How could Labour convince that it was moderate again?

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

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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8 thoughts on “How could Labour convince that it was moderate again?

  1. Part of my response to this would be to argue that any new Labour leadership will be in the wrong place if it has to “prove” to the public that it’s moderate. Labour must not re-start from there. A far better strategy (as I argued here recently) would be to ensure it’s obvious well before it took over that the new leadership was a break from the past. That requires the courage to fight a visible internal conflict now, avoiding the obviously fake pretence of unity.

    But if I were advising politicians who want to form a future Labour cabinet (not “the next” Labour cabinet: a key insight is that there may well never be one), I’d suggest the following.

    First, it needs to be obvious that you are serious about public finances. That means a return to old-fashioned Keynesianism in what you say, and the abandonment of “anti-austerity” rhetoric at a time of growth and high employment. Now that there is economic growth and high employment, it’s right to reduce the structural deficit, not to indulge in a pro-cyclical expansion. Your focus should be on attacking the choices government makes on *what* to cut, attacking cuts in a way that is visibly selective, not blanket; and attacking the government’s balance between cuts and unnecessary, unhelpful tax rises. I actually think the government has got away with imprudent, unfair tax cuts partly because Labour seems so focused on opposing all “austerity” spending cuts regardless. This also means accepting (as Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall both did last summer) that Labour was spending too much in its second term. To accept this is not earth-shattering, and is very far from the ludicrous idea that Labour spending “caused the crash”. That silly myth has got about partly because Labour never showed it had learned one of the genuine lessons of its period in government; when, therefore, the Tories said “Labour is in denial about having wrecked everything”, the second part (wrecking everything) rang true because the first part (denial) was true.

    Second, the public needs to feel you are on its side on immigration. This does not mean adopting a sweeping “anti-immigration” policy. Not by a very long chalk. It’s more about stopping giving unhelpful messages. I’d recommend that Labour MPs stop prefacing every comment on immigration by a reminder of its benefits. The public knows immigration has many benefits. Reminding them of this over and over and over and over and over and over (see what I did there?) makes them (1) switch off, and not hear the thing you go on to say and (2) reinforces over and over (etc.) a perception that you only see benefits, are not really open to the idea that there might be any problems, and are unlikely ever to think any limit, control or restriction is necessary. It erodes trust.

    Third, you need to stop being the conservative party of public services. Rather than spend all its time attacking government plans on the NHS and education and promosing to “halt” or “reverse” them, Labour would do better to develop its own egalitarian reform plans to make the NHS and schools better, fairer, more efficient and more affordable. As quickly as possible, you should make public discussion in these areas focus on Labour’s plans, not on what awful Tory things “must be stopped”.

    Fourth, obviously Labour should support renewing Trident. That’s an easy one, and would become a non-issue the moment CND and Stop the War are removed from the top of the Labour party.

    Finally, backing electoral reform would not only be a distraction, it’d be a terrible mistake. None of the errors British governments have made have been caused by the voting system, and banging on about it would make Labour look like a party stuffed full of politics lecturers and wonks, which it may be but ought not to be. PR would not solve political anger, apathy, cynicism etc.: there is no less of any of those things in Germany, Holland, Austria or Ireland. The Labour government that introduced PR would be the last ever Labour government, and PR would not “lock the Tories out”: in 2015 it’d have given us a Tory-UKIP government. Labour thinking about PR is a defeatist displacement activity.

    There must be more, but that’s enough from me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I like a lot of this. As an Ex-Labour member who left in sheer frustration, if much of this had been policy I might not have left. Finally I totally agree about PR. That’s an aspect of LibDem policy I’m still struggling with.

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  2. Hi Carl,

    Thanks for your reply.

    In part, we agree.

    Since it became one of the big two, Labour has only had three leaders who have won General Election majorities. Most of the time, the Tories have run the country. I think the reason for this is the central contradiction in the heart of Labour. A movement that includes socialists who border on communism, and centrists who have few differences from the Tory left.

    Left-wing zealots remained in Labour, even in the Blair years, because they had no viable alternative, and they were working for the chance at taking the party over from within.

    The Tories are also a wide coalition, but they usually keep their right-wing extreme elements away from the public gaze. They are less amenable to a right-wing takeover, partly because they are less democratic, and partly because right-wing politics is more about preserving privilege than following a pure ideological goal. Which makes it easier for the real power-brokers in the Tory party to keep the fringe elements away from too much power.

    If the electorate were confident that Labour would be prudent, as well as compassionate, then I think Labour would have, at least, have been in power for 50% of the time they were one of the big two. The far left element do crazy things like express admiration for Chavez of Venezuela, or lament the collapse of the Soviet Union, or call for the abolishing of capitalism. During the Blair years, the electorate were reassured that the far left had been marginalised. But, unless something dramatic happens, I don’t think this will be possible for the forseeable future. Indeed, it may never again be possible. When New Labour appeared, they could say “we have irreversibly reformed Labour”. You can’t irreversibly reform something twice.

    It’s possible that you’re right. That a bloody civil war, in which the moderates emerged triumphant, would reassure the voters. But that would, in effect, be the realignment that I refer to at the end of my article. After a civil war like that, there would either be a moderate, or a socialist breakaway.

    Without such a civil war, there’ll just be a fudged compromise that would convince no one, which would result in leading moderates tainting their future reputation, by making accommodations with the far left.

    The only other option is a realignment without the civil war. Something that I think is likely to happen after the boundary review in 2018, when there will, in effect, be a mass deselection of moderates.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. (cont)

    I completely agree with you on public finance credibility.

    I could never understand the political position that Ed Balls took. He seemed to be a prisoner of the groupthink of leftwing economists, combined with a personal determination never to admit he personally could have made a mistake in office.

    I’m convinced that, if David Miliband had won the leadership in 2010, he’d have acknowledged that Labour shouldn’t have spent quite so much – while pointing out that the Tories backed their spending plans, so couldn’t make capital out of it. He’d have then focussed totally on attacked anything regressive that the Tories wanted. Which would have been helpful for the Lib Dems when were trying force the Tories into more progressive policies. He could even have played the Lib Dems and the Tories off against each other.

    See http://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-why-we-should-wish-labour-well-20735.html

    Instead, Ed Miliband had his 35% strategy of taking left-leaning votes off the Lib Dems, assuming that UKIP would split the rightwing vote, and putting little effort into responding to attacks on Labour’s reputation from the centre-ground. Madness!

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  4. (cont)

    I also agree with what you say about Labour needing to stop being the conservative party of public services. This is an enormous problem for Labour, with its reliance on trades union funding, and the huge emotional attachment Labour has to its union links (which are now, primarily, public service unions).

    I think where the centre-left has most failed is in making the moral case for public service reform.

    Socialists are allowed to resist attempts to make public services more efficient, by the lazy labeling of reform as neo-liberalism. It seems to me that it is indisputably morally superior to spend public funds efficiently, rather than to resist reform. The more efficient the public services, the easier it will be to defend the public sector from right-wing attack, and the more the government will be able to do to provide support for people.

    Somehow, among political activists, the idea of public service reform has become equated with tax cuts and extra profits for the rich, and inferior services for everyone else.

    Of course, some reforms will be counterproductive, and should be opposed. But if the gut instinct of everyone on the centre-left is not to propose any reforms, for fear of being labelled a red Tory, that’s just discredits the centre-left.

    In saying this, I am aware that the Lib Dems sometimes have a similar problem. It’s less acute than in Labour, but we too need to put effort into a dialogue within the party where we honestly address it.

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  5. Carl,

    In my opinion, the lack of a reformed electoral system is the cause of many of our problems.

    Of course there would still be political anger, apathy and cynicism after electoral reform. But an electoral system that allowed new parties to emerge would help.

    It would mean that the far left and the far right would have their own parliamentary representation, which would mean they’d stop trying to get power via one of the big two. That means the Corbyn takeoever disaster would never happened.

    If Corbyn-mania swept the country, and they ended up the largest party, then they’d have substantial influence. At least in the UK, I don’t think that’ll ever happen. But, if it did, then so-be-it. That’s democracy.

    At present we have a system that prevents new parties emerging, which means that in much of the country, the key election for an MP is not the vote of the general public, but the selection by their local party. The Corbyn disaster may seem like a bolt from the blue, but it was completely predictable, and, indeed, had been predicted.

    Our electoral system also means that, if one party gets totally out of step with the public, the other can become more extreme. I remember, during 18 years of Tory government, the poll tax and other horrors. It never would have happened without first-past-the-post.

    I also think it’s no coincidence that PR systems tend to produce higher election turnouts. Indeed, I’m surprised so many people bother voting under FPTP, when the only votes that really matter are in the key marginals.

    It may be that, in 2015, we’d have had a Tory-UKIP majority under PR. Counter-factuals are impossible to prove or disprove, but I’m doubtful. I think PR would have resulted in an unambiguously moderate centre-left party, which would not have made the awful mistakes that Ed Miliband made. But, even if I’m wrong, PR would have prevented 18 years of Tory rule in the past, and the forthcoming 19+ years of Tory rule yet to come.

    Some argue that, under PR, we’d have backroom deals. That’s true. But we have back-room deals now. The difference is that, if parties don’t deliver on their promises, voters still have a realistic alternative, rather than what is little better than a Hobson’s choice.

    For the time being, I’m not optimistic about Labour MPs adopting PR, because, for individual MPs, their career is dependent on the current system. That’s understandable from a human point of view, but it’s deeply regretable from a national point of view. My hope is that, if there’s a realignment, the new situation will get moderate politicians to take electoral reform more seriously.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a really good article George, and that graph from The Economist is superb and really shows clearly the size of the problem progressives face across the western world. The future right now doesn’t look great: despite Cameron having a torrid month, if he can win the IN referendum and hand over to a sane Tory in 3 years time the Conservatives will be exceptionally difficult to beat. Again.

    I’ve been saying something similar to this since the utterly devastating result last May. I wrote an article very critical of the general state of the left just after the election (here: http://tinyurl.com/zacqldp ) that I submitted to Lib Dem Voice for publication, but it was rejected because it wasn’t something that the site wanted to hear… IMO it’s not just the Labour Party that has its head in the sand right now – it’s a wider problem of the entire progressive left. And this was before even Corbyn was chosen as leader!

    Arguably the moderate left is in retreat in America as well right now (if you look at Congress Senate/House and state elections) – it’s only the fact that the Republicans are flirting with utter lunatics in the presidential candidate campaigns that is likely to hand the Presidency to Hillary Clinton by default.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. “What symbolic action will Labour be able to take this time that will demonstrate that the change is real?” asks George. Fresh faces, straight ties, basic professionalism. All these may have a surprisingly large impact. Especially next to the succession of unforced errors that seems to have become the default setting of the Conservative government.

    Labour won’t recover through a single, big, dramatic action. But through many, many small steps. So small as to be in the grasp of ordinary party members. The ward meetings. The GCs. The Labour Local Authorities. The long march through the institutions.

    If this takes us to a more pluralist Labour party, more at ease with local variation and mature enough to acknowledge points of agreement with those in other parties, then the future may not be so grim.

    Liked by 1 person

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