27th January, 2016
Labour, idealism and the real world
One of the phrases we often hear in Labour is “in an ideal world I would agree with you, but…”
But of course there’s no such thing as an ideal world. There’s just this world, and how we all choose to live within it. Some on the Left dedicate themselves to pursuing the ideal world, and in the process achieve very little. Others on the Left dedicate themselves to improving the world that exists and in doing so make the lives of real people better. Yet in the back and forth of Labour and leftist discourse it’s the latter group who apologises to the former for their moral failures, for ‘selling-out’, for their lack of vision. In reality, this makes no sense at all.
On any area of international or domestic politics this applies. On Trident, left wing realists apologise for wanting a defence policy that acknowledges that we live in a world where violent dictatorships exist and threats to our country and our people are real. We apologise for wanting to do what’s necessary to give us the best chance of deterring nuclear war. We apologise for not basing our defence policy on a perpetually peaceful world that transparently does not exist. In education, left wing realists apologise for wanting an education policy that acknowledges that when children leave school employers don’t ask about their challenging upbringing, but ask whether they can read and write, whether they have decent qualifications, whether they have the confidence to do a good job. In local government we apologise for innovating instead of demonstrating when faced with budget constraints. In health we apologise for caring more about people being able to access NHS services than whether some elements of them are delivered by markets. In regeneration we apologise for not pretending that you can improve a deprived area without making any actual changes. We apologise for living in the real world and we apologise for doing what we can to make it better.
And why does the moderate Left feel the need to genuflect to some superior morality of those whose politics is based on a world that has never, and will never, exist? I suppose it’s because it can be hard to feel moral arguing for military intervention against ISIS while standing next to someone who says “I just want a world of peace”. If you don’t allow reality to set your political parameters you can offer us everything, and you can sound like a hero. But in reality you just get in the way of genuine efforts to make situations better. You can’t face Assad with a request that we all just give peace a chance, and you can’t find diplomatic back channels to those whose philosophy of immortality is based on your violent death.
Working for ten years as a welfare rights advisor one of the most enduring lessons I learnt was the importance of telling people the truth about their options. Don’t give false hope, don’t exacerbate grievances, help find solutions. This honesty lies at the heart of moderate Labour politics. If you are honest about what can be achieved, you have a chance of actually making a difference.
As we watch the Labour Party disappear into the political twilight zone, we can see perhaps clearer than ever the importance of rooting Labour in the honesty of the real world. I hope one day moderate Labour people will stop apologising for doing this. You’re the ones who get things done, who make choices, make compromises, face the consequences, seize the opportunities, and change people’s lives for the better. If we ever want Labour to make a difference again moderate Labour people should not be ashamed of their politics, but extremely proud of them.
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