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Labour’s crisis: It’s the sense of security, stupid

poster_Labour_Party_Labour_For_Security_1945At the start of the summer, prospective parliamentary candidates enjoyed a breakfast audience with His Royal Blairness. There was none of the “proper” post-prime ministerial coyness that our Tony normally pretends to. He was frank and open. Sort of. He was asked what he thought of Labour’s chances going into the next general election, to which he replied “it’s the economy, stupid“. Observing that GDP figures are up and relatively strong after years of stagnation, Blair implied that the Tories stewardship of the economy will see them (unjustly) reap the benefits. Just as smilin’ old Bill did all those years ago.

Let’s just park that up the third way cul de sac for a few paragraphs.

A little over a month ago, I was bold/daft enough to suggest that the difficulties besetting the Tories meant that the general election was Labour’s to lose. And whaddya know, it turns out the walls of so-called Fortress Scotland are crumbling away, and there are too few troops to man the parapets. Not the kind of situation Labour wants to be in when an insurgent SNP and its leftist baggage hauliers are settling in for a protracted siege. And not ideal for anyone who wants to see the Tories out next year, lest Labour-led coalition jiggery-pokery with the SNP and others can keep the blues and the purple people bleaters from returning to government.

The impact the Scottish meltdown has had on the polls has seen Labour’s lead whittled down to somewhere between a point and even-stevens. And so there are mutterings about the leadership, again. While this is nothing new; after all the griping of “shadow cabinet sources” flowed unabated when Labour was bringing home eight per cent leads on 40%+ poll shares. On this occasion, there are reasons to moan. Politics may well have changed, but even then a party looking to return from the opposition benches needs to be doing better. The polls are slipping, Ed Miliband’s ratings are truly subterranean, and the party hugely trails the Tories on the economy.

Millions of words have been expended on diagnosing the problems. For the Blairites our policies are too left wing and we got the wrong Miliband. For the left the opposite is true: policy owes too much to the Tories. The truth of the matter is dumping Ed won’t work. Neither will promising to slash the deficit and reform (privatise) public services, nor nationalising the top 100 monopolies and squeezing the rich until the pips squeak. And so attention turns to that most nebulous of wonky terms, ‘narrative’.

Helpfully, this is the topic of George Eaton’s latest in the New Statesman. He asks if Labour can scarcely inspire its own MPs and activists, then how can it be expected to fire up the country? Part of the problem is the incoherence of Labour’s message. The cost of living crisis, One Nation, Blue Labour, and the repeated usage of ‘Together‘ in the leader’s conference speech have hardly been cohered together in a compelling story on which policies can be hung. Indeed, there is incoherence. We’re told that Tory austerity has caused a pain and suffering, and yet our solution is to carry on with the public sector pay freeze. Labour champions investments, not cuts. And undermines its message by promising cuts and pledging to keep the purse strings on a tight leash. You can’t have it both ways.

One of the key historical problems for Labour has always been the tension between power and principle, or to be more exact between forming and following public opinion. It sees a British public now up in arms against immigration and social security, but also keen to see the rich getting a kick, the NHS protected, and key utilities renationalised. They want excellent public services and low taxes. How does a party in the business of catching votes square contradictory policy preferences.

Labour historically has gone down the empiricist route: this is what the people want, so this is what the people will get. This reached its unedifying apogee in the New Labour years in its tightening of social security sanctions (hello work capability assessment!) and introduction of very strict immigration rules for non-EU nationals. It tried to get round the contradiction of snazzy public services with low taxation by making the Tory-invented private finance initiatives its very own.

Each time, New Labour approached the voting public as refracted by the press and adapted its programme to these perceptions. What you might recognise as “traditional” social democratic policies were slipped in now and then provided no horses took fright.

The alternative to adaptation is striking out and boldly seeking to lead public opinion. If you provide a coherent enough leftwing programme that champions the interests of working people and the most vulnerable, Labour can cut through the crap and excite opinion with a flourish of decisiveness. The problem is that in the narrow pragmatism of managing a party of government, would the investment of political capital be repaid?

Unfortunately, and with the phantom of 1983 ever ready to rattle its chains, there is no way the present leadership, socialised as it was under Kinnock and Blair, are going to strike out in that way when the “facts” of public opinion are so evident.

There is another way beyond empiricism and voluntarism. You can make Labour’s narrative as coherent as you like, but it’s got to touch real people; not the wonks, not the hacks. This does involve a bit of thinking. Rather than worshipping the attitude surveys and the polling as hard social facts the party has to live and die by, we need to take a scalpel to them. We have to think sociologically.

There’s plenty of this going on. Ask any switched-on Labour person where UKIP and anti-politics comes from and the answer, regardless of the wing of the party they live in, will likely be the same. Collapse of old industry, social dislocation, mass immigration, housing crisis, service sector dominance, and so on. A few might even mention masculinity as well. If you spend some time going through Labour blogs and publications, all this is there. And yet rather than the beginning of political wisdom, Labour tends to address the symptoms, hence the lack of consistency and – yes – mostly managerial approach to them.

It really is simple. Blair was wrong. It’s not the economy, it’s a sense of security, stupid. The roots of anti-politics tangle together in a knotty mass of insecurity. Growing economies transform into approving votes only if they coincide with growing affluence, certainty and self-security among the electorate in general. If that’s decoupled, the only ‘stupid’ are those who brandish it like supreme wisdom irrespective of circumstance. And what we have in Britain is an uncoupling of economic performance and living standards.

What then might be most appropriate to the circumstances? Why, that old warhorse the cost of living crisis might be helpful here. But rather than hang wonky nonsense about One Nation onto it, Labour needs to build a story about the insecurity blighting people’s lives and, crucially, adopt policies that address it. For example, if hire and fire culture was done away with, if the minimum wage was made up to the living wage, if firms were forced to make good the pensions contribution holidays they’ve been on, if young people could go to university knowing tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt won’t wait afterwards, pledging to strip out these roots anxiety and insecurity (among others) could make a massive difference to Labour’s fortunes. This then is the story Labour can tell, the future it can sell. Some of its already existing policies would reduce insecurity, but again, the continued, ruinous commitment to austerity runs counter to it.

The path to victory requires leadership and a certain boldness, and also an ability to understand how anxiety works itself out as all kinds of fears and cynicisms. To intersect with that requires a creative pragmatism utterly different to simple empiricism, bound up with a story of how we got into this mess and what Labour’s going to do to bring certainty back.

One Comment

  1. John Reid says:

    Don’t think the comparison of 1983 that the disunity,means those criticising Ed can’t be shouted down, really sticks, the tories got 3 million more votes in 79 than 2010

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