Which direction for Labour?
by Bryan Gould
Thu 2nd Jul 2015
Martin Kettle, in today’s Guardian, joins the ranks of those no doubt well-intentioned observers whose advice to the Labour party, as it chooses a new leader, seems to be based on a curiously limited and one-dimensional view of the political landscape.
In this view, there are only two possible directions of travel and therefore just one issue to be resolved. The Labour party, in this tightly constrained, imagined environment, must choose to go either forwards or backwards (or, perhaps, to use slightly different terminology to describe the same choice) rightwards or leftwards.
The choice to go “backwards”, Kettle says, is to opt for “purity rather than power”. It is a journey back to the “old-time religion” guided by the “everlasting gospel”. We are spared such emotive descriptions of the other possible choice – to go “forwards” – but we don’t need to try too hard to recognise that it means that Labour must appeal more to middle-class voters and their “aspirations” - shorthand, in other words, for accepting even more of the Tory agenda
If the political landscape really were the one of Kettle’s imaginings, and those really were the only choices available, his advice might be seen as unpalatable but difficult to resist. Better perhaps an occasional “Tory-lite” government, when the voters periodically tire of the real thing, than a permanent sojourn in the political wilderness. We might then at least hope for a brief respite every now and again from the relentless, not to say ruthless, passage towards a society of entrenched and growing privilege, widening inequality, extreme poverty, economic failure and social disintegration.
But is Martin Kettle right to describe the political landscape in this one-dimensional way? Surely there are many other possible directions of travel that, in our increasingly diverse society, would stand a better chance of attracting popular support than either of the unpromising options he offers.
Why is there no recognition of the possibility that a truly reforming and radical party might actually come forward with new ideas as to how the enduring goals of a good society might be achieved? Why should Labour not set out to reach new destinations and objectives, and use new modes of travel?
Why should we accept a political map that does the Tories’ work for them by locating them at the centre, with the only other directions requiring a literally eccentric diversion? Why should Labour not aspire to create new and different poles of attraction, so that voters are offered a real choice – a different vision of how society could operate and of how that could be achieved?
These questions may sound other-worldly, but that is only because they are so far removed from anything the Labour Party has even contemplated, let alone tried to achieve in its recent past. The recent election campaign was notable for Labour’s complete failure to bring forward an alternative analysis and strategy as to how the economy could not only be run better but run in the wider interest, so that the “aspirations” of most people are properly served.
What we got instead – the only real thing said about economic policy by Labour – was that a new Labour government would commit to austerity and continued spending cuts, in the over-riding interest of eliminating the government’s deficit – a goal that makes absolutely no sense when taken in isolation from other economic factors such as the country’s perennial trade deficit.
The election was lost when that commitment was made. It immediately validated the Tory claim that the deficit - the government’s, not the country’s - had to be the over-riding priority. It disabled Labour from persuading voters that they could somehow get better results from the same policies – indeed, from saying anything else remotely sensible about economic policy.
Labour’s new leaders could have said that austerity and spending cuts have failed (even in their own terms, since the government’s debt is still rising) and have produced unacceptable inequality and poverty, that the way to get the deficit down is to get the economy moving again on the basis of increased output rather than unsustainable consumption and asset inflation, that unemployment is a shocking waste of human resources and lives, that full employment is not only essential but achievable if we tackle our real economic problems.
They do not say any of these things because in their heart of hearts they do not believe them. They are trapped in an intellectual straitjacket, because they have never done and are not prepared to do the hard work needed to produce a convincing alternative that would be in line with much current and developing economic thinking. So they accept advice from sympathetic observers like Martin Kettle that the smart thing to do is to masquerade as Tories but try to look nicer and kinder. They would have nothing different or new to say and could only hope that the voters wouldn’t notice. Little wonder that the voters search in vain for the ring of truth and the genuineness of conviction.
If they were to say such things and mean them, and if they were to develop policies that would achieve such outcomes, would that mean travelling backwards or forwards, rightwards or leftwards, on Martin Kettle’s one-track line? Or would it mean striking out in a new direction, one of Labour’s choosing, one that is consistent with both its great traditions and with a cutting-edge future – a future a long way away from Tory central.