Guest editorial: Leading Labour
Labour's new leader must seize a rare historic opportunity to redefine the centre of public opinion and create pressure for social democratic change.
We now know who is to lead the Labour Party. But where should he lead it, and what does that leadership require? What, in short, should their leadership strategy be? The starting point for answering these questions must be an honest assessment of the leadership strategy which the Labour Party adopted in its last leadership election more than sixteen years ago. The architects of that strategy – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson – have had a long period of unusually complete dominion over the party in which to test it. So we are in a good position to assess their strategy – as good as we are ever likely to have with such a strategy.
To make a proper assessment we must take care to avoid overly simple conclusions that place too much weight on a particular personality or policy. There is little doubt that the anti-charisma of Gordon Brown played a role in Labour’s defeat. But we must keep clearly in mind that 80 per cent of the five million votes that Labour has lost since 1997 had already been lost under the leadership of Tony Blair, and that Labour’s now startlingly low share of the vote is the continuation of a trend that has been apparent throughout the New Labour years. Equally, it is clear that the quixotic decision of Tony Blair to invade Iraq – and the supine acceptance of it by his cabinet and party – was a terrible and foreseeable error with important consequences both for the election of 2005 and for the party identification of some voters ever since. But the underlying problem with the New Labour model of leadership is more fundamental, and flows directly from a strategic orientation that has been explicitly adopted and systematically pursued throughout the New Labour period.
Party strategy and preference-shaping
The similarities between the basic policy stance adopted by the Thatcher government and that subsequently endorsed by New Labour have often been noted. What is frequently overlooked, however, is that the leadership strategies of Thatcher and Blair were radically different.
We know from opinion surveys that when voters’ preferences are plotted on a left-right spectrum the resulting graph typically takes the form of a bell curve, with the largest numbers of voters clustered around the median voter in the centre and decreasing numbers holding positions as we move further to the left or right. In plurality or majority electoral systems dominated by two main parties – and note that, if the Alternative Vote is introduced, Britain will still fall into this category – two pure strategies are available. One is a preference-shaping strategy that seeks to use the power of leadership to change voters’ preferences by shifting the curve so as to move the centre to either the right or left. The other is a centre-seeking strategy that seeks to gain and retain office by locating one’s own stance as close as possible to that of the median voter. Each could in principle deliver sufficient votes to guarantee electoral success. But in practice, most political leaders pursue neither strategy in their pure form, but rather a mix of the two. And therein lies much of the ‘art’ of politics.
In recent decades, however, British politics have been marked by an unusually militant pursuit of purist leadership strategies. Margaret Thatcher pursed a militant preference-shaping strategy on the right. Tony Benn pursued a similarly militant, albeit unsuccessful, preference-shaping strategy on the left. And Tony Blair, reacting in part to the failure of the Bennite approach, adopted an exceptionally militant centre-seeking approach.
We can now see what the consequences of that approach have been. The great paradox of the centre-seeking strategy is that it too has preference-shaping consequences. They are just not the consequences that are anticipated by its proponents. For by moving Labour to the centre, this strategy creates a new centre to the right of the old one: a new centre which, this strategy dictates, the party must now in turn move to occupy. The upshot is that (for so long as the Conservatives remain even a little to the right of Labour) the singular pursuit of a centre-seeking strategy has the effect of gradually shifting the centre of public opinion ever further to the right and leaves Labour itself moving endlessly to the right in pursuit of it. New Labour’s approach to leadership left the party pursuing a moving target drawing it constantly further to the right.
We can see from the authoritative British Social Attitudes surveys that this is indeed what has happened. The latest volume demonstrates that during the New Labour years – but not, it should be noted, during the preceding Thatcher years – public attitudes, including the attitudes of Labour Party supporters themselves, have all shifted markedly to the right in response to a range of standard questions about the welfare state, business interests, economic inequality, and government action to redress it. The volume concludes that the data shows that ‘in repositioning itself ideologically New Labour helped ensure that the ideological terrain of British public opinion acquired a more conservative character’ (Park et al, 2010, 32) (1).
Why did this happen? The basic reason is that people’s sense of what counts as a left-wing or right-wing position is in part constituted by the positions that the leaders of the left and right advocate. The distribution of voters’ preferences and the position of the median voter are not just externally given realities to which vote-maximising politicians must adjust. Rather, the preferences of voters are partly – though only partly – constituted by the appeals of political leaders. Political leaders can help shape opinion by shifting what counts as a left-wing or right-wing position on any given spectrum. But there is not just one spectrum. They can also shape opinions by increasing or decreasing the salience of one spectrum with respect to another. Thus, for example, by decreasing the salience of class interests and questions of distributive justice, New Labour politicians made it easier for those seeking to increase the salience of ethnic and racial identity and questions of immigration.
Through these kinds of processes, Labour has alienated large segments of the electoral coalition on which it depends. By abandoning distributive justice and embracing the rich, it has alienated much of the working class whose interests it was founded to promote. And by its pursuit of a wide range of increasingly illiberal policies like its identity cards and DNA data bases, it has alienated much of the progressive (or ‘post-materialist’) middle class. Ultimately, this strategy has threatened the party’s very survival. The 2010 election came alarmingly close to putting Labour into a sudden death spiral. The party came close to being driven into third place in its share of the vote: an outcome that, if repeated in the next election, could very well have left it a bit player, much as the Liberals were in the early twentieth century in just a few short years between 1918 and 1924.
The purpose of politics
What is the purpose of politics? And what is the purpose of Labour Party politics? The answer may seem obvious, but it needs restating. It is to influence the direction in which our society develops – to shape social and economic outcomes. There may be arguments about exactly which outcomes to pursue. But whatever they are, it is the outcomes that matter.
Occupying office can, of course, be a very important way of doing this. But parties that are out of office can also have fundamental effects on social outcomes by helping to set the agenda, establish what count as acceptable outcomes, and determine where the centre of politics lies. The failure to grasp this betrays one of the most profound misunderstandings of the apostles of New Labour. During the recent election, the booksellers, Waterstones, asked three leading politicians to recommend a book. For the Labour Party, Peter Mandelson recommended Philip Gould’s ‘definitive account of the rise of New Labour’, The Unfinished Revolution (Gould, 1998). Gould was New Labour’s original pollster. His book makes clear that the underlying premise of the New Labour project is the belief that, since the Conservatives had held office for more than twice as long as their opponents during the twentieth century, the Labour Party had been largely a failure (2).
Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and the rest, noticed that, during the twentieth century, Labour was more frequently out of office than in. But they failed to notice that much of that period – especially the thirty post-war years – was characterised by a social democratic consensus: a consensus established in part by a relatively brief but critical period of innovative Labour government, and entrenched during subsequent periods, in which the Conservatives, in order to secure government, shifted their position to come closer to the new centre of public opinion which Labour had established. During the post-war years (and indeed in some earlier periods too), even while Labour was out of office, it still helped to set the agenda and maintain a consensus around its goals and earlier achievements.
Since the rise of New Labour, the party has held office continuously for longer than previously, but it is Labour’s opponents that have largely set the agenda and maintained a consensus around their earlier achievements. In the long run, Tony Blair may come to be seen as the Harold Macmillan of his time – a political leader presiding over a period of continuity, rather than one who placed his society on a different path of development. It is Attlee and Thatcher who will be remembered.
All other things being equal, a long tenure of government is better than a short one. But when we look back over Britain’s experience of parliamentary government, from the great reform acts in the nineteenth century to the development of the welfare state in the twentieth, it becomes clear that a long tenure of government does not necessarily achieve more than a shorter more purposeful one (3). This is especially true of a shorter more purposeful one at a critical historical conjuncture in which existing ideas and institutions have been discredited by major events such as wars or economic crises. Conjunctures like these shake up established public attitudes and allow new institutions to be built that entrench a different balance of power between social interests, irrespective of the future partisan complexion of the government.
For the last couple of years we have been living in such a period. Yet surprisingly little has been made of it. One of the strangest features of last year’s election campaign was the way in which the failure of the banks and the neo-liberal regulatory system which underpinned them disappeared almost entirely from public debate. There was wide agreement that the economy was the central issue. But this was rapidly equated with just one question: how to cut the deficit. Leading commentators complained incessantly that politicians were not being honest about what this would require. But almost no one made the obvious point that the deficit was caused by the banking crisis and that what the election really required was a debate about failure of the neo-liberal paradigm of economic policy-making that has dominated the last three decades.
Progressive commentators were equally complicit in this. The Guardian made the remarkable claim – on the 1st of May no less – that the central issue of the election was reform of the electoral system. This was the ‘one great reason of principle above all’ that should determine one’s vote (The Guardian, 2010). There is a good case for electoral reform (though there are also many fantasies peddled about its likely consequences). But the idea that in the middle of the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s, the demand for electoral reform should be the defining issue is quite extraordinary. Here we are, saddled with huge debts that will force major cuts – in jobs, benefits, pensions, and living standards – on totally blameless fellow citizens, and the great question of moment is … electoral reform!
But for the Labour Party, the problem goes deeper. For in the wake of the greatest crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression, Labour failed to make use of a rare historical opportunity to realign politics and shift basic assumptions and institutions. The Party’s historic commitments and values left it easily the best placed to do this. The irrationality and inefficiency as well as the injustice of under-regulated markets were there for all to see. Yet so enmeshed had New Labour become with neo-liberal assumptions – so complicit with a post-Thatcher consensus with which it had not merely compromised but which it had positively embraced – that it was unable to grasp the quintessentially social democratic opportunities on offer.
This is what the new leader of the Labour Party must now do. He must avoid the dangers of pursuing a pure centre-seeking approach and seize a rare historic opportunity to redefine the centre of public opinion and create pressure for social democratic change. Instead of pursuing an endless series of ever more illiberal measures – instead of being less than liberalism – Labour must opt for ‘liberalism plus’ – for the longstanding socialist idea that liberal goals of individual freedom and the equal worth of human beings can only be realised if we act collectively to change the distribution of economic power and resources. It should be Labour’s moment.
Park, A, Curtice, J, Thomson, K, Phillips, M, Clery, E. and Butt, S. (eds) (2010) British Social Attitudes: The 26th Report, London, Sage.
Curtice, J. (2007) ‘Elections and public opinion’ in Seldon, A. (ed.) Blair’s Britain 1997-2007, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
The Guardian (2010) ‘The liberal moment has come’, The Guardian 1.5.2010.
Gould, P. (1998) The Unfinished Revolution, London, Abacus.
1. See also the similar conclusions that were already apparent following the 2005 election in Curtice, 2007, 35-53.
2. Indeed, according to Gould, as of 1997 ‘Labour has governed for just twenty of the last hundred years’ (Gould, 1998, 23-4). This is a little disingenuous, as Labour was not even founded until 1906, and could hardly be expected to establish itself as an immediate contender for office in a ‘first past the post’ electoral system. It also ignores Labour’s participation in Churchill’s wartime government. The quote from Peter Mandelson was on the 2010 Waterstones’s promotional wrap-around cover on the Gould book at the time of the election.
3. For example, Earl Grey’s Whig government, which began the process of democratisation with the passage of the 1832 Great Reform Act, lasted just four years. Likewise, the Attlee government, which established much of the welfare state, lasted just six years.