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The Left after the election

Labour must get back to socialist policy and purposes if it is to effectively combat the Coalition, argues Duncan Bowie

There is nothing like defeat to reinvigorate political debate. An irony is that after 13 years of New Labour in power, Labour did better in the election than expected, or perhaps deserved to. Rather than facing a Conservative majority government, it faces a coalition of LibDems and Conservatives which has put together a package of policies with considerable popular appeal.

Labour is caught in a trap not understanding the seriousness of its position in terms of its failure to demonstrate a distinct political position but bewildered as to how to respond to a coalition government not easily presented as right wing. Labour hopes that the coalition will speedily collapse, not understanding that a collapse and a further election would be far more likely to generate a Conservative majority government, than a Labour-LibDem coalition or even a Labour majority. PR will not solve the problem like a magic wand. The confusion has meant that the Labour Party has been slow to understand the extent to which the Labour government failed to deliver those promises made in 1997, how its strategy of aiming for middle class support was both ideologically and tactically wrong, how it got its overall political position wrong, not just its presentation. We need to understand that it was not just the lack of a charismatic leader that lost the election. Leaving aside one or two unfortunate incidents, Gordon Brown did not do badly in the X factor competition that the election became.

Missed opportunity

Labour fundamentally missed the opportunity to use the recession to explain and justify the fact that a far greater degree of public sector intervention in the economy was necessary. New Labour was too tied into a market based ideology to realise that this was not just an issue of marginal adjustments to the regulatory regime but a fundamental issue of an unworkable relationship between state and markets. Vince Cable understood this. To be outflanked by the Tories on the issue of bankers' bonuses, restructuring the banking sector and regulation was an absurdity. David Cameron realised that moving away from Thatcherite neo-liberalism had popular appeal. The Labour government could not escape the timewarp.

It is regrettable that the post election period has not yet generated the debates on policy we need the debate we needed before the election. There is discussion, for example in Fabian circles, on the need for an inquest into the election, there seems to me little point in trying to rerun the election to work out what we could have done to win back the C2s. (Ds and Es, who used to be known as the working class, are seen as a lost cause they don't vote and cost the Government too much anyway). There is a difficulty with a position which basically says that a party has just to work out what people want and then promise to deliver it, rather than work out what it believes in, then try to promote those ideas and persuade enough of the electorate of their validity.

X Factor contest

What we have now is another X Factor contest inevitably focusing on personalities style rather than substance. It is difficult to claim that the Labour Party is an open democratic party, when the first and second favourite according to Westminster commentators are brothers, when we nearly ended up with a husband and wife partnership in the contest as well. It is difficult to attack the coalition cabinet as a cabinet of millionaires when the Labour leadership is an equally unrepresentative group. My key point is that a leadership contest may not be the best basis for a fundamental policy rethink. Most candidates are still focusing on presentation issues and the need for more member/citizen engagement and devolution of power. This, after 13 years of over-centralised authoritarian government and a political system which is dominated by a Westminster bubble of professional politicians; who are London-centric with practically no experience of life outside the bubble, or any understanding of the world beyond the network of lobbyists, think tanks and self obsessed bloggers, who consider themselves masters of the political universe, terribly clever people who can spin and media manipulate with electors as putty in their hands.

Hindsight is marvellous!

We also see candidates without any guilt, who within three weeks of losing their cabinet places, happily tell us how the Government got it all wrong that they didn't really support invading Iraq (perhaps we should have handled it better) that abolishing the 10% tax rate was a mistake, or possibly should have taken a tougher line with the banks.

In government as a senior minister, you have to take some responsibility for the decisions you made. The public tends to take that view. You are not squeaky clean. You should not be forgiven that easily. There is now a misconception that to be young, clever, a good speaker and photogenic is the best qualification for political leadership. We have to re-establish the principle of collective, accountable and more representative leadership. Look back to the governments of Wilson and Attlee or even to those of Ramsay Macdonald to find a leadership that was much more collectivist, representative of party membership, the electorate as a whole and more accountable to the party because the party had a policy making function which was independent of the Government. There was perhaps a wider class base in Gladstone's last government than in Blair's or Brown's and certainly a greater degree of accountability to the political party. Evan Harris, the former LibDem MP, made an interesting point at the Fabian post-election Next Left conference (a conference that was generally dire in its Westminster bubble fixation and lack of space for contributions from non internet-based political activists), as to why should disillusioned LibDems join a Labour Party which offers no role for its members to determine policy? It is significant that the LibDems had to get party endorsement to join the coalition.

Did Brown even have to consult the NEC over the failed negotiations over a coalition with the LibDems, never mind call a wider party meeting? Part of our difficulty is that in all this talk of progressive alliances, nobody is very clear what the word 'progressive' means. This is not helped by organisations such as Progress, with the enobled Mandelson as their guru, whose policy position seems to be a relatively minor adjustment of Blairism. I am also confused by 'progressives' who oppose progressive taxation. This confusion certainly infects the Fabian Society as well as Demos with their concepts of progressive conservatism. We are now in a political territory in which Conservatives and LibDems talk of citizen engagement or mutualism is not very different from that in Labour related think tanks. Much of the debate is about 'land grabs'.

Ideas

Namely ideas the Tories have stolen from Labour, and which ones we can steal back. No real consideration as to whether the ideas under dispute, for example approaches to immigration control, are the correct policies in terms of both principle and impact on individuals and society as a whole, or question whether if we are arguing over who gets the credit for specific ideas, there is any distinction between the Labour Party and the other parties. If there is no distinction, what is the purpose of a separate political party? The answer from the think tankers and party careerists misses the fundamental point the role of a political party is about winning power and influence that it is power and influence for themselves as individuals not necessarily for any specific policy package which might benefit sections of the electorate the end-users. This is not to demean all Labour MPs, especially the new ones, as careerists with no interest in the impact of what they do on other people. Some have experience and knowledge of specific policy areas as well as enthusiasm. Too few have lived or worked in the constituencies they represent, this is worse than in the past because of the extent of late resignations and candidate impositions. It is also unfortunate that even before new MPs have located their offices or decided which select committees to join, they have been forced to decide which leadership candidate to support with the risk that choosing a loser will jeopardise their parliamentary career before it has started. MPs need our support and guidance before they are swallowed by the bubble. It is critically important that Constituency Labour Parties both support and guide their new MPs.

Critical

It is also critical that the Labour Party as an organisation gets back to policy making and member participation, otherwise our MPs will be left at the mercy of the whips and the lobbyists. Sometimes I am not sure which is the greater threat to democratic accountability and transparent decision-making.

We also need to re-engage with wider campaigns. The party cannot be self-contained. The success of the early Labour Party was because it was a campaigning movement, it was a cause and a channel for people to pursue their beliefs and interests, where there were differences of view and even disputes but where people with an enthusiasm felt comfortable and had at least a chance of promoting their causes. There was a spirit of shared purpose and belief that what was advocated was for the general public good.

Engaged

What is interesting about the recent election results was the extent to which Labour MPs who were engaged in their constituencies, where the party organisation was seen as operating within a community and engaged in local campaigns, Labour did well, with some MPs holding on to their seats against a national swing. That has an important message for us. Politics is not just about the media or the internet. Political engagement in face to face discussions with other people and engagement in local community issues is important. Being seen to deliver promises is important. Being seen to respect other people is important. Not abandoning those in greatest need, just because they cost money and are not viewed as sufficiently productive or aspirational is also important. Socialism is partly about satisfying individual aspirations but it also has to be about the collective good, not just about facilitating individual wealth appreciation.

Let's talk about socialism and not just some vague 'progressivism'. At least we know what it means.