Nothing more starkly demonstrates the parlous state of the Labour Party than the failure of its leaders (and almost all of its would-be leaders) to resist cuts in benefits that will drive many thousands of the most vulnerable into deeper poverty and despair.
No one prepared to look at the evidence can doubt that the inevitable outcome of this further Tory attack on the notion of social responsibility will mean misery for many of those who have traditionally looked to Labour to fight their corner. Nothing could strike more directly at Labour’s raison d’etre over the whole of its history.
I have watched in disbelief, from 12,000 miles away, as Labour leaders have sought to explain their unwillingness to stand firm and fight for what they supposedly believe. We are told that the voters’ support for further victimising those who have been left to pay the price of a recession for which they have no responsibility means that there is nothing further to be done.
“We can’t fight the electorate” is the siren call. But how are the voters likely to view a Party that so manifestly lacks the courage of its convictions? Will they not conclude that Labour is fatally short of both courage and convictions?
Opposition parties, even those that have recently lost elections, will usually have enough self-respect to stand up for what they believe in, even if the parliamentary arithmetic is against them. What Labour is doing shows that it no longer has a bottom line of any sort but will readily bend with whatever wind happens to blow.
Even in the shortest of short-term electoral calculations, this waving of the white flag looks like bad politics. If the battlefield is to be abandoned so easily whenever the public are thought to have reached a view, the Tory advantage in resources and media support will always ensure that the fight for public support is over before it has begun. And the voters can be excused for concluding that, if even the party’s leaders cannot stick by their guns, there can be little in Labour’s position that deserves support, let alone warrants being fought for.
What confidence can anyone, let alone the Party’s supporters, have in politicians who have so little stomach for the fight? Are we to be governed entirely by opinion polls? Are even the most fundamental of Labour values to be abandoned if “triangulation” does not support them? These failings could just about be tolerated by a party of the right, since their goal is simply the maintenance of power, but they are entirely destructive of any pretension from a Party of the left that professes to have an analysis and a programme that will produce a change for the better.
In past and better days, the Labour Party willingly and bravely took on the task of changing and leading opinion. Campaigning for a better society was the Party’s life blood. Labour was “a crusade or it is nothing.” It was understood that the Party, as the proposer of change, had to do more than wait for public opinion to change of its own accord and could not afford just to trail along in its wake.
Public opinion will move only if the voters see the Party standing up for what it believes in. That is true not only of specific issues but also of perceptions as to whether the Party is fit for government across the whole gamut of policy. The voters are likely to conclude that a Party without the confidence to fight its corner on a specific issue, especially one that has historically been important to it, will be even more handicapped and powerless when facing the multifarious problems of government.
The Party’s stance on benefit cuts is, of course, even more worrying and comprehensive than it at first appears. It is of course a negative – a failure to say no to a change that it is expected to oppose.
But it is more than that.
It exposes a vacuum. The capitulation by Labour’s leaders is not only a misreading of the electoral runes but is a damaging revelation that the Party has literally nothing to say that is positive either.
On virtually every policy issue, Labour has been reduced to saying “me too”. They may try to tack on a qualification – “not so much” or “not so fast” or “we’ll do it with a kindly smile”. But, in essence, Labour’s leaders evidently believe that they have nothing new to offer. They may carp and cavil at the outcomes of Tory policy, but they seem to have neither the competence not the capacity for hard work that are needed to come forward with real alternatives.
The only way forward they see is accepting – even if only passively – yet more of the Tory agenda, which they are constantly advised, even by their friends, is the only option. Yet the world is changing fast. Long-held orthodoxy about macro-economic policy, about the role of the market, about Europe, about Britain’s role in the world, is being effectively challenged. Labour desperately needs a leadership that is no longer becalmed but that can ride that wave. The Party, and a large part of the electorate, cannot prosper without it.
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This post was written by Bryan Gould