The best way for Labour to renew is through a frank and open exchange of ideas

Open Left and Soundings magazine have produced an ebook entitled 'Labour's Future' edited by myself and Jonathan Rutherford; the central message being that we can only engage in the process of renewal pluralistically.

Our guest writer is Alan Lockey, co-editor of Labour’s Future, an ebook produced jointly by Demos’s Open Left project and Soundings magazine

The three mainstream political parties are indisputably broad churches of often differing opinions – witness the weekend papers’ lurid revelations of disaffection on the coalition backbenches. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that we have entered a new, more pluralistic, political epoch. The importance of coalition-building, whether between or within parties, is here to stay.

If historical precedence is an omen of things to come, Labour would appear ill equipped to deal with the challenges this poses. The history of the party is one fraught with long and bitterly destructive periods of introspective internecine warfare. Whether it be Fabian v Hobhouseian Liberal, Militant v Moderniser, Old Labour v New Labour or Blarite v Brownite, the left’s ability to pick a fight with itself has often made it seem like tribalism is its defining characteristic.

Thankfully, this charge cannot be levelled at the 2010 leadership contest. The candidates have been candid about their disagreements, yet the tone has remained impeccably collegial. Perhaps most striking of all though, has been the level of consensus the candidates have espoused policy-wise.

It’s as if, released from the pressure cooker of government, the party has suddenly realised that it actually agrees about quite a lot. The pluralistic exchange is beginning to scope out a common ground from which the party can be relaunched, with a new leader in place.

However, one oft-voiced criticism of the contest does stick: the gruelling schedule of hustings is stifling the candidates’ ability to articulate a deeper analysis of Labour’s future. A new collection of essays produced by the Open Left project at Demos and Soundings magazine aims to plug this gap – at least for the time-being.

It portrays a party fully committed to renewal through a frank and open exchange of ideas. Differences of opinion remain – on the precise role of markets, on welfare reform and (most of all) about how to approach the coalition government’s austerity packages – but it is possible to trace the emerging roots of a shared agenda, one that draws pluralistically from different perspectives within the Labour movement.

In a critique of New Labour’s attitude towards the state Neal Lawson, chair of Compass, writes that even good initiatives such as Sure Start “lost their radical intent of local participation and became tools of a centralised state operating to meet the demands of global competitiveness”.

This link between globalisation and state centralisation is picked up by James Purnell, one of those most associated with New Labour’s public service reforms and defence of globalisation. He argues that “globalisation became the way New Labour told the Labour Party it couldn’t have what it wanted”, though he accepts that “because we were too hands off with the market, we became too hands on with the state”.

The mistake was not to continue the reform of both – some of Labour’s most popular reforms, like the minimum wage, were amongst its most radical reforms of the market. Or as Lawson puts it, Labour must be “opposed to state fundamentalism as well as market fundamentalism”.

Such examples of cross-party consensus abound. Jeremy Gilbert and David Lammy are united in their call for a radically renewed process of democratic engagement. For David Lammy this includes balloting members on policy next time a manifesto is drafted.

Unison’s Heather Wakefield argues that the relationship between Labour and public service workers was severely eroded as “New Labour’s centralised managerialism destroyed any notion of local democratic control of, or engagement with, change”. Her article is framed by the revelation of a statistic that only 29 per cent of local government workers surveyed by Unison in 2008 intended to vote for Labour (in 2010), as opposed to 52 per cent in 2005. Anthony Painter, drawing on a Demos and YouGov poll, reinforces the idea that the electorate is sceptical about Labour’s attitude towards the state.

Policy prescriptions are also offered. Echoing Ed Miliband, Allegra Stratton argues that the part nationalised bank should remain in public hands or be mutualised. A sale of the investment arms of these banks could then be used to create a sovereign wealth fund to finance specific progressive projects like eliminating child poverty.

But perhaps most pervasive of all – and a theme recently discussed by David Miliband – is the repeated call for Labour’s arguments to be grounded in an “ethic of reciprocity”. This ethic of reciprocity can move Labour beyond the ‘rights and responsibilities’ or social contract eras and, in the words of Jonathan Rutherford, establish a deeper ‘covenant’ with people.

So Labour’s public service reform might thus be grounded in the principle of mutualism and increasing the democratic stake of users and workers. Reform of corporate governance could bring firms under greater stakeholder control. And a living wage could be a fair reward for work.

The need to decentralise the party, to redefine the approach to both the state and the market and to develop a new post-crash political economy are emerging as the big tasks Labour must now attend to. But pluralism is non-negotiable; it is the only path to renewal in step with the current political mood. This collection of essays illustrates that Labour is fully equipped with the resources to tackle these challenges head on and in the right manner.

• Download ‘Labour’s Future’:

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