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Labour must again be a moral crusade or it is nothing

800px-Harold_Wilson_1_Allan_WarrenNothing more starkly demonstrates the parlous state of the Labour Party than the failure of its leaders (and almost all of its would-be leaders) to resist cuts in benefits that will drive many thousands of the most vulnerable into deeper poverty and despair.

No one prepared to look at the evidence can doubt that the inevitable outcome of this further Tory attack on the notion of social responsibility will mean misery for many of those who have traditionally looked to Labour to fight their corner. Nothing could strike more directly at Labour’s raison d’etre over the whole of its history.

I have watched in disbelief, from 12,000 miles away, as Labour leaders have sought to explain their unwillingness to stand firm and fight for what they supposedly believe. We are told that the voters’ support for further victimising those who have been left to pay the price of a recession for which they have no responsibility means that there is nothing further to be done.

We can’t fight the electorate” is the siren call. But how are the voters likely to view a Party that so manifestly lacks the courage of its convictions? Will they not conclude that Labour is fatally short of both courage and convictions?

Opposition parties, even those that have recently lost elections, will usually have enough self-respect to stand up for what they believe in, even if the parliamentary arithmetic is against them. What Labour is doing shows that it no longer has a bottom line of any sort but will readily bend with whatever wind happens to blow.

Even in the shortest of short-term electoral calculations, this waving of the white flag looks like bad politics. If the battlefield is to be abandoned so easily whenever the public are thought to have reached a view, the Tory advantage in resources and media support will always ensure that the fight for public support is over before it has begun. And the voters can be excused for concluding that, if even the party’s leaders cannot stick by their guns, there can be little in Labour’s position that deserves support, let alone warrants being fought for.

What confidence can anyone, let alone the Party’s supporters, have in politicians who have so little stomach for the fight? Are we to be governed entirely by opinion polls? Are even the most fundamental of Labour values to be abandoned if “triangulation” does not support them? These failings could just about be tolerated by a party of the right, since their goal is simply the maintenance of power, but they are entirely destructive of any pretension from a Party of the left that professes to have an analysis and a programme that will produce a change for the better.

In past and better days, the Labour Party willingly and bravely took on the task of changing and leading opinion. Campaigning for a better society was the Party’s life blood. Labour was a crusade or it is nothing.” It was understood that the Party, as the proposer of change, had to do more than wait for public opinion to change of its own accord and could not afford just to trail along in its wake.

Public opinion will move only if the voters see the Party standing up for what it believes in. That is true not only of specific issues but also of perceptions as to whether the Party is fit for government across the whole gamut of policy. The voters are likely to conclude that a Party without the confidence to fight its corner on a specific issue, especially one that has historically been important to it, will be even more handicapped and powerless when facing the multifarious problems of government.

The Party’s stance on benefit cuts is, of course, even more worrying and comprehensive than it at first appears. It is of course a negative – a failure to say no to a change that it is expected to oppose. But it is more than that. It exposes a vacuum. The capitulation by Labour’s leaders is not only a misreading of the electoral runes but is a damaging revelation that the Party has literally nothing to say that is positive either.

On virtually every policy issue, Labour has been reduced to saying “me too”. They may try to tack on a qualification – “not so much” or “not so fast” or “we’ll do it with a kindly smile”. But, in essence, Labour’s leaders evidently believe that they have nothing new to offer. They may carp and cavil at the outcomes of Tory policy, but they seem to have neither the competence not the capacity for hard work that are needed to come forward with real alternatives.

The only way forward they see is accepting – even if only passively – yet more of the Tory agenda, which they are constantly advised, even by their friends, is the only option. Yet the world is changing fast. Long-held orthodoxy about macro-economic policy, about the role of the market, about Europe, about Britain’s role in the world, is being effectively challenged. Labour desperately needs a leadership that is no longer becalmed but that can ride that wave. The Party, and a large part of the electorate, cannot prosper without it.

This article first appeared at Bryan’s own blog

Image credit: Harold Wilson by Allan Warren CC BY SA

17 Comments

  1. swatantra says:

    I do wish people would leave religion and morality out of Politics. Politics is all about the art of the Possible. Not vague pipe dreams.

    1. Mervyn Hyde says:

      I we leave morality out of politics then what is left, tyranny?

      1. Mukkinese says:

        Toryism…

    2. Gary Brooke says:

      And what happens when the City, the media and the corporations tell you what is allowed to be possible…?

    3. john P Reid says:

      quite whats so moral about a crusade anyway

  2. Matty says:

    This is an excellent article. Any leader will have a tough challenge at the next election but it is not inevitable that Labour lose and that includes with Corbyn as leader. There are many socialist policies that are popular already and with proper campaigning could be even more so. See http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/the-jeremy-corbyn-policies-that-most-people-actually-agree-with-10407148.html

    1. gerry says:

      But on the major, vote deciding issues the public reject the Left too – austerity (67% back benefit cuts, 20% don’t – big majorities of Labour voters back cuts too!) or immigration ( huge majorities oppose Jeremy’s backing for open door immigration, as do most Labour voters)…that doesn’t mean that he can’t win, but it does mean that he/we have to get at least 5 million more people to vote for us in 2020. And not a single person who currently votes UKIP or Tory (15-16 million of them) will switch to the Left, regardless of what they say to pollsters. As a Labour person, I might still vote for him as leader though – the other 3 candidates are vote losers too!

      1. john P Reid says:

        you realise that more than half the Ukip vote use to be labour and I appreciate many have died but there must be a couple of million Tory voters who voted Labour in 97

      2. Matty says:

        You’re right that it will be a massive challenge but “Not a single person”? There was a fireman at the Nuneaton BBC hustings who said he didn’t vote Labour because Labour had failed to defend public services so he voted UKIP as a protest vote. The UKIP voters are a motley crew.

          1. gerry says:

            Yes I saw that wretched fireman from the hustings too – what an idiot: voting for a Thatcherite anti- state party because he wants to “defend public services”! Some people are just sick….

            I hope you are right, Matty….the more we see of Kendall, Cooper, Burnham, the more mediocre they seem, and none of them will win people over, either…

  3. James Martin says:

    I saw our shadow chancellor on the telly for the first time yesterday – christ, where was he discovered, absolutely nothing to say, no ideas, nothing, and a fall asleep as you watch ‘presence’ that makes Rachel Reeves seem exciting. No wonder the right-wing are in utter crisis right now with such an obvious poverty of talent to draw on!

    1. swatantra says:

      To be fair, most of them are only in Acting Roles until JC appoints his own Shadow Cabinet.

      1. john P Reid says:

        Swatyou say you may vote JC ,as if he’s unpopular he’ll resign ,within a couple of yeras ,but,
        Ed Miliband was aware by private polling that he was going to lose in 2015, a year before hand after the 2014 EU elections when Ukip won,and Labour didn’t do as well as could have outside London, Andrew Mckinaly hardly a new Labour man, wrote a article saying resign ,he ignored it

        Michael foot was told By Gerald Kaufman, that he was heading labour too disaster asked him to resign he didn’t and A young Supporter of tony Benn, who was part of Banns campaign team, said had Benn Won deputy in 1981 he would have ousted Foot in 1982 and labour would have done worse in 83 ,than foot had, what makes you think that Had Corbyn becomes leader that if labour are behind in the polls,in a couple of years it’ll be a clue for Him to resign, If corbyn becomes leader Labour win get 15 of the vote in 2020

  4. mark hogson says:

    It is paradoxical that if governments owned industry, there would be more competition in the world because at the moment, it is all owned by a handful of multinational corporations.
    Politics is about talking to people and persuading them to vote for your views, not by coming up with policies that accept a status quo- particularly when that status quo is defined by a dollaracracy rather than by any popular voice.

  5. mark hogson says:

    It is wrong to say that Labour Party supporters voted for welfare cuts. What they and others in the UK voted for and want is for the lazy and scroungers to get their welfare cut.
    Here is the big lie of Labour and all UK parties and it dates back to Roman times: the lie that the poor are lazy and undeserving. Nobody wants to be poor, the poor want to be richer (few want to be rich).
    Stop saying that welfare needs to be cut and attacking the poor; most government tax relief goes to the wealthy, not the poor.
    Corbyn might be able to put the debate back where it was a century ago and to attack the rich for stealing from the nation and making the poor poorer while blaming them for being poor.
    It is to the eternal shame of the Labour Party that they talk of the ‘hard working poor’ and the ‘deserving poor’ as if there was a group close to starvation and homelessness that did not deserve any aid.
    I have saved over £100Mn for UK industry over the past 15 years and am now without work. Am I deserving or undeserving? Should I be forced to be homeless because I am rejected by major corporations because they don’t want someone like me and small companies think I will leave them, so take on someone else?

  6. David Pavett says:

    I agree entirely about the appalling lack of conviction displayed by Labour over welfare cuts and other major policy issues.

    I don’t however think that the idea of Labour as first and formost a “moral crusade” is helpful. In fact it is a reversal of the real order of things and as such can only add confusion to the debate about Labour’s future.

    A first step in politics is to recognise that people with very different and even incompatible views to one’s own may be motivated by decent moral impulses. Anyone who can’t see that has not made the transition from tribal to political thinking.

    If that were not the case then one would be forced to argue for one’s preferred political options on the basis of their alleged moral superiority. The result is a claim that “my morality is superior to that of my opponents”. Is that really a position we want to get into? Do we really want politics to be about the alleged superiority of our ethical concepts? How would that work? Ii would reduce political debate to a stupid and unproductive claim and counter-claim of moral superiority.

    The fact is that trying to debate moral issues is entirely barren if it is done without at the same time developing a critique of society arrangements that gives rise to them and which also point to the way they can be resolved.

    Moral crusades are for people who want a short cut which bypasses the need for such critical effort. The socialist movement in general and the Labour Party in particular is littered with attempts to take such short cuts. The problem is that they always lead straight to the swamp of conentional (uncritical) thinking.

    Rather than a call for a moral crusade we need to call for far greater effort to understand the nature of the society in which we live, including the way it develops our moral sensitivities, and provides the means to resolve the moral problems it poses.

    There are no valid short cuts. The shortest route to understanding our society and its moral problems is via the path of critical social theory.

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