13th April 2016
How could Labour convince that it was moderate again?
The centre-left is in retreat, across Europe and in the UK. This is true not just of Labour but of the Lib Dems too.
Left Behind, graph, 1957 – 2015 (See link at foot of post)
In the past progressive politicians could say to the electorate – we want to raise taxes, but, trust us, it’ll be worth it in improved public services. If they say the same now they are met with deep suspicion.
The Tories aren’t trusted either but last year when they claimed they would cautiously reduce spending to match tax revenue that sounded more credible than the alternative. That is why we now have a Conservative government.
Progressives could just assume the Tories will self-destruct over Europe, but what if they don’t? As the opposition in Japan from 1955 found, waiting for the governing party to self-destruct could take decades.
In order to replace the Tories as the party of government the centre-left needs to rebuild its credibility on the economy and on taxation and spending. While out of government this will not be easy. Words will not be enough. Somehow, they need to show, rather than just tell.
This will be impossible with the present leadership and culture of the Labour party. The leadership is self-described as Marxist-influenced, and once said it wanted to abolish capitalism. There is no way they will convince enough of the electorate that they could be credible stewards of the economy, and every month they are leading they will further taint the brand of their party and make it harder for their successors.
I am not a member so I don’t have personal experience of the present culture in Labour. However, I have spoken to those who are and I know that these are difficult times to openly grapple with difficult questions. Anyone who openly worries about the sustainability of the welfare budget risks being castigated as a Red Tory. Those who question whether raising taxes is a realistic option are often told, “why don’t you go join the Tories?” I doubt those who raise the challenges of an ageing population get a good response either.
While that culture persists many who want to stand for the council, stand for a party committee, or be able to fight a winnable seat in 2020 will keep silent about these issues.
Asking these hard questions would only be the first step.
The answers won’t be easy. If they are honest answers they will involve moving funding from good projects in order to fund more important work. Once a viable programme of government is produced it will need to be successfully sold to the party membership and then to the electorate.
The last time Labour faced this problem the culture was changed very gradually over a long period. During that time Labour lost in 1983, 1987 and 1992. At each defeat the culture shifted again, until it reached a point where it could engage with the centre ground of British politics.
Even then a painful and dramatic symbolic action was needed to convince the electorate that Labour was serious about change.
Next time will be harder. Changing Clause IV a second time won’t work. What symbolic action will Labour be able to take this time that will demonstrate that the change is real?
A commitment to electoral reform might reassure a few in that it would symbolically show that the party was pluralist and was willing to accept it did not have the entire truth. However, I don’t think it would be enough alone. I suspect the only convincing statement of intent would be a realignment of the centre-left. It would be a path fraught with trauma and difficulties, but is there a realistic alternative?
Source of graph and associated article – The Economist
By George Kendall
Chair of the Social Democrat Group – a Liberal Democrat organisation to build links with social democrats outside the party. He writes in a personal capacity.
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