Vision and pragmatism is the way to win – my Tribune column

Tribune’s editorials have been holding our party’s leadership to account since the paper was born in 1937, alongside news pages with stories that would otherwise go unreported by the mainstream press and, of course, a vibrant letters page that gives voice to individual party members and trade unionists.

Many of us feared last month that Tribune would not see out its 75th year of publication. But, like the thousands in our movement who have written for and read Tribune for many years, I sighed with relief when I learned it is to live on as a co-operative.

And as I said in my Nye Bevan Memorial Lecture last week, I am sure Nye – who had been a board member at Tribune’s launch – would also be celebrating the news that the magazine’s future had been secured.

Of course, Nye fell out with Tribune, as he did with many of his supporters, when he argued against unilateralism at the 1957 Labour conference, famously saying it would be like sending the Foreign Secretary “naked into the conference chamber”.

As I argued last week, Bevan knew Labour had to be both radical and credible. He was a visionary pragmatist: a man who always understood that principles and values required political power to make a difference.

Just look at his crowning achievement – the creation of the National Health Service. His vision of healthcare – free at the point of use, based on need and not ability to pay – was born of his experience of hardship in the valleys of south Wales. And it was radical, challenging and difficult to come to terms with – for foes but also for friends too anxious at seeing local municipal hospitals nationalised.

But Bevan the NHS architect was also a self-confessed pragmatist. After a long, complicated process of negotiation with the vested interests of the healthcare system, Bevan put aside purity, giving the BMA important concessions on earnings and pay beds, but without ever compromising the founding principles of the NHS.

That same Bevanite combination of vision and pragmatism is relevant on the economy too. Bevan entered Parliament in 1929, the year of the Wall Street Crash, the second biggest financial crisis of the last hundred years, the trigger for a decade of stagnation and rising unemployment.

His speeches are highly instructive for today’s economic debate. From the outset, Bevan – a fierce opponent of the National Government – argued that, at a time of financial meltdown, to do nothing, to fail to take a lead, to blindly accept the consensus and pile austerity on austerity, was a complete abdication of the responsibility of political leadership.

Over the past year, I have regularly said that we must learn the lessons of the early 1930s – the mistaken austerity, the misplaced policies of the coalition National Government, the failure of international cooperation – if we are not to repeat the mistakes of those years.

We must set out how a steadier, fairer and more balanced deficit reduction plan is more likely to succeed than today’s coalition Government’s attempts to cut spending and raise taxes too far and too fast and have market credibility too.

There is an alternative and, following in the tradition of Bevan and John Maynard Keynes, it is Labour’s responsibility to set it out: a clear five-point plan for growth and jobs, a more sensible timetable for deficit reduction, and a robust explanation of why that will better support our economy and public finances.

We do need to set out distinctive values, ideas and vision for the future. But the risk is that we talk only of our values and visions and fail to focus on the economic realities we face and persuading people. That is why we must set out spending discipline and tough new fiscal rules alongside action now for growth and jobs to get the deficit down.

In the 1990s, the challenge for Labour was to win people’s heads as well as their hearts. After 13 years in power, we lost too many hearts. We have to win them back. But in the process we also have to win their heads with a credible and radical programme for government.

That’s how – drawing upon a Bevanite combination of vision and pragmatism – I believe we combine our values and the pursuit of electoral success so we can put them into practice too. And I am sure Tribune, as it lives on for another generation, will continue to rightly hold us all to account.

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Posted November 11th, 2011 by Ed's team