Open Labour: Up for the challenge

23.09.17 / In: General

By Alex Sobel MP/@alexsobel The coming year presents a great and complex political challenge that would be hugely difficult under the best of circumstances. Instead, we have instability and uncertainty. With Trump in the White House and May in number 10, we face the worst political leadership we have seen in two generations.

The coming year presents a great and complex political challenge that would be hugely difficult under the best of circumstances. Instead, we have instability and uncertainty. With Trump in the White House and May in number 10, we face the worst political leadership we have seen in two generations.

We have to negotiate the most important part of the Brexit process, work through our commitments to the Paris Climate Change accord while the US withdraws from it, deal with stagnating pay and a higher education funding system on the brink of collapse. All of this whilst in the grip of our eighth year of austerity, where the neo-liberal structures look shakier than ever but remain firmly backed by the Tory establishment. Technological advances mean that our economy is transforming at a rate that easily eclipses the industrial revolution.

How can we in the Labour Party influence these issues and what should be the approach of the ‘Open Left’ – the part of the political spectrum we in Open Labour inhabit?

It is essential that we take on these issues through the prism of adopting a left-wing approach which looks outwards to engage the voting public, is honest about the political challenges we face, and encourages an inclusive and pluralist attitude to how the left does business. We need a debate in the party about this approach and what both the means and the outcomes of the ‘Open Left’ can and will be.

The politics of the ‘Open Left’ are anti-neoliberal, radical on constitutional questions and democracy, pro-trade union, and internationalist. We understand that this set of values does not reflect the present state of media and public opinion and that it is challenging for the organised left to win without more allies. Being realistic and practical about achieving these values is fundamental. We are ‘radical but realistic’ so need to look at what battles can be won in opposition and what we must achieve from day one of a Labour government. We need to stand firm on our values while accepting that any path to government involves assembling a broad coalition both within the Labour Party and among the wider public.

On Brexit, the UK Government have triggered Article 50 and any instinct to look at a simple solution of staying in the EU ‘on the same terms’ as put forward by the Lib Dems (and a few from our party) bring with it serious complexities. Alongside democratic concerns, it overlooks the legal challenges this could throw up not just by those who support Brexit but by the EU 27 who would seemingly have to make treaty changes to avoid the UK having to go through the Article 49 process to re-join.

Lexiters throw up the argument that the EU is a neo-liberal trading block. This can be countered with the simple observation that other member states still have their infrastructure in state hands (many of which are doing very well in our privatised market). On the Open Left, we have to be pragmatic, ensuring that we guarantee any workers’, equality, environmental or similar rights which were not in UK law prior to our adoption of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights – a document that in many ways reflects the values and politics of the Open Left. In its preamble, it states:

‘the Union is founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity; it is based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law. It places the individual at the heart of its activities, by establishing the citizenship of the Union and by creating an area of freedom, security and justice.’

No wonder the Conservative Government want the Charter written out of British law.

As well as defending our hard-won rights I believe we must fight on three key points:

  1. Allowing EU Citizens already here to stay in the UK
  2. Membership of the (or a) Customs Union
  3. Securing Full Access to the Single Market

This is the minimum we can do to ensure that we are treating people justly and that we don’t go over an economic cliff edge.

The UK must do its part in reducing our carbon emissions while delivering world-class infrastructure that sets us up for the 21st Century. We must also find innovative ways to ensure social justice by lowering fuel and transport costs, while at the same time reducing pollution and improving air quality. Working on developing electric vehicle infrastructure, low carbon modular housing and revitalising the solar industry after the devastation caused by Tory cuts to the Feed in Tariffs would meet all these ambitions and should be at the centre of our strategy. This should sit alongside a transformation of Green Infrastructure with an Industrial Strategy that puts the UK at the heart of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This will need a forward thinking not backward-looking left. If we could transform ownership structures through, for example, mutual models or industrial democracy we can couple industrial transformation with an inclusive socialism.

The battle for fairness in our wage structures is a priority for the ‘Open Left’. We must make sure wages are at least in line with the cost of living not just for workers whose wages are controlled by the state but those in private industry too. This is why our £10 minimum wage proposal is so important.

Higher education has never been more important. The 20th Century promise of a fixed career in one industry for the entirety of a working life is gone. The nature of the changing economy means that more and more people are going to have to retrain and learn new skills. However, instead of further and higher education receiving the resources it so desperately needs funding has been decimated. Those entering higher education are facing ever higher fees and living costs. Our manifesto commitment in June to abolish fees is hugely ambitious, but, by looking at Germany, we know that it is achievable.

This must be coupled with tackling the triple whammy for those who have already graduated. Real-terms cuts in the threshold for graduate debt repayment, rising interest rates and larger debt for lower-earning graduates. We can start by pinning the student loan interest to CPI. Alongside my fellow MPs with Angela Rayner’s exemplary leadership on this issue, we will be holding the government’s feet to the fire on this issue.

We are a country facing a series of immediate and very real challenges. It will be through the politics of Open Labour that we can start to pick these issues apart pragmatically and bring to the table modern socialist solutions that we will be able to implement in government in the not too distant future.

Alex Sobel is the newly elected MP for Leeds North West. He is also the Treasurer of Open Labour.

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