Sunday, 7 June 2015

Labour go in for ostrich cloning

I followed the Fabian Society's Labour leadership pitches with a mixture of interest and long-term fatalism.  Despite the humiliation and obloquy heaped upon Ed Miliband, it is not clear whether any of the contenders has grasped the scale of the dilemma and the challenge facing progressive politics, and the diminished role that Labour is going to be able to play in defining the terms of reference.  

The party increasingly resembles a religious sect, beached on the uncomfortable shoreline where the dog-whistles are faint and where the narrowness of competing with a Tory agenda has caused electoral support to ebb to an irreducible core.

Every time glib soundbites such as "reconnecting" and "aspiration" are squawked, my inclinations to give Labour the benefit of the doubt diminish.  They fought the 2015 General Election on a strategy designed to secure 35% of the vote (similar to the Blair triumph in 2005), rather than to connect with the challenge of an ideological renewal to move beyond watered down neo-conservatism and the definition of politics in anything other than economic terms.  

For five years they had given the impression that they were prepared to be skewered by the slander of causing the financial crash and the global depression, single-handed, and to push back only in terms of a slightly-tempered 1930s policy orthodoxy.  Watching Osborne start the first of his three bites at the British corpse this week, to be followed by a Budget and then a Comprehensive Spending Review that could well precipitate a fourth recession in eight years, it made me wonder precisely what the focus groups were telling the politicians, and, more crucially, why they were not challenging a manifesto that was not exactly studded with hope or recognition that the world had moved on.

Where Labour's leadership cadre go wrong is in assuming that all those who did not vote for them are potential lost sheep to be reclaimed.  My personal preference from the 2015 election would have been  to have had Labour in government, but not as THE government.  A fairer electoral system might have brought about this result, but that is in the realms of the hypothetical.  Labour's electoral calculations were skewed, and if this delusion continues then it may be many years before there is any chance of them returning to power.

To reach out beyond the core vote, Labour needs to be articulating something much more than a simple Tory-lite vision.  Five years of the Tories themselves may help, but it cannot be a rehashed version of the Blairite panacea of corporate whoring and emollience.  No wonder there is no feeling of connection when there is no plausible vision of a society where the sense of belonging and value is defined by something more than crude economics.  Neither social democrats nor social liberals have made the case for communities and individuals to be valued by more than pound notes stick.

There is precious little evidence that this will sink in.  Maybe Labour is irredeemable, stuck in a 20th century nostalgia for clearly-defined classes and a conflict that could be articulated easily.  Yet it will still need to be part of the landscape going forward, especially until there is a comprehensive political reform that includes the introduction of representative democracy - and where realignment would be feasible.  Labour is not geographically ubiquitous, nor does it command the "left" vote in the way that it used to.

None of the contenders appear to have grasped that their language now needs to be inclusive of the wider anti-Tory, anti-austerity groupings, be they Labour, Liberal, Greens, National or disengaged, and the dissatisfaction that UKIP's support demonstrated.  For the party that wants to be the vanguard to be credible, it has to look beyond its diminished followers.  The recognition that pluralism is here to stay, and Labour is part of that, might be a good start in terms of defining a modern opposition that could challenge for power even within the existing distortion.

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