North East MPs at heart of drive to push Labour left

Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson Image copyright AP
Image caption North East MPs including Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson dominated Labour politics in the 1990s

In the 1990s the North East's MPs were at the heart of New Labour.

But recently several of the region's politicians are drawing up a set of alternative policies designed to push the party to the left.

Four of them are writing contributions for The Red Book- a set of essays mapping out a path to take the party away from the New Labour years.

I caught up with one of the MPs at a meeting designed to preview the book at the conference in Liverpool.

Ethical socialism

Easington MP Grahame Morris chairs the new Labour Left group.

He thinks the time is right for the left to flex its muscles and put together proposals Ed Miliband and the party could adopt. He calls it ethical socialism.

The Red Book won't appear until November, but a Labour Left fringe meeting at the conference gave a flavour of what might lie ahead.

Certainly, they want to see an end to private sector involvement in public services.

Grahame Morris said it was time for the party to revisit the debate about privatisation, and end the assumption that it was a good thing.

He is writing the Red Book section on welfare, and I cannot imagine it will envisage any role for private providers.

But at the fringe meeting there was also a sense workers should be given a greater stake in the companies that employ them.

Darlington Labour activist James Doran talked to the meeting about co-operatives and the John Lewis model, where staff own the firm they work for.

Reopening coal mines

Other Labour MPs from the region are also contributing to the Labour Left agenda.

Gateshead MP Ian Mearns will be writing the section on education; Washington and Sunderland West's Sharon Hodgson's contribution will focus on practical solutions for affordable child care, while Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery will write about the case for reopening coal mines in the North East and beyond.

Other contributors will look at tax evasion and strategies to ensure the wealthiest members of society pay more.

It's not the first time Labour MPs from the region have coalesced to try and influence the direction of their party.

The region was at the heart of New Labour, from Blair to Byers, and from Mandelson to Miliband.

But these members of the new generation clearly want to move their party away from what their predecessors created.

'Squeezed middle'

And there is a difference in emphasis compared with Ed Miliband's.

Image caption Easington's Grahame Morris is one of a number of North East MPs drawing up left-leaning policies

While Mr Miliband is keen to talk about the "squeezed middle", Grahame Morris told me the party should focus more on re-engaging with the millions of low-earners who may have deserted Labour in the last two elections.

He said: "What about the millions of people who earn below £26,000 a year?

"I can see the kind of policies and ideas we will come up with appealing to lots of those people not just in the North East, but all around the country, including in the south. It's about reclaiming the centre ground for the left.

"It's time to challenge the neo-liberal Thatcherite consensus that all the main parties have signed up to."

That kind of approach though has already prompted criticism from party members who see the organisation hell-bent on lurching Labour to the left.

New manifesto

Some have raised the spectre of the 1983 Labour manifesto - something Gerald Kaufman memorably dismissed as the longest suicide note in history.

And it does seem unlikely Ed Miliband will be adopting the Red Book wholesale as a 2015 manifesto.

But perhaps there are more opportunities for the left now.

The current economic problems, and the behaviour of the banks, are seen by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls as evidence the reliance on unregulated markets has failed.

Even Conservative commentators such as Margaret Thatcher's biographer Charles Moore are talking about the opportunities offered to the left by that narrative.

Labour Left's coterie of North East MPs have the same sense.