Saturday, 16 May 2015

Halting the backward march of Labour - too much to ask?

Of the comforting narratives that we consoled ourselves with in the run-up to the 2015 election there was the concept of "peak Tory".  The suggestion that the demographics and attitudes of the Conservative support base would inevitably scupper their future capability of delivering sufficient votes for a majority in a skewed and broken system was a security blanket - based around an analysis that the ageing and Southern-focused nature of contemporary Toryism would not propel them over the line.  Instead, an effective campaign, allied to ineptitude on a grand scale elsewhere, managed to deliver the most skewed result in a decade, since Blair's third "triumph" in 2005.

Given the nature of Britain's electoral landscape, the prospect of a change in 2020 will only emerge with some coherence from the Labour Party.  As with the Tories it appears to be in long-term decline, but unlike the Tory message of self-centredness and fear, there was nothing in Labour's programme that appeared to be a sufficient rallying-cry to expand beyond a declining tribal base.  About the only positive aspect of Labour's appeal was not being part of the Bullingdon, hedge-fund arrogantocracy - it was a sufficiently marginal preference for many between Miliband and Cameron as Prime Minister, even within the progressive milieu of politics.

Labour's leadership election will be revelatory as to whether any lessons have been learned.  Some of the policies espoused during the campaign, and derided as "left-wing", were entirely sensible and just - for example the reform of the taxation of large properties, the abolition of legalised tax avoidance through non-domiciled status, the faltering first steps towards a housing policy not skewed towards the buy-to-let vampires and a coherent position on membership of the European Union.  However this came too late to escape from the corner that their strategists had allowed them to be walled up in. Fighting on Tory ground, portrayed as lunatic for even daring to challenge the status quo, the party did not prove to be sufficiently resilient or resourceful to recognise a changing political landscape and respond accordingly.

The reappearance of the Blairites immediately after the election was unedifying.  The sight of Mandelson's barely-concealed glee, added to the fratricidal maunderings of David Miliband, demonstrated how far Labour needs to travel.  With the currently-declared candidates for leader all espousing a form of gradualism that requires the Tories to implode rather than encouraging electors to change their minds, this is depressing.  At least the Liberal Democrat walloping has produced a cataclysm that makes reorientation and contemplation of a more radical future acceptable.

Politics does not have to be dressed up in management jargon.  Indeed it cheapens and diminishes debate to refer to the "aspirational", the "hard-working" or any of the other tropes used as shorthand for ideological laxity.  What is needed is for a root-and-branch consideration of the role of the political system and its actors, recognising that the model that sustained two-party competition for two centuries has not merely stretched but been permanently broken.  The left does not seem to recognise this or respond, whereas the Tories have been clever enough to react and do enough to survive.

A deep loathing of the Tories does not create either necessary or sufficient momentum to propel others into power except in exceptional circumstances.  Labour experienced this in 1945 and 1997, and the Liberals in 1906.  Seismic elections don't happen that often.  In a system skewed against subtle and representative shifts in popular opinion, the Tories do well through hegemony and a squabbling, tribal opposition.  As a non-member, what I want Labour to be able to articulate is tolerance for diversity and to avoid its sense of entitlement to be the next government from coming to the fore against a programme that is genuinely inclusive and populist.

Whoever is the next leader has to grasp several thorny issues and propel them to the fore.  The first is the democratic deficit, and accepting that pluralism of opinion and allegiance is not a problem but an opportunity.  Working with other parties and groups should be natural and fluid - especially given Labour's annihilation in Scotland and other former fiefdoms.  National parties, Greens, Liberal Democrats and others have a great deal to contribute to a reforming and modernising agenda that is not high on the gimmicks of Osborne's Northern devolution but systemic in empowering the citizen.

Secondly, housing.  Attlee's government achieved great success on the terms it set out.  After the Second World War the housing shortage was acute, and there had been insufficient progress even beforehand in terms of addressing the quality and acceptability of housing.  We do not face destruction from the air at the moment, but a perfect storm of under-supply and a rentier class propped up on intergenerational wealth transfers and the largesse of the state in supplying housing benefit income.  Taking steps to increase supply through social housing and controls on buy-to-let, through a combination of taxation and legislation, is important for all parties, and if Labour are timorous then the terms of the debate can only become even more bizarre.

Thirdly there is the small matter of regional and national economic and social disparities.  Commentators point out that a substantial surge in UKIP support has come from groups that Labour previously relied upon as a bedrock.  Some, the xenophobes and the lunatics, will never be weaned off their simplistic panacea, but any programme that recognises that the South-East of England is not the only region that can generate wealth, prosperity and a decent quality of life (although the latter remains open to question) would make common ground with the national parties in Scotland, Wales and the increasingly coherent and united regional lobbies.

Fourthly, there is the promotion of social cohesion.  This has been demonised by the right as a form of radical desire to expropriate ex-patriates, but the recognition that even the most successful individuals rely on not merely the paid labour but the acquiescence and participation of others would be a useful first step.  It provides a moral justification for reasonable levels of taxation and a measure of progressive redistribution.  Promoting the concept that citizenship gives rights but a measure of obligation is not difficult, and not incompatible with meeting individual desires for betterment, cannot be that difficult - it does not mean pandering to groups of swing voters but articulating views of what a decent society will look like and how it can be achieved.

Labour is currently ideologically rootless.  As the vehicle that has the greatest potential to deliver change, the debate over the next few months will be crucial.  Unless it accepts that the terms of debate and the electoral landscape have shifted, then the 2020 election will not only be a repeat of 1987, but beyond that the fragmentation and incoherence of the alternative narrative is at risk of bequeathing an unhealthy one-party hegemony.  Labour does not hold all, or even many, of the answers at the moment, but it needs to move beyond its current internalised comfort and ask the question not merely why it lost the 2015 election but has lost the confidence of potential supporters and allies.  Difficult times but a test of whether there is a mature response to a partially-unnecessary defeat.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.