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Why Martin Kettle’s one dimensional analysis does the Tories’ work for them

Labour Leadership Candidates and now they are 4_edited-1Martin Kettle, in today’s Guardian, joins the ranks of those no doubt well-intentioned observers whose advice to the Labour party, as it chooses a new leader, seems to be based on a curiously limited and one-dimensional view of the political landscape.

In this view, there are only two possible directions of travel and therefore just one issue to be resolved. The Labour party, in this tightly constrained, imagined environment, must choose to go either forwards or backwards (or, perhaps, to use slightly different terminology to describe the same choice) rightwards or leftwards. 

The choice to go “backwards”, Kettle says, is to opt for “purity rather than power”. It is a journey back to the “old-time religion” guided by the “everlasting gospel”. We are spared such emotive descriptions of the other possible choice – to go “forwards” – but we don’t need to try too hard to recognise that it means that Labour must appeal more to middle-class voters and their “aspirations” – shorthand, in other words, for accepting even more of the Tory agenda

If the political landscape really were the one of Kettle’s imaginings, and those really were the only choices available, his advice might be seen as unpalatable but difficult to resist. Better perhaps an occasional “Tory-lite” government, when the voters periodically tire of the real thing, than a permanent sojourn in the political wilderness. We might then at least hope for a brief respite every now and again from the relentless, not to say ruthless, passage towards a society of entrenched and growing privilege, widening inequality, extreme poverty, economic failure and social disintegration.

But is Martin Kettle right to describe the political landscape in this one-dimensional way? Surely there are many other possible directions of travel that, in our increasingly diverse society, would stand a better chance of attracting popular support than either of the unpromising options he offers.

Why is there no recognition of the possibility that a truly reforming and radical party might actually come forward with new ideas as to how the enduring goals of a good society might be achieved? Why should Labour not set out to reach new destinations and objectives, and use new modes of travel?

Why should we accept a political map that does the Tories’ work for them by locating them at the centre, with the only other directions requiring a literally eccentric diversion? Why should Labour not aspire to create new and different poles of attraction, so that voters are offered a real choice – a different vision of how society could operate and of how that could be achieved?

These questions may sound other-worldly, but that is only because they are so far removed from anything the Labour Party has even contemplated, let alone tried to achieve in its recent past. The recent election campaign was notable for Labour’s complete failure to bring forward an alternative analysis and strategy as to how the economy could not only be run better but run in the wider interest, so that the “aspirations” of most people are properly served.

What we got instead – the only real thing said about economic policy by Labour – was that a new Labour government would commit to austerity and continued spending cuts, in the over-riding interest of eliminating the government’s deficit – a goal that makes absolutely no sense when taken in isolation from other economic factors such as the country’s perennial trade deficit.

The election was lost when that commitment was made. It immediately validated the Tory claim that the deficit – the government’s, not the country’s – had to be the over-riding priority. It disabled Labour from persuading voters that they could somehow get better results from the same policies – indeed, from saying anything else remotely sensible about economic policy.

Labour’s new leaders could have said that austerity and spending cuts have failed (even in their own terms, since the government’s debt is still rising) and have produced unacceptable inequality and poverty, that the way to get the deficit down is to get the economy moving again on the basis of increased output rather than unsustainable consumption and asset inflation, that unemployment is a shocking waste of human resources and lives, that full employment is not only essential but achievable if we tackle our real economic problems.

They do not say any of these things because in their heart of hearts they do not believe them. They are trapped in an intellectual straitjacket, because they have never done and are not prepared to do the hard work needed to produce a convincing alternative that would be in line with much current and developing economic thinking. So they accept advice from sympathetic observers like Martin Kettle that the smart thing to do is to masquerade as Tories but try to look nicer and kinder. They would have nothing different or new to say and could only hope that the voters wouldn’t notice. Little wonder that the voters search in vain for the ring of truth and the genuineness of conviction.

If they were to say such things and mean them, and if they were to develop policies that would achieve such outcomes, would that mean travelling backwards or forwards, rightwards or leftwards, on Martin Kettle’s one-track line? Or would it mean striking out in a new direction, one of Labour’s choosing, one that is consistent with both its great traditions and with a cutting-edge future – a future a long way away from Tory central.

This article first appeared at Bryan Gould’s own blog


  1. Mervyn Hyde says:

    The first thing to say is Martin Kettle can be ignored, as he was Cameron’s speech writer.

    What is the deficit?

    The deficit is the difference between the tax raised and the money needed to pay for public services.

    That being so, why have they over the last forty years continually reduced taxation?

    Because the Neo-Liberal agenda is to asset strip the state and privatise our public services.

    Why have New Labour pursued the same policies?

    Because they support the Neo-Liberal agenda and don’t support public services, which was why they introduced the private sector into the NHS.

    New Labour are Tories.

  2. Barry Ewart says:

    Yes I would argue Kettle is a middle class niave liberal.
    Democratic socialists need to offer hope in the World, uniting diverse working class people (and the progresive middle class) of all religions and of none in every country.
    Horrible news today – 2.3m kids in poverty in the UK, 3 global atacks religious fanatics.
    Wish we were told the key arguments of the fanatics and we all (including the majority – progresive and moderate Muslims) could counter these ideas.
    We need a democratic socialist economic perspective to counter Neo-Liberalism and to campaign for a global living wage, a shorter working week & earlier retirement (so ‘time poor’ working humanity have more time to enjoy their planet and life), more democratic public ownership (by country), better global health services, sanitation, clean water, health & safety at work, decent homes, global environment action etc.
    Perhaps grassroots and bottom up is the future?
    There is global hope! Yours in peace.

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      “We need a democratic socialist economic perspective to counter Neo-Liberalism ?”

      Good luck with all that.

      The UK is now being run as effectively; just another part of the American controlled third world economic and political hegemony, who’s little remaining economic sovereignty is to shortly be curtailed even further under TTIP and TAFA.

      To better understand the American perspective on this and, “lest we forget,” for anyone with the time and interest, I I’d strongly recommend this lecture; with thanks to the University of Huston for making it available free of change.

  3. Rod says:

    Many within the Labour Party will agree with Kettle. Hence the vote to jettison the collective link with the trade unions following Miliband’s cooked-up Falkirk crisis.

    But then the Labour Party has gone rotten and serves no purpose beyond being a career vehicle for a politically narcissistic elite.

  4. kettle can’t be ignored because if he has links with Cameron, this is what the Tory Party wants Labour to think. The new statesman editorial last week had an approving note on a speech made by Jim Murphy to the Policy Exchange group which states much the same thing. The Policy Exchange is a right wing think tank which has a vested interest in Labour losing. It was started by Michael gove, among others.

    Having said that, the Labour Party has to be made fit for purpose and that is not an interest served by either the Old Left or the Bennite Right. The Corbyn and Kendall campaigns are both offering a return to the past, the 1980s in the case of Corbyn and the 1990s in the case of Kendall. Neither of the other two are offering anything that looks to the problems for Labour indicated by the IPSOS MORI poll, but at least they are not locked into a past which has long since gone.

    The country has moved to the right and the rise of UKIP in particular has to be taken seriously Ditto the rise of the SNP. Its clear that the new and radical future this site would like to see is not going to happen by going back.

    Trevor Fisher

  5. gerry says:

    New Labour found ONE way back to power for us, after 18 years of Tory rule, and in the electoral truth that the UK as a whole is small c conservative, and has been so since universal suffrage. New Labour also found a way to win over key voters – working class C2s, older working class voters, women (between 1945 and 1997 Tories always got more votes from women rather than men, especially working class women: Blair obliterated that gender gap). Lets all hope New Labour wasn’t/isn’t the only way to prevent endless Tory rule in the UK!

    Liz Kendall is trying to recreate a New Labour coalition and she can at least show evidence that such a direction has worked for us electorally.

    Jeremy Corbyn, and anyone else who rejects New Labour, needs to show that a more ideologically Left or centre-Left direction CAN win over millions of voters – the article is correct that younger voters, poorer voters, BME voters need to turn out in huge numbers in every constituency for us to neutralise the massive present Tory/UKIP appeal to C2s, pensioners, older women…

    I haven’t seen anything Jeremy has said or done which tells me he has any sort of strategy to win over millions of non voters, or neutralise all those working class Tory and UKIP voters..but I hope he can at least address this gaping hole in his politics: describing UKIP voters as ” racist or desperate” ( as he recently did) will not endear him to them, so he really has to target all those 13 million non voters, and enthuse them like 2008 Obama, or 1945 Attlee…we shall see!

  6. Barry Ewart says:

    Gerry, It could be argued Labour would have won without New Labour (the SDP) in 1997 anyway if John Smith had survived – the popular mood was for change and people were sick of the Tories.
    I am not sure about your claim about the UK being small c, the most recent evidence I saw was a narrow 51% centre/left and remember the Tories only got 24% of the total electorate and 76% didn’t vote for them (and 15.9m did not vote) and in 23 marginals the Tories had majorities of 3,000 and less (69,000 people).
    But fundamentally Labour needs to return to being a political party and promoting poltical education, we need a crusade to build a society (and World) of critical thinkers and the more there are the stronger we all are.
    With Kendal and more SPDization of Labour there would be no power for us if we were elected – it would be Carry On Neo-Liberalism, more PFI, more privatisations, with a few crumbs for working class people and the progressive middle class and don’t forget it was New Labour who originally deserted working class communities leaving a vacuum.
    And we won’t get onto disastrous foreign policy.
    But the left does need a positive vision and I would argue in the past it has been a poor outward communicator (and seemed to talk to itself in its own language) but my hope is with the grassroots and I am backing Jeremy Corbyn because I think he agrees.
    Which is why I argue we need power back to members to make policy via conference, power to CLPs to pick own shortlists and to run own CLP campaigns and positive working class action – at least 2 democratic socialist candidates (social classes 3-6) on parliamentary shortlists and before I get criticised by the middle class for ‘worker ism’ I argue that then from a choice of 5/6 diverse candidates may the best democratic socialist win.
    I would also have all 2020 Parliamentary candidates in place 2 years before the election so they can start working their butts off in constituencies plus in 2017 I would have all seats without Labour MPs open a pool for potential candidates who could register for free on CLP websites as being interested in standing there.
    I also want a minimum membership fee of £5 and the rest set on a sliding scale based on income to help us to build a mass party and we need more voices from those on the front-line of hardship.
    But the left does need a narrative – empowerment, equality, economic justice, and more democracy.
    I would have the public ownership of mail and rail with staff electing boards and communities having a say. Public ownership of utilities on similar lines but could pay a community dividend like the old Coop divi which people could take as money or use to offset against bills (which could help to address fuel poverty).
    Public ownership of some banks, airlines (less seats, more comfort for passengers, crèches in the sky), public ownership pharmaceutical industry (save NHS billions, stops the market robbing some with severe conditions of extra years of life), free public transport.
    Windfall taxes big business (getting some of our expropriated wealth back, tax land & rich, EC financial transaction tax and EC Common Corporate Tax) then state-led public investment (and the private sector would pour in behind).
    And we need democratic socialist parties in every country to be campaigning for similar things.
    And we need dynamic business which values staff and involves them and rewards them well (and allows trade unions if people want them) and which has consulting leaders, encourages critical thinking amongst staff who are prepared to reflect and think outside of the box and draw on evidence and they may say ‘Why don’t we try this?” ‘What about that?” ‘This isn’t working’ ‘This seems to work for others’ and I think that some of us realise that business (and particularly small business) is often people’s dreams.
    Oh and because I think it is right we should not only abolish the bedroom tax but compensate all those who have suffered through it, also a symbol that Labour is back to its roots.
    To reinforce my point about more power to the grassroots it took about 2 years for those at the top of Labour to oppose the bedroom tax then of course they became champions for this when many in the grassroots opposed it from day one!
    Re the environment I read a lovely story how someone had the idea of putting solar panels on roofs of tents in a refugee camp in the Middle East and now people have power 24 hours and I believe we need to harness more the free energy of the sun globally as well as other renewables to meet our energy needs and to wean us off fossil fuels and their impact upon the planet.
    So the Leadership contest I would argue is not really about choosing a ‘Great man or woman of history’ (and I would argue we need a Leader/Facilitator of grassroots opinion) but
    for Labour members this contest is really about potentially re-empowering themselves.

    1. gerry says:

      Barry – your vision of a renewed bottom-up grassroots-focussed Labour party has obvious idealistic appeal, and could form the basis of a Labour revival.

      But your political vision- like that of Mukkinese – keeps ignoring the electoral facts, which I say once more: in the UK since universal suffrage, large % of working class people, both skilled and unskilled, women more so than men, have voted for parties of the Right: Tories, UKIP, Alliance. We need to understand the deep and lasting appeal parties of the Right have in the UK – for many working class voters.

      And more facts: in the 1980s when we had clear Left manifestoes, working class voters deserted us even more – over 60% voted for Tories or the Alliance…and now in 2015, 60% of pensioners, most of them working class, voted Tory or UKIP, as did nearly 60% of skilled workers. Since 1979, only Tony Blair has ever managed to successfully neutralise Tory working class appeal – and yes he did that by swallowing most of the Thatcherite economic agenda whole!

      The Conservative party was the most successful electoral party anywhere in Europe because it was so good in attracting working class votes – without these working class voters, Thatcher and Major would never had gained their 43/44% share of the vote for 18 years. These are electoral facts we need to acknowledge, understand, and then neutralise!

      So to just hope that going left will somehow win back loads of working class votes from clear ideological Thatcherite parties like UKIP and the Tories …well, it flies in the face of all the available evidence, certainly in England and Wales: the ball is in your court.

  7. Mukkinese says:

    Excellent piece, which I am sure will be entirely ignored by the labour leader wannabes.

    All of them, but Corbyn, are convinced that we must ditch real social justice in favour of the faux social justice of the Tories. All of them are afraid, probably of winning, because they have no real clue what to do.

    Where is the fight? Where is the passion? Where is the imagination and daring?

    They all seem determined to to be bland, bland, bland. Bore the voters, ignore their concerns, ditch the policies they liked and admit to being less economically competent than even George Osborne.

    This does not seem like a winning formula to me.

    First, be an effective opposition. Stop avoiding the open goals and pummel the government relentlessly.

    Second, attack the Tories economic credentials. This is the biggest single lead they have and reducing it is a priority.

    Stop playing the Tory game and fight for god’s sake…

  8. swatantra says:

    I should remind the author that we live in a 3 dimensional world, and that besides backwards and forwards, there is yet another choice and that is to go upwards and that basically means thinking outside the box and thinking the unthinkable, because the ‘unthinkable’ is what is going to happen anyway, as there are many issues that society refuses to face up to, ethical issues, issues of life and death, for example, should we be contemplating keeping people alive beyond the age of 100+, even when they wish not to be kept alive? We talk of an increasing elderly population. Extrapolate that to 50 years from now, or 100 years from now, and imagine what society is going to be like then.

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