A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Refinding Labour

In Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics on August 16, 2011 at 1:34 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

For those of you that didn’t already know, before the riots cluttered out all other political commentary, an almighty tiff was going on over at Labour List. So almighty, that it makes the Brown-Blair relationship look like a well-functioning friendship. Which is saying something. James Purnell, erstwhile of the cabinet, and a thinking Blairite (surely not, I hear you cry!) made the suggestion that certain benefits, like Winter Fuel Payments, should be means-tested. In the Liberal or Conservative Party, this is not an unheard-of suggestion. People would thoughtfully weigh the political consequences and moral dimensions of such a move against any likely financial saving that would be achieved.

Not so at Labour List. Articles have flown off the iPads, variously chastising Purnell for his rabid not-left-ness or defending Purnell for his pragmatic attempt to cast the welfare state in a more positive light. The strongest called Purnell a ‘heretic’ and demanded he leave the party. Presumably he won’t be burnt at the stake any time soon, though – this, other than a VAT cut and a ban on circus animals, is the only substantial policy suggestion to have made it into the sunlight this summer.

Leaving aside our actual views on what the policy may be, it is revealing about the status of discourse in the Labour Party. Ed Miliband is (apparently) holding a policy review, and he seems to have left absolutely everything on the table. We don’t know if the party intends to join the Euro or not. We don’t know if the party approves of the withdrawal date from Afghanistan. We think we know that the Labour party supports Alistair Darling’s deficit reduction plan, but both the Leader and Shadow Chancellor campaigned against it in their leadership bids. And even if they have come round to reason, we don’t how they would implement it. And just what is post-neo-classical endogenous growth theory?

In fact, the whole policy review seems a bit vague. Labour, apparently, has working groups on policy. Where are they, with what responsibilities, chaired by whom? Go on the Labour website – I’ll be amazed if you can find a coherent articulation of policy. For sure there are the odd snippets of anti-this-or-that, but nothing united. If you go to the Conservative website, you can find all the policy you want (just click on the policy button at the top of the page). There is no such button on the Labour website.

Contrast with the Cameron policy review. Committees were established and publicised; people knew who the chairmen were, and anyone was invited to contribute. Certain policies were established as beyond the scope of review – opposition to the Euro, an increase in the aid budget, and more. The Conservative party retained a platform from which to make objections and contributions. It retained a political stance in the perception of the electorate. It gave the party a nucleus around which to gel; it resulted in a rather odd fusion of One-Nation Conservatism and Thatcherism, that could somehow cast the ultra-Thatcherite Iain Duncan-Smith as doing something so obviously in the interests of the nation that no-one has mounted criticism against the overall plan (remember welfare reform, without cuts, would have happened had the economy not gone tits up).

And despite the huge gulfs there were in the Tory party – over Europe, over tax cuts – it somehow stuck together. And no-one was called a heretic, no-one was encouraged by members to leave the party (although Quentin Davies did leave of his own volition). The same is pretty much true of the coalition; by forming central pillars on which there is substantive agreement with an electoral mandate, other issues can be pushed to the side – married tax cuts, nuclear power, Europe.

Any evidence of this in the Labour Party? Certainly not on Labour List. The division between Blue (Old) and Purple (New) Labour grows daily more pronounced, and more visceral. Wait for Ed Miliband’s first reshuffle where his hands aren’t tied by shadow cabinet elections. I expect a butchering of the Blairites. Much unlike the cohesive cabinet Cameron constructed, which includes Ken Clarke and Liam Fox, people who were previously regarded as holding unworkably distant views on every important topic.

I’m not going to presume to advise Ed Miliband on policy. He can find my articles here if he wants to pilfer any of my ideas. But when James Purnell makes a sensible suggestion, that is well grounded in pragmatic politics – even though it may be ideologically objectionable – he should be invited to contribute, not shut out. He is one of the more respected Labour figures in the country – opposition to Gordon Brown tends to lend at least an ounce of popularity.

Ed Miliband needs to give Labour a platform to stand on, rather than simply picking and choosing where he thinks the government can be made to hurt most. Tory strategists are looking at the Labour lead of 8 points and laughing. The Tories should be scraping the low 20s – not the high 30s. This is the worst moment in the strategy; the cuts are biting and the economy is at its slowest. 8 points is eminently closable. Particularly when no-one knows who Ed Miliband is, nor what his signature policies are.

So, Ed should define a policy or two. Doesn’t particularly matter what so long as it is big, and ideally mostly cost-free, and something people don’t expect the party to commit to. Commit to raising the Minimum Wage. Commit to a permanent bank or oil levy. Commit to capping commercial interest rates or energy prices or EU migration. Whatever you can argue has a mandate, or, has a really good reason rooted in the party ethos. Ideally, this should tie neatly into to something the party articulated – or something it can be convinced it was trying to articulate – by his election.

But this may be the problem. Much like William Hague in 1997, Ed Miliband was elected on an ooh-err mandate: the party didn’t want to back the left option of Ed Balls, or the right option of David Miliband.  Hague was unable to control Portillo and got slammed by Heseltine after a rebranding exercise led to a complete mish-mash and inclarity after the situation necessitated U-turns on the minimum wage and Bank of England. Blair had a nicer economy than Cameron, so Hague did not gain a single seat for the Tories. Due to the ending of the Liberals as we know them, Miliband will not do that badly. But if local election results are anything to go by, the Tories will continue to gain seats despite the cuts.

At least the encouraging view from the comparison this implicitly invites is that Ed Balls and Harriet Harman will not become leader.

Just a thought on the leaders’ response to the riots. Cameron has been on top form. Iain Duncan Smith has turned into political gold-dust. The ‘Broken Britain’ theme has been an essential part of the narrative (to use a Blairite term) that Cameron has wanted the nation to buy into. It’s a theme the aforementioned have been careful to include just enough, every now and again, for the  past ten years or so. They have their analysis of the problem, and, importantly, they have policies and policy ideas ready to go to solve the problem they see.

It doesn’t matter whether the ‘Broken Britain’ motif is true or not. The likelihood is that politicians will never be able to encapsulate something as multi-faceted as the recent riots into one or two campaign slogans. But the Tories have a narrative. Labour does not. Miliband can huff that the Prime Minister is coming to knee-jerk judgements. He can huff that the causes are more complex than ‘Broken Britain’. Maybe they are. But as long as Miliband cannot impose a narrative on them, he will lose the political argument. If Cameron has any sense at all (and he does), he will let the Labour Party hold its own inquiry. He will let Miliband gaze very intently at his own navel, while Cameron gets a few months, unopposed, to shape the issue in the public consciousness and suggest and even implement the solutions he proposes. Then Cameron will pick the Miliband review to pieces using the Home Affairs Select Committee review. He will get especial pleasure from this, as Home Affairs Select is chaired by a Labour MP.

This ‘lack of narrative’ has been true of the Labour party even before the riots. The government is cutting ‘too far, too fast’. May be true, but it’s not a narrative. It defines no positives that enable the electorate to understand the world. The Tories have a narrative about spending cuts: it begins with a profligate chancellor (who happened to be advised by most of Labour’s top team), and progresses to economic hubris, followed by a catastrophic collapse, and then the Conservative Party rushes in as the knight in shining armour, to deliver an economically stable and successful Britain. Labour’s attempted narrative is “something went wrong somewhere else. It’s a bit complicated. But basically, it will be fine.”

It doesn’t particularly matter which one is true. What both Conservative narratives have is a problem, an evil, and they are the solution, the hero. Labour’s narratives, on the riots and the economy, don’t really have a problem. Because if it did, people would ask why they didn’t get round to it in thirteen years of government. But no problem means no solution. The Labour party isn’t the solution because there is no problem – or if there is a problem, it was of no-one’s making, and no-one can really fix it. Labour just happen to be slightly more fluffy and loveable than the Tories. 

It’s hardly a compelling narrative. It’s a narrative that will consign Miliband, and his party, to utter irrelevance until beyond the next election. No matter how good Miliband’s policies are. 

This all comes back to this thing about policy. In 2005, Cameron had a narrative about Labour, about Britain. It was sketchy, true, but he built his policy around that narrative. In 2011, Miliband does not have a narrative. Consequently, his policy will be a hotchpotch. Contributors, like James Purnell, are unclear what the vision, what the narrative is for the country. So they take a stab in the dark at what they think it might be. And everyone else, who thinks it’s something else, screams.

James Bartholomeusz has written on this site before about Blue Labour, which I categorised above as ‘Old Labour’. It is not quite ‘Old Labour’, but something that attempts to re-carve a narrative from the very deep memories of the party’s past. Cameron did a very similar thing with his ‘Broken Britain’ narrative – recast deep Tory instincts and fashioned them around the present. It is maybe too early for Blue Labour – it took the Tories to their fourth go to find a fresh yet old narrative. Miliband doesn’t seem keen, either. His instincts have been to centralise the Labour party, abolishing shadow cabinet elections and hiring business men to streamline the party structure, rather than take the more decentralising options offered by Blue Labour. But the ‘Broken Britain’ narrative was at least there in skeleton by the time of Iain Duncan Smith. Maybe this narrative will someday come to the fore.

And if you think that all this stuff about policy and narrative and coherence is just my thoughtless musing, I leave you this exchange from the Queen’s Speech, 2000:

Rt Hon William Hague MP: In more than 20 years in politics, he has betrayed every cause he believed in, contradicted every statement he has made, broken every promise he has given and breached every agreement that he has entered into… There is a lifetime of U-turns, errors and sell-outs. All those hon. Members who sit behind the Prime Minister and wonder whether they stand for anything any longer, or whether they defend any point of principle, know who has led them to that sorry state.

Rt Hon Tony Blair MP:  He started the fuel protest bandwagon, then the floods bandwagon; on defence it became armour-plated, then on air traffic control it became airborne…. Yes, the right honourable Gentleman made a very witty, funny speech, but it summed up his leadership: good jokes, lousy judgment. I am afraid that in the end, if the right honourable Gentleman really aspires to stand at this Despatch Box, he will have to get his policies sorted out and his party sorted out, and offer a vision for the country’s future, not a vision that would take us backwards.

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  1. Thoughtful, well written and a good assessment. This deserves wide reading.

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