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Trust the grassroots

Peter Hain outlines the key strands to reconnect Labour’s shattered coalition.

We are nearing the 10th anniversary of the longest sustained and most successful period of Labour government in our party’s history under our most successful Labour leader and, in my view, one of our greatest ever prime ministers. Whereas the last century was overwhelmingly a conservative century, Tony Blair has given us the chance to make this century Labour’s century. But we cannot entrench progressive change in a decade, which is why we need a fourth term to cement in the fundamental changes to society we’ve started to make. Only in a sustained period of government can we ensure the Tories never undo what we have achieved.

However, all parties must renew themselves if they are to continue to enjoy the support of the electorate and remain connected to their priorities and aspirations. Renewing in government, however, is much harder. We’ve never succeeded in doing it, and in recent history neither have the Tories. But we can do it, and we now have the opportunity to do so.

We now have the chance for a healthy, and I hope comradely and open debate in the party in the coming months. We do not need a fundamental debate on our aims and values, as I believe we are ideologically united as a movement. Unlike the Tories under Cameron, who have failed to have that tough debate about their ideology – and who continue to rely on gimmicks and progressive posturing– we actually settled our internal debate in the mid-90s. However, we do need to rekindle a sense of unity around our values, putting them at the heart of our public and internal dialogue, remembering that we have far more that joins us than divides us. In this manner we need to debate policy, and how we best achieve the historic goals of our movement.

I welcome the fact that we seem likely to have contests for the leader and deputy leader of the party. Personally I will be voting for Gordon Brown. He, along with Tony Blair, is the other towering figure of our movement, and I believe his record as chancellor and his vision for the future make him the right person to ensure our renewal and our continued period in office. I have said that I will stand to be deputy leader of the Labour party whenever that contest takes place, and I would be proud to be Gordon’s deputy. This is not seeking office for its own sake, but because I believe I can contribute to the process of party reform and renewal, and ultimately our sustained electoral success.

That process I believe needs to be made up of two elements.

First, we need to reconnect the leadership of the party in government with the wider party in the country – with our MPs, with our members, and with the trade unions. The Labour party is at its best when it is a strong, active, united and campaigning party, and we have not been at our best for a while.

I’ve long been concerned – and spoken out – on the disconnect that exists between the government and the party. We’ve often seemed simply to hand down policies from on high, and too often our communication with the party feels like a lecture, rather than a dialogue. Through initiatives such as the Big Conversation, the National Policy Forum and Labour Supporters’ Network we have made real genuine improvements to our policy-making process and exhibited a proper desire to achieve a better way of working – not least to connect the party back into our communities at a local level. Now, however, we need to go further and show a new respect for the different and diverse parts of our party, trusting more the grassroots of the party to be involved and lead on the big decisions that will determine the future of Britain. The replacement of Trident is a good example.

Second, as well as binding the party back together, we need to reconnect the progressive coalition that Tony and Gordon so successfully brought together before 1997. I believe that coalition has been fractured, if not shattered, and I believe that with a positive, exciting and radical programme of progressive policies, we can bring back to Labour those that have splintered off.

There are four key areas where I believe, if we can demonstrate a renewed passion and hunger for delivering real change, we can win back those we have lost – and thereby recreate the coalition that has crumbled.

First, we need a new drive to achieve social justice for all. We’ve done a huge amount to lift up out of poverty those at the very bottom – through the minimum wage, tax credits, child benefit rises, as well as helping people back to work through the New Deal. But now we need to also take steps to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. Equality of opportunity and aspiration should remain goals for the Labour party.

Second, we need to recommit ourselves to dispersing and handing down power, and to personal empowerment and liberty. Devolution has been one of our proudest achievements, but we now need to revitalise local government with greater responsibility and economic freedom. Furthermore, while not in any way becoming soft on security or not appreciating the severity of the new threats we face, we also need to ensure we do not sacrifice hard fought for civil liberties and get the right balance between the power of the state, and the freedoms of the citizen.

Third, we need to complete the process of democratic renewal. Personally I believe this must include electoral reform to introduce fair votes for the Commons, not through Proportional Representation, but the Alternative Vote because I believe in retaining the constituency link with MPs. We must also realise the commitment in our first manifesto to remove the hereditary peers and introduce a fully elected second chamber.

Fourth, and most importantly – because our whole future and our children’s future depends on it – we need to place the green agenda at the very heart of our agenda across all parts of government and all areas of policy. This means a huge push on renewable energy as the real and only solution to tackling climate change, as well as commitments to new technologies that can reduce transport pollution and increase energy efficiency, and new steps to reduce waste.

At the last General Election we lost seats because progressive voters turned to the Liberal Democrats, letting the Tories in the back door. We need to learn this lesson, and if we can commit to great strides forward in these four areas I believe that we can go a long way to recreating the coalition that united progressives behind us in 1997.

If we can achieve these two things - if we can forge a new bond between the leadership of the party and MPs, members and the unions and if we can reach out, with a radical vision for the future, to those people who have become disillusioned with our government - then I believe we can reassemble that progressive coalition and we can achieve that fourth term. And by reforming and renewing the party, we can defeat the Conservatives and earn the chance to make an even greater difference to the lives of those we came into politics to serve.

Peter Hain is MP for Neath and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Wales