The Labour leadership election
by Bryan Gould
Thu 11th Jun 2015
Labour’s leadership contenders are constantly asked, by party members and commentators alike, whether they propose to move the party leftwards or rightwards. Few seem willing or able to answer that question other than in the terms in which it is put.
They thereby seem to accept the contention that all of politics can be encapsulated in a simple one-dimensional left/right spectrum - a concession that is hugely beneficial to Labour’s opponents.
On the one hand, the Blairs and Mandelsons (and even the occasional Miliband) warn against a move leftwards. The only way forwards, it is implied, is to be more like the Tories – to be more business-friendly, more understanding of “aspirations”, more prudent and reliable in managing the economy in accordance with the orthodoxy that has prevailed for nearly four decades.
It is not explained why the voters should respond by electing this ersatz version of the real thing, when they have on offer a Tory party that knows exactly where it wants to go and whose heart is really in it. The proposed strategy, even judged purely in terms of its appeal to the voters, seems to rest entirely on waiting for the voters to tire of Tory government – even if, if history is anything to go by, that might mean waiting a very long time.
On this simple view of politics, any new thinking – that is, thinking that departs significantly from current orthodoxy – must inevitably require a move to the left that will leave the voters unimpressed. The only change that is possible is a continuing acceptance of the inexorable move rightwards, perhaps accompanied by unconvincing assurances that Labour would be more compassionate and less ruthless.
Those who doubt the efficacy of such a strategy seem nevertheless to endorse what is argued to be the inevitable corollary of such scepticism – the notion that the only other direction of travel is leftwards. And that, of course, so often described even by its proponents as a “return to Labour’s roots”, is easily portrayed as taking refuge in a past that no longer exists and that is increasingly unrecognised by today’s voters.
Why, oh why, do Labour’s would-be leaders, or at least some of them, not reject this simplistic view and advocate instead something that is not easily (or properly) characterised as right or left, but that offers voters something that voters are desperate to see – some semblance of hope for a fresh and different view of the society we want and of the economic and other policies that will deliver it?
Why, instead of solemnly assuring the voters that Labour will give priority to deficit reduction and will accordingly be just as tough as the Tories on beneficiaries, do Labour’s leaders not show that the deficit that really matters is not the government’s but the country’s – a huge and growing perennial deficit that negates any chance of a better economic performance?
Why not show that a trade deficit makes a government deficit virtually inevitable, which is why government debt continues to rise; that a “recovery” based on asset inflation and a short-term import-led consumer boom cannot be sustained; that, as the OECD has demonstrated, growing inequality is not the price that must be paid for economic efficiency but is an obstacle to that efficiency; that unemployment is not the fault of the lazy and feckless but is a deliberate waste of human resources that – if employed - could make us all better-off; that the decline of manufacturing has left the UK dangerously vulnerable; that cutting public spending – as even the IMF now partially concedes – is bad for economic growth; that monetary policy should involve more than allowing the banks to create 97% of the money in circulation for their own profit rather than the public good; that restoring full employment and lifting low wages is an important means of raising essential purchasing power and enlarging markets for our goods? Where is the leader to ask these questions, let alone provide the answers?
Is there anything about them and the issues they raise (and there are many more like them) that is particularly left-wing? Are they not the questions that should be asked by anyone intent on breaking out of the economic cul-de-sac and the social disintegration that now threatens the UK? Do they not take us in a new direction, neither turning back to Labour’s past nor trailing along unhappily in the wake of an intensifying and defective Tory status quo? Should not the answers enable Labour to put a fresh and hopeful agenda to the British people, neither right-wing nor left-wing, but appealing to the great majority of the electorate because it offers the prospect of an economy and a society that serves everyone’s interests?
I once contested the Labour party’s leadership myself. The answers to the dilemmas facing British politicians today seem to me to be more clear-cut than was the case in 1992. It is easier now, with a longer perspective on the orthodoxy that has prevailed for so long, to see what has gone wrong, and to see what is needed to put it right. What is needed now is to unlock the intellectual straitjacket in which Labour has been shackled for too long. Where is the leader to deliver that?