specifically a rejection of progressive values - Corbyn's individual policies enjoy wide public support, for example. Instead, it is a failure of those on my side to successfully harmonise social movements with successful victories. If there is to be a renaissance of social democracy, and indeed in Scotland a Yes vote in the next independence referendum, there has to be an understanding that these two components are not just compatible but in fact interdependent; we should not think of one as simply detracting from the other.

I did not become involved in politics to fly banners and protest, important though that is, I became involved in politics to win elections and enact change.

With regards to Scottish independence therefore, how do we strategise and organise the forthcoming campaign to ensure that we convert some of those who voted No last time to Yes next time? Well, the strategy is in articulating a coherent vision and competent plan for the future. I am a great believer in winning arguments not through bombastic rhetoric and symbolic gestures but intelligent minds and grand ideas. I did not become involved in politics to fly banners and protest, important though that is, I became involved in politics to win elections and enact the change I know the agenda I embrace can bring.

We overwhelmingly succeeded in the last referendum in juxtaposing our vision of an inclusive, collective and progressive Scotland with that of a UK increasingly driven by narrow, insular and regressive forces. This contrast has been exemplified in the months following last year's Brexit vote and will undoubtedly become even more acute following the General Election in June. The Yes campaign were able to mobilise significant support for creating a society based on dignity, respect and an aspiration to elevate the needs of the most vulnerable to those of the most powerful. This was the movement. Where we still have work to do is in elucidating a competent winning platform by which this can be achieved. 

Too often the social case provided by the left has been concise, clear and compelling while the economic case has been convoluted and arcane.

Too often the social case provided by the left has been concise, clear and compelling while the economic case has been convoluted and arcane. While social cohesion and economic prosperity are often closely correlated, as the Nordic nations have demonstrated so adeptly, it is the economic case for change that progressives need to harness if we are to win elections in many of the locations we have lost over the past decade. It is when we take ownership of the economics as much as the social narrative that we collectively become a formidable force. 

Of course it is without full endorsement that I allude to the New Labour project but it would be counter-productive to not study how they came to power and remained there for thirteen years. Although there are valid criticisms of New Labour, many in fact, what they succeeded in doing was - through a process of modernisation and renewal - communicating their message in a way that was relevant to the time they inhabited. Through that relevancy, New Labour gained credibility on economics and in turn the ascension to power which enabled them to implement a broad spectrum of reforms.

As for Scotland's next referendum, maybe a serving of 'Cool Caledonia' could simultaneously mobilise our movement and promote our case to our European friends.

Therefore if progressives are to start winning again, much like the SNP have in Scotland, there must be a contemporary message that chimes with the times we live in - encompassing both globalisation and the rise of the digital economy - and an economic competency which demonstrates an ability to govern successfully. At the time of writing, France is a day away from the first round of voting in the Presidential elections and Emmanuel Macron, an independent progressive candidate, has ignited a crucial debate over the kind of country France wants to be. Successfully twinning the arguments of renewing the French economy while maintaining an open economy, Macron may just shine a light on the way for our side to win. We should all heed it.

The lessons from history are telling. Of course movements are important, in fact essential, but it is only when coupled with a relentless focus on competency and winning can progressives achieve considerable success. As for Scotland's next referendum, maybe a serving of 'Cool Caledonia' could simultaneously mobilise our movement and promote our case to our European friends.

Picture cortesy of Nicki Dugan Pogue

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