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The long game

Ben Jackson, Martin McIvor

Labour's opposition is hobbled by its mixed record and unresolved divisions, but it may make more headway on issues that will rise up the country’s agenda between now and the next election.

 

A recently defeated party, struggling to define a new role for itself in a turbulent and unpredictable political context, elects a new leader. The unexpected victor signals a departure from the hallowed verities of political strategy espoused by the previous generation of leaders and by most heavyweight political commentators. Surrounded in the Shadow Cabinet by supporters of rival candidates, the new leader faces significant headwinds in trying to make the new approach work, and is roundly criticised in the media for failing to make an authoritative impression on the public when contrasted with a confident and agile Prime Minister. 

Such was the parlous situation that confronted Margaret Thatcher in 1975-76. The point of this historical excursion is not to suggest that Labour’s new leader is a Thatcher in the making; merely that reflection on the early days of her leadership reminds us that snap judgements, the stock in trade of the day-to-day Westminster battle, can be a poor guide to ultimate political outcomes. Ed Miliband has rightly warned against posing a false choice between panic and complacency (Miliband, 2011). Any balanced appreciation of Labour’s current position suggests that the glass is half full. 

Compared to how unpopular Labour was at the end of its period in government, significant progress has been made. But compared to how unpopular we think the Conservatives ought to be, the position is worrying. This is a government which, we were promised, should by now be the most unpopular in history on account of its frontloaded austerity measures – a programme which has, moreover, been augmented by a series of half-baked and mismanaged policies that have recontaminated the Tory brand and raised serious questions of judgment and competence. But Labour has struggled to gain effective political traction, because its own recent past, and still divisive crises of identity and purpose, have hobbled it in the face of these apparent open goals. 

On the fiscal debate, for example, Labour cannot help but appear hesitant and confused – because it was Darling’s own plan for cuts ‘deeper than Thatcher’s’ that set the bar for the Coalition (see Richards, 2011), and because today the party remains deeply torn between instinctive opposition to painful and regressive measures and obeisance to definitions of economic ‘credibility’ that render them inescapable. ‘Too far, too fast’ may be the best gloss that can be put on this underlying equivocation, but as a rallying cry it will never set the heather on fire.

Similarly, Labour has sharpened its rhetoric against the introduction of markets into public services, but here too its attack is blunted by its own legacy (see Leys and Player in this issue) and still unsettled debates about the role of the state, universalism, and public service ‘reform’ (see Boliver and Swift, and Parvin, in this issue).

And, of course, on what is arguably an even more urgent and important question for Britain than either the deficit or the efficiency of the public sector, and where the left ought to be able to mount a radical, credible, and popular offensive – namely, the future role and structure of banking and finance – Labour is notoriously compromised by past entanglements (The Economist, 2011).

The frustration, then, is that the issues on which Cameron and Clegg are most vulnerable are also those on which Labour finds it hard to win a hearing – because its own record is so mixed and its current thinking so unresolved. Unless and until these Gordian knots can be cut, Labour’s current holding positions on these questions may be the best that can be expected of it, and the task of leading the resistance to the Coalition’s programme and holding up a clear alternative must fall to others (1).

Meanwhile Labour may be able to make more headway on questions on which its card is less marked and its internal debates less entrenched, and which can be expected to rise higher on the country’s agenda between now and the next election. Fundamental to these is the kind of economy that is likely to emerge from the Coalition’s radical surgery over the next few years. 

Even if growth remains positive from now on, it is a safe prediction that this will be a landscape of persistently high and regionally concentrated unemployment, worsening poverty and deprivation and, for the majority, increasing job insecurity and falling real wages. According to the Treasury’s own best case scenario this unappetising diet will be leavened only by further household indebtedness, perhaps facilitated, if the government can pull it off, by another round of house price inflation (see Griffith in this issue). On this fragile compensation, and the equally unsustainable pre-election tax cuts it may provide for, rest Conservative hopes for a full majority at the next election.

Talk of a ‘squeezed middle’, Britain’s ‘promise’ of rising prosperity and expanding opportunity, and ‘an economy with fairness and responsibility built-in’ does not amount to an alternative economic strategy, or even an especially compelling collection of sound-bites or slogans, but such phrases may serve as useful signposts and conversation-starters, marking out areas for further policy development and consensus-building. 

Also productive, if as yet inconclusive, is the debate provoked by ‘Blue Labour’ about how the party engages with everyday experiences of the modern global economy, and speaks to yearnings for security and solidarity untouched by New Labour’s focus on consumer aspiration and market-driven liberalisation (Glasman et al., 2011; see also Finlayson in this issue). 

Josh Booth and Will Brett’s essay in this issue points to a new politics of work and time as fertile ground upon which Labour’s economic and philosophical rethinking could converge. But new policy agendas, and shifts in tone and language, will not be enough – indeed, given the refraction of political debate through the prism of an unsympathetic media, they will barely be detected by most voters anyway. Thus the need – as exponents of ‘Blue Labour’ would be the first to insist, and as Booth and Brett also stress – for attention to organisation. 

Rebuilding and re-inspiring a labour movement that can embed itself in the warp and weft of British society is an easy aim to agree upon, but excruciatingly difficult to put into practice. Structural reforms, such as those being discussed within the ‘Refounding Labour’ project, will no doubt be part of the answer. But as Davide Vampa pointed out in our last issue, the Italian left managed to do lasting damage to its political fortunes by rushing into hasty and superficial internal reforms. Quick-fix, media-friendly initiatives can destabilise parties rather than enhancing their appeal (Vampa, 2011). As predictable noises off call for the familiar wish list of party primaries, further dilution of the union link, and so on, this is a cautionary tale that Labour would do well to heed. Labour needs a thriving movement, not headline-grabbing initiatives that will in the long run prove corrosive.

Ultimately, Labour needs to prepare itself not only to win, but to govern in a way that delivers real change to people’s lives and convinces key constituencies that it is worth rallying to and maintaining in office. The last Labour government alienated its advocates and supporters with astonishing alacrity, and by 2010 few really appreciated the stakes as the Conservatives entered Number Ten again. No doubt the experience of the last year has made the difference between a Labour and a Conservative government more vivid to many erstwhile Labour supporters. But the lessons of 1997-2010 are that the party needs policies for power that can command support and not just sullen acquiescence.

It is too easy to rest responsibility for all this on the leader’s shoulders alone. Leadership is a vital element and heavy burden, but there is something slightly infantile about the readiness to project these systemic problems onto one individual. Labour’s renewal has to be a collective project, not an exercise in waiting around for whoever is deemed to be the right person at the top to sort it all out.

The tasks are daunting, but what else is politics for? And there is time.

 

References

The Economist (2011) ‘Labour and the City: estranged, not divorced’, 9.06.2011.

Glasman, M., Rutherford, J., Stears, M. and White, S. (eds) (2011) The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, London, the Oxford London Seminars/Soundings.

Hancox, D. (ed) (2011) Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest, London, openDemocracy.

Miliband, E. (2011) ‘We have started to win back trust’, speech to Progress Conference, 21.05.2011.

Richards, S. (2011) ‘Why cling to the least helpful targets?’, The Independent 2.06.2011

Vampa, D. (2011) ‘Post-social democracy: political and organisational reforms on the Italian left’, Renewal 19 (1): 27-35.

 

Notes

1. See, for example, on the resistance, Hancox, 2011, and ongoing coverage of anti-cuts campaigning at www.falseeconomy.org; on the alternatives, work is underway by Compass and the ‘New Political Economy Network’ on a progressive ‘Plan B’ and radical proposals for the Vickers Commission.

Renewal