Sunday, May 11, 2008

Labour pains

The fallout from the local elections continues with the sense that something significant has happened. Two of the better mainstream contributions are in Saturday’s Guardian. Martin Kettle indulges in some wild hyperbole about Labour being shut out of power for a century, but when he comes down from the ceiling has some sensible things to say, notably that Labour have to appeal to both the core vote and the middle ground. John Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford are more pertinent on both the nature of the Tory revival and Labour’s failures.

This government has lost the language of ethical politics - relationships, values, even social justice. It does not discuss fraternity or a culture of care and empathy. It doesn't know how to speak to people's insecurities. Its silence over the super-rich is matched by the harsh language deployed against migrants or welfare recipients. It has no vision of a more democratic way of governing. The joys, pleasures and frustrations of everyday life pass it by. Faced with a crisis it triangulates rightward. Initiative after initiative blurs into a white noise. It offers to listen. The danger is it hears only the echo of its own jargon.

They argue that if the Labour Party is to counter the accusation that it has abandoned “the fraternity of ethical socialism in favour of state management”, it needs to “re-establish its belief in equality”.

In the blogosphere, Both Paulie and Shuggy continue to shame much of the mainstream media with perceptive posts. And it was this comment from Paulie that got me thinking about my own disagreements with the New Labour Project.

... 'no compromise with the electorate' had to be replaced with a recognition that the Tories and their allies in the media were running a narrative that we couldn't ignore.

I absolutely agree. However, engaging with this narrative does not mean doing so uncritically. And this has always been the problem. I certainly don’t take the Bennite line of the early 80’s that saw an ideologically pure defeat as better than a victory. 1983 was a genuine disaster. However, slavishly following the media line makes a key mistake. It confuses the views of those who write for the Daily Mail with those of its readers. And, far more importantly, it allows the opinions of journalists and their employers to take precedence over the real interests of ordinary people.

This is the crucial point. Labour needs to identify people’s immediate and everyday interests rather than react to opinions as portrayed in the media. It is those needs and concerns, the objective reality of people's lives, that affect their vote. 'Getting our message across better' has no effect on people worried about their jobs, concerned about their children's future, losing their adult education courses and working long hours on low pay. If Labour strategists had moved beyond their focus groups and had done proper social research they would not have got tied up in fashionable nonsense and the hideous intellectual tangle of the ‘Third Way’. They would have been led straight into social democratic territory – health, welfare, housing and education certainly, but also economic security, better quality of life, safety at work, lower working hours, employment protection and social equality, rather than the ideological fancies of choice, ‘faith schools’, privatisation, and an under-protected ‘flexible’ workforce. I think that such a position would have considerable electoral appeal and it is arguable that it is what people thought they were voting for in 1997.

If you look at the platform Labour stood on for the landslide victory of 1997 you would be hard put to find what became the key elements of New Labour in power. Two late commitments had been made not to raise income tax and, even more unnecessary and idiotic, to stick within the Tory spending limits for the first two years. Neither made any difference to the election result though both severely constrained Labour in power.

Then, strangely, after power was gained, Labour started implementing the very policies to which they had been vehemently opposed when winning the election. The classic was the cut in single parent benefit, with squirming ministers defending the indefensible that they had indignantly denounced only weeks earlier, ditching their credibility in an instant. However, my immediate interest lies in the damage being done to adult education and the first sense that something was wrong came very early.

Some months before the 1997 election I was at a conference on post-16 education where one of the speakers was a Labour spokesperson. Knowing that Labour was about to win, I listened intently and was thrilled as she outlined their eminently practical proposals. I sat next to her at lunch too and we had a really good discussion. Liberation was at hand. One of the issues she raised was the 21-hour rule. This had been the bane of my existence when I was an Access tutor. Unemployed students could not study more than 21 hours without losing benefit. I was often having to juggle hours and deal with local benefits offices, who all interpreted the rule differently and were hell-bent on ending students’ chance of a university education so that they could take a menial, low paid job. She declared forcefully that the rule was ‘ridiculous’ and that Labour would scrap it, ending all restrictions. After the election I waited for the announcement. It took some time to come but when it did, instead of scrapping the rule, they tightened it. I can understand if a pledge gets forgotten under the pressure of business, but to take the time and effort to reverse it is astonishing. I was angry and bewildered.

There is a thesis to be written on the reversals of policy by anyone patient enough to do the research, but they were plentiful. Whenever I raised them with New Labour types I always met with three clichés; government is about ‘tough choices’, ‘we have to do things that are unpopular’, and, most frequently, that ‘we can do nothing without power’. When I pointed out that, firstly, they actually had power and had won it by opposing what they were now implementing and that, secondly, if they hadn’t, doing unpopular things was hardly the best way of getting it, the only response I got was a repetition of the mantras.

I can't help seeing the years after 1997 as a huge missed opportunity to recast social democratic politics. Labour drew the wrong lessons from their victory. Rather like the Provisional Government following the first Russian Revolution of 1917, who thought the revolution had happened because the war had been fought badly rather than because of the war itself and thus continued to fight with increasingly disastrous results, New Labour saw their victory as an expression of a desire to see a better management of Thatcherism rather than its replacement with a different model of political economy. If they had a clearer view of the interests of the electorate they might have thought differently - and we know what happened next in Russia.


Shuggy said...

If you look at the platform Labour stood on for the landslide victory of 1997 you would be hard put to find what became the key elements of New Labour in power. Two late commitments had been made not to raise income tax and, even more unnecessary and idiotic, to stick within the Tory spending limits for the first two years. Neither made any difference to the election result though both severely constrained Labour in power.

I disagree. As I alluded to in the post you kindly linked, what Cameron and Blair share was and is an acute instinct for what was wrong with their parties, what keeps them losing elections. What Blair understood was that Labour had to shed its image of a party that believed higher taxes were per se a virtue. I would agree that this was overdone and that the uncritical inheritance of the Tory's spending limits was an unnecessary part of this - but I think it's quite wrong to describe this as 'idiotic'. And this too has to be put in context: the restraint in the first two years stands in stark contrast to the relative fiscal looseness we have had in the last few years, no? There's been something quite Reaganite about Brown's regressive tax policies and his relaxed approach to his own doctrines on fiscal policy. ("Golden Rule" or some such shite he called this principle that he has conspicuously breeched.)

Like Blair, Cameron's strength is that like Blair he has a natural political instinct for what is wrong with his party. In the Tories' case this was the accurate perception that they hated a) the public sector b) people who were not like them in general - gays, single parents, the young, drug users etc.

You'd think it would be natural that knowing why your party is losing elections would be widely recognised as an invaluable asset in a leader, but it doesn't seem to be amongst the commentariat. This is why politicians like Blair and Cameron are consistently underestimated. With regards to the latter, I think this is a dangerous mistake Labour and the left in general are making now and all the indicators are that this will continue, what with this nonsensical idea that you can and should persuade people to re-elect Labour on the grounds that their opponents are posh twats. There's been a lot of stuff written about what Labour needs to do - yet I don't recall reading too much about their need to grasp the urgency behind the truth of this old maxim: never underestimate your enemy.

Sorry - I'll stop now.

The Plump said...

Carry on, it's good stuff. Why I felt that the promises were unnecessary is that 1. they were made very late when victory was already certain and 2. Philip Gould confessed in the first edition of his book The Unfinished Revolution that his bloody focus groups were telling him that Labour would actually win big even if they were promising to raise taxes.

On Cameron you are dead right. His promise to return to a seemingly attractive model of traditional Conservatism was always a danger and it was alluded to in one of my first posts when I started this blog - The forces of conservatism strike back