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If I were a Labour leadership candidate…

In BBC Question Time on September 22, 2010 at 11:35 am

Part of a Question Time column

David Weber

Not that it’s likely, but for what it’s worth, this is how I would respond to their recent Question Time…

1. Is Tony Blair right that the Labour party lost the election because it abandoned “New Labour”?

A) It depends entirely on what “New Labour” is. Cheat answer, but There You Go. Blair and comrades (sorry; “friends”) have always been notoriously unclear upon this point. If pressed, I would be tempted to answer yes, for the cheeky reason that I don’t think New Labour, at its most successful, was much more than an election winning strategy. But I could be wrong. Blair certainly seems to think that New Labour amounts to more than that, to an ideology of some sorts. This isn’t surprising, as it would otherwise mean that Blair’s political direction was entirely controlled by a desire to win elections…

Not that it was. However, the big exceptions come across as exceptions to New Labour strategy, as well. The Iraq War is hard to see coming looking back at Labour’s 1997 election campaign. Blair’s public service reform ideas also materialised rather much later than the New Labour machine came into force. The two things; his original election strategies, and his attempt at a policy drive; were quite separate, which is why he has been criticised, both by Anthony Seldon and David Cameron, for not doing enough to plan for government.

But in any case, to get back to the point, looking at what Blair defines as “abandoning New Labour”, I don’t think the party should have much to worry about. His analysis smacks of that of someone who has been out of the country too much to have really understood the flow of UK politics in the last few years, and panders to his own hobby horse — an obsession with the “middle classes”. He talks about welfare and public service reform being at the heart of why Labour lost the last election, but I believe the truth is far simpler and far less policy specific than that. Labour lost because people lost trust in their government, and when the recession came, they were blamed for it.

Think about it. The real mortal wound to Labour didn’t happen over any specific policy failing — the lost data discs, Mid Staffordshire, Northern Rock. It was before all of this, in autumn 2007, with the now notorious election that never was, when Brown lost something worth far more than the public’s agreement. He lost their respect. This was further cemented, I believe, by the 10 pence tax row, which is bafflingly absent from Blair’s diagnosis of Labour’s ills. Nothing hurt Labour more than to be seen as dithering and hypocritical.

On the other hand, at least Blair does not define tuition fees as one of Labour’s worst failures. You will laugh, as this is now a favourite hobby horse of mine; but at least three of the candidates do, and it baffles me. I think after the Iraq War, the 10p tax rate, undermining jury trial and the Vetting and Barring scheme; a reasonably decent system of funding university education compares quite well with Labour’s overall record.

2. The Economist has endorsed David Miliband, arguing against a “lurch to the left”. Would a “lurch to the left” win a candidate the leadership election, but lose them the general election?

I think it was Ed Miliband (surprise, surprise) who responded to this by saying that such terms of debate were unhelpful. They are, although in my view in a different way to what Ed meant. I suspect he meant merely that it causes the type of division between candidates that a successful leader wants to avoid looking back on, both for his leadership’s and his party’s sake. I, however, am more and more thinking the the labels of “left” and “right” are unhelpful, simply because they seem to arbitrarily cut across the things Labour has actually claimed to stand for.

Tution fees are, again, a wonderful example. On the face of it, they were a right wing policy. But scratch the surface and you will see the Labour has actually improved matters quite significantly when it comes to University education. Not only did they change the ways loans were repaid in 1998, making it virtually impossible for student loans taken out post-1998 to bankrupt you, but they also shortened the lifetime of the loans more recently when they introduced top-up fees. The debt used to last till retirement — and many people I know have loans of this nature. Now they are written off after 20 years. So underneath the surface, who did Labour’s policy serve? The vast majority of people on low and middle-income backgrounds. At this point, I think “left” or “right” is pretty much irrelevant.

Another example is that of some of Ed Miliband’s policies. He supports various things, the two foremost which come to mind being the living wage and the High Pay Commission. Both policies definitely sound left, but both entirely depend on the means taken to achieve them. Remember, what they refer to are results. And the processes taken to achieve these results are just as important as the results themselves.

The Living Wage might sound brilliant, but if it were achieved by hugely increasing the minimum wage with no government contribution it could have very bad side-effects for employment. Given that Ed Balls talks about the importance of creating jobs, I am surprised he doesn’t pick up on this. The High Pay Commission is worse. No-one has defined what it is, apart from Compass, whose vision seems to be that of a pointless talking shop. But if it had any teeth things would hardly be better. There is no evidence I am aware of to suggest that government is successful at setting wages in the private sector. They struggle enough to decide what approach to take in the public sector.

So, again, “left” and “right” serve to distract us from meaning, rather than help us find it. Let alone the question of whether Ed Miliband would win or lose Labour the next election, the real question is how he would do in government.

3. Given the relationship between Labour and the Unions, will the proposed strikes simply damage the party further?

A) In fairness, this is one area where I can’t add much to the answers of the candidates. Of course, strikes may damage Labour’s standing, but there’s a world of difference between balloted strikes taken by a democratic process, and the strikes of pre-reform Unions in the 70s and 80s. I’m sceptical of the idea, as some of the candidates put it, that the big unions want to “want to be tactical about this”. We’ll see — but if the Unions think the public mood is sympathetic to rolling strikes to oppose the general policy of public sector cutbacks, then I think they’re on a massive gamble. There’s evidence so far is that the majority — or a plurality — of people think cuts even to core services are unavoidable.

It’s interesting that the candidates shy away — in some cases strongly — from the very idea of civil disobediance. Not surprising, of course, as to be seen to support it would most probably be disastrous for a leadership, let alone an election, campaign. But it interests me because I thought that the idea of civil disobediance, rather than simple disobediance, was an acceptance of the social penalties which are attached to it. No-one in the debate made that point, and that certainly didn’t surprise me.

Incidentally, I laughed at David Miliband’s reaction. “Bob Crow is not Ghandi”. Cheap, lazy, but funny. And also, if you analyse the difference between modern day Britain and pre-independence India, you’ll see there’s a serious point. Civil disobediance will probably backfire badly if it is not seen as a necessary step. And I highly doubt that many people see it as such today. That said — that was a reaction some made against the tactics of militant suffragettes, who people would be far more inclined to sympathise with today. Times change, and it’s not impossible for the public mood to swing violently against cuts. From my own ideological position, I think they’d be wrong to at the moment, however.

As usual, I’ve run out of time. I also suspect that my article is already long enough. I’m aware that further questions were asked, but I’m satisfied with my reactions to the ones I had time to watch, and will leave you to draw your own conclusions about the remaining ones. My own impression of the first half of the debate is that David Miliband came out strongest, whilst Ed Miliband has improved significantly as a communicator. At the end of the day, it’s not as if most of us have a vote in the Labour leadership election. If you do — use it well.

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