In my previous two articles, I have highlighted the need for a shift in Labour’s strategy for electoral victory, lightening the load on Mr-substance-not-style-Miliband, and elevating the roles of Shadow Health and Home Secretaries Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper to appeal more to voters and gain wider support for a Labour government in May next year. These are of course the tried and tested, experienced politicians at Labour’s disposal, but the 2010 intake has offered up at least two individuals who have a greater role to play in the run-up to the election. Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt (along with Douglas Alexander), gave the shortest speeches at the latest Labour Party Conference, a paradox in my eyes as they have some of the biggest roles to play in Labour’s bid to win favour with the public and return to office. Both are young, exuberant and their potential is being squandered. Umunna is the man to get businesses on Labour’s side (being the Shadow Minister for Business, Skills and Innovation), while Hunt has the opportunity to take aim at the reforms of the ever-controversial former Education Secretary Michael Gove, being the shadow to his contemporary Nicky Morgan. If Hunt and Umunna are given greater roles in this campaign, Labour can pull away from the Tories in the polls, and build the momentum required for a majority, rather than merely preparing for another coalition.
First of all there is a clear distinction between Umunna and Hunt; Umunna has shown he has the potential to gain favour with voters, to defend Labour’s record, and to portray a positive vision of a future Labour Britain. His appearances on Question Time have done him many favours as he’s proven eloquent, empathetic and mature in his handling of various controversial issues. Most importantly, he has many bright ideas for the future. This is an area where Tristram Hunt appears to be lacking. Take Hunt’s conference speech for example; besides his impressive criticisms of his counterpart Nicky Morgan, it was largely unremarkable. It contained no new policies, and the previously announced policies he did mention are unlikely to have been developed by him. The indication is that the extension of childcare support, an improvement to vocational education and apprenticeships, and a ruling out of privatised for-profit schools, came from the top of the party as opposed to being Hunt’s own initiatives. What Hunt clearly does believe in is the removal of unqualified teachers from the classroom, and collaboration over competition, but beyond an overall approach to state education improvement, in terms of collaboration and cooperative engagement with teachers and teachers’ unions, Hunt fails to offer an alternative to the Tory model. He offers no alternative to free schools, merely claiming they’re an extension of Labour policy, he offers no radical reforms to close the attainment or opportunity gap between state and private schools, and this is highly disturbing for a potential Labour Education Secretary.
Mr Hunt needs to visit state school after state school in my eyes, not with a media entourage for photo-ops, but rather alone in order to observe lessons first-hand. If he does this, I think he will be astounded, by the constant classroom interruptions, by the dismay of students who want to knuckle down and work hard but are restricted by the loud and obstructive classroom environment, by the lack of discipline, by the failure of schools to handle aggressive youths from difficult backgrounds, by the alienation of those with special needs, by the lack of proper equipment, and by the disenchantment with the profession of so many teachers. I of course paint a bleak picture of an extreme example, but from experience, I can tell you that this nightmarish scenario can occur in the state sector of schooling, and is far more common than in the private sector. Is it any wonder that Alan Milburn keeps telling us that social mobility is fading, and that new reports come out regularly telling us that the most successful and powerful people in our country are privately educated? Of course there are those that rise to the top from state school backgrounds, but the playing field is far from level.
The Labour Party is supposed to be committed to equality of opportunity, so why is it that Tristram Hunt has no radical plans to improve our state schools? He must step up, and fast, if Labour expects to win more votes from the youth. In Chuka Umunna’s conference speech he claimed that the policy proposals Labour was offering showed that they were different to the Conservative Party, and that our votes will make a difference. What is Hunt offering that is so different? If he doesn’t come up with a radical agenda to improve our schooling system fast, and capitalise more on the unpopularity of Gove’s reforms, he might as well keep quiet in this campaign. Hunt must step up to support Miliband and the party in order to remind the public that Labour is the party to be trusted with the education system.
Where Hunt lacks – policy proposals and a different vision of the future of Britain – is where Umunna excels. In an interview with The Independent recently he showed his zeal for much-needed radical constitutional reform by calling for the undemocratic House of Lords to be replaced with an elected representative Senate based on the Spanish system, a proposal then echoed by Miliband in his conference speech. It would contain directly elected local representatives, with the removal of all hereditaries and bishops; in a reform he brands ‘big bang’. He also conveyed his enthusiasm for more decentralisation in light of the Scottish referendum; dubbed ‘devo default’ his plan involves government requiring special circumstances to not devolve power on any issue facing the country. Both of these reforms would mean not only would regions outside of London be better represented, but our democracy would be dramatically improved. An archaic and elitist institution would be replaced by one that was accountable to the people, and strengthened by its democratic legitimacy, and the regions outside of London would be able to develop further economically by holding the keys to their own destiny.
The Shadow Business Secretary’s commitment to constitutional reform is a vote winner, particularly amongst 2010 Lib Dem voters who warmed to Clegg’s broken promises of Lords’ reform, who may see Labour as the party more likely to deliver. A campaign rooted in constitutional reform would also echo the 1997 Labour bid for power which saw them record a landslide victory. Umunna’s passion to change the way we do politics in this country is encouraging too, as it is that sort of attitude that wins over first-time voters, or even disaffected citizens who stopped voting long ago, frustrated with the same-old backwards way our country is run. Chuka Umunna is also notably moderate in his economic stance, to the point of being labelled a Blairite by some, despite his fierce loyalty to Miliband, and thus Labour can use the views of Umunna coupled with its EU policy to gain favour with businesses, a demographic it has struggled with as of late.
What remains clear is that despite Umunna’s loyal rejection of Miliband having an ‘image problem’, he does. That doesn’t mean voters will necessarily be put off. At the end of the day, if they believe that his policies will improve the lives of their families, their children, their communities, most sensible voters will back him regardless. However, Labour’s weak lead in the polls may well be linked to Miliband’s disappointing personal approval ratings, and so for this reason, a strategic shift away from the one-man-band tactic, and towards a team of Labour leaders working together to convince the country of their ability to fix Britain, is worth trying. Umunna is a natural fit into this team, bursting with fresh ideas, and a guaranteed vote winner. Hunt could be, but he lacks policies, he lacks the desire for change and improvement. But, both have the potential to make a real impact on this election campaign. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt, it is time you step up, and Douglas Alexander and co. it’s time you let them. Use the talents at your disposal. Let this be Labour’s campaign, not Ed Miliband’s alone. If Labour are serious about aiming for a majority in 2015 and not just coalition, then Team Ed must truly become Team Labour.