8th June 2016
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I Didn’t Leave Labour; Labour Left Me
I was asked the other day what led me to leave Labour. My response was I didn’t – Labour left me.
I first joined Labour in the mid-90s and, yes, Blair was partially the reason but the policy agenda appeared dynamic, positive and with sufficient air of radicalism to make the proposition compelling. What most impressed me about Blair was his willingness to challenge vested interests such as Trade Unions, and make unpopular decisions. There are too many policy areas to mention that fall into this category but tuition fees would be a prime example.
I admire Blair’s courage over Iraq, albeit there were mistakes, and it is my firmly held belief that his critics use Iraq mainly as a useful conductor for their anger at his domestic policy agenda. Blair also in many ways continued where the Conservatives left off, matching Conservative spending plans for two years, non-repeal of trade union legislation, establishment of academy schools and Private Finance Initiatives put in place to transform the NHS. This dynamism was in stark contrast to the Major years; although in fairness I’ve always felt Major didn’t command the loyalty he deserved from his own backbenchers. Ironically, history – well, recent history – has been kinder to Major than to Blair.
I have written before about how Labour is great at excuses and at finding long-winded answers to the most obvious questions. This has been a weakness of Labour in the post-Blair era. The Conservatives have always managed a quick kill, can re-group and can never be written off as an efficient election winning machine. But what is perhaps most exasperating for Labour supporters is that even taking an eternity to answer the key policy questions rarely yields the right answers. A key criticism of Blair was the close-knit policy team and the discipline imposed, but the failure in subsequent years has demonstrated why that was essential.
There are a range of factors as to why the rot started setting in for Labour, probably since mid-2000s onwards, which have been documented by more skilful commentators than me. However I do believe insufficient account was taken of the disconnect between the natural working class Labour support and the policy agenda, particularly regarding housing, education and the not entirely unrelated topic of immigration. In the boom years you can spend your way out of most problems but when the tough times strike the weaknesses of tax and spend ideology are laid bare.
However, the overriding failure to think and act radically about the key challenges facing the nation is a real problem for Labour. Let’s be clear when I say radical I really mean radical. You can be pretty certain that when a current Labour politician talks about being radical they don’t mean it in the way Blair did. Corbyn voted against Blair 500+ times so forgive me if I don’t associate him with a real commitment to a progressive agenda. Labour now opposes by petition and objection, thinking this will do for a supposed Government in Waiting. It won’t.
Labour’s been moving away from me for some time, with Corbyn’s election merely sealing the deal. I have tried over recent years to retain my enthusiasm but it is now clear to me that Corbyn or no Corbyn, Labour won’t reflect the sort of society I aspire for and neither will his removal be the panacea that some Labour ‘modernisers’ hope for. Corbyn and McDonnell are eminently unsuitable to govern but Labour’s problems are much more deep-rooted. With the odd exception Labour is now anti-business. There is some warm rhetoric but the reality is a Labour Government would be devastating to business.
Labour’s lack of dynamic and relevant policy agenda is evident. I am a passionate believer in high quality public services and having worked in local government previously and subsequently in the private sector in financial services I know how undervalued public sector staff can feel. The key challenge moving forward must be liberating our public services and unleashing an entrepreneurial spirit within. Too often the current public sector model stifles innovation and lacks vision with change too often driven by diktat. There is a lack of personalisation and responsiveness in service delivery. Crucially in too many public services taxpayers are denied choices. Whenever there is a lack of choice mutual disregard from user and service deliverer sets in.
The scope of this article is not such that I can discuss all the areas in detail – however substantial reforms are needed. For instance why can’t a taxpayer be issued with a voucher for the value of a state education or for the cost of an NHS operation to put towards private provision if they so wish? Why is it acceptable that whilst record investment is made in the NHS, GP appointments are so hard to come by? I am a full supporter of the NHS but we are failing this great institution by persisting with the current model of one size fits all. Why isn’t how much you have contributed through your taxes to public service provision recognised? The re-establishment of a greater link between what you put in and get out of the State is essential if we are to address the chronic injustice prevalent within the current system.
Amidst all the talk of Conservative turmoil over the EU a different debate is actually going on within the Party. Refreshingly there are now Conservative MPs such as Heidi Allen willing to speak out on refugee rights. There is also a compelling movement for Trade Unionists of centrist and right of centre inclination – Conservative Trade Unionists. Crucially the policy work is being conducted on the basis that we do not have a bottomless pit of cash to squander and the nation must live within its means. I will freely admit I have in the past opposed Conservative governments, and certainly on occasion the current Conservative leadership, but ironically less vehemently that some current Tory backbenchers. However my objections are more over poor policy implementation than the passage of travel: tax credits and the bedroom tax/spare room subsidy being two examples. As things have turned out Labour probably wouldn’t have spent more than Osborne has and in any case popularity is rarely a sign of an effective government. It is the Conservatives, with a real zeal for change, that have impressed me most, particularly within the social justice arena.
For the Conservatives their major stumbling block in building broader support amongst centrists and progressives has really been the perceived legacy of Thatcher. There will be those, sometimes understandably, that for whatever reason cannot countenance supporting or voting for the party that brought us Mrs Thatcher. To those people I say this: time moves on, with the case in point being Scotland, a nation impacted by Mrs Thatcher’s policies more than most. I cannot think of anyone who predicted the Conservatives being the second largest party overtaking Labour. In 5-10 years I can see the Conservatives being the largest party in Scotland.
On the EU I just don’t buy this argument that the Tories will suffer lasting damage from ‘splits’. By and large the electorate are split themselves and recognise the nuanced pros and cons. Going forward the Conservatives have unwittingly dealt themselves a brilliant hand: they will still have broad appeal and because of their passionate debate not despite it.
In contrast Labour has been devoured by its own self-importance. I conducted a straw poll the other day of some non-political friends. Not one could name a single Labour policy and the one thing that was mentioned, Labour being anti-Trident, isn’t official policy. Labour has taken to only talking to itself, all consumed by internal machinations. An example is the recent Labour ‘state of the economy’ conference. I found out all I needed to know by looking at the audience – I am sure you know what I mean. Labour now appeals to a narrow intellectual clique and suffers from its failure to modernise and recognise the terminal decline of organised labour. Labour now looks at equality only through its own prism. All-women shortlists may have had a role once but in their effort to ‘tick boxes’ Labour ignored the anti-Semitism now rife in the party. The Labour membership electing an all-male leadership team is hardly a fitting tribute to a party promoting equality.
In conclusion Labour may have left me but I do not veer from my quest for a radical centrist agenda to address the challenges we face. It has not been a decision I have taken lightly but in future I intend to pursue my quest enthusiastically, and with like-minded Conservatives.
By Ian Jones