It’s time for a fundamental rethink

Steve Brooks says Labour must fundamentally address what the party is for.

It’s no secret that social democracy is in crisis.  In Britain, like most of Europe, centre-left parties have been swept from power.  Dominant for the first three decades after World War II, progressive thinking faltered when growth slowed in the 1970s.  Redistribution through tax and spend became increasingly difficult to deliver.  A rapid process of de-industrialisation from the 1980s, brought about in large part by Thatcherism and globalisation, threw us further off course.  At the time, the third-way looked like social democracy’s route back to the ascendency.  In the late 1990s we talked of a coming ‘Labour century’, yet just 7 years in, we were confronted by the financial crisis.

Tough choices followed and thanks to Labour, an economic depression was averted.  Before we left office, the economy had returned to growth.  As painful as 2010 was, many on the centre-left drew false comfort from subsequent events of the last 5 years.  Many assumed the global recession marked the beginning of the end of neo-liberal capitalism, and a shift back towards Keynesian economics.

The electorate had finally come to their senses.  Market failure followed by five years of austerity would pull the public to the left.  Popular policies like the Mansion Tax, scrapping the Bedroom Tax and the energy price freeze would propel us back into government.  We had got our party back, and soon we would be returned to power.  Except, we weren’t. We lost, and we lost big. Our opponents broke the swingometer whilst we achieved a lower share of the vote than the Tories did in 1997.

The task now for Labour is to accept defeat, regroup and renew.  Jon Cruddas has rightly identified the scale of the challenge we face.  The Labour party today has no more right to exist than the old Liberal party of the 1920s.   We suffered not just an electoral defeat, but an intellectual one too.  The financial crisis wasn’t just failure of the markets, it was a failure of government.   Voters understand this and we must learn the lesson they are trying to teach us.

Cruddas argues that we must be “prepared to go the dark places and fundamentally rethink what the Labour Party is for, who it represents, what it’s all about”.  It’s a debate on our mission, vision and values.  Something we haven’t had as a movement since the mid-1990s when we changed Clause IV.

Labour’s right have accused the left of retreating into its comfort zone.  The right retort that we only win when we are New Labour.   The truth is that both Old Labour and New Labour achieved spectacular things.  Old Labour established a health service based on need not ability to pay; it built homes for heroes; and created a welfare state that acted as springboard not a safety net.  New Labour brought in the National Minimum Wage, cut crime, extended employment rights, and led the way tackling global poverty.

But the world has changed and we will do a disservice to the people of Wales and Britain if we allow the debate to descend into a ‘left a bit, right a bit’ row. It is easy to get drawn into a heated argument on strategy and tactics.  Were the policies good? Was our message coherent? Were we too left? Too right? Wrong leader? Poor organisation? All of these questions matter and need answers, but our first task is something more fundamental.  We cannot allow superficial arguments about aspiration and structural questions about the party’s constitution; to overshadow the more pressing need to re-identify and re-articulate who we are and what we are for.

Labour has no God given right to exist, and unless we renew our understanding of why we are here and what we want to achieve; populists left and right will invade our space, like they have in Greece and Spain.

Centre-left parties succeed when they achieve social change; they falter when they fail to keep up with the social change they create. Without that fundamental rethink, we do not simply risk irrelevance; we face extinction.

Steve Brooks is a member of the Labour party and writes in a personal capacity

10 thoughts on “It’s time for a fundamental rethink

  1. Political people like Steve Brooks and me and probably everyone who reads this has a problem. We are odd, different , we think party politics is very important. Most people aren’t interested most of the time.They think that political parties have very little influence on their lives. Is that a rational position? Are they right?
    In general I think they are. Social change has been brought about by centre left parties but much more so by technology, mass communication and a globalised economic system. National politicians have little power to alter these supra national forces.
    As a Maerdy born miners son I come from a political tribe which has been declining all my life. Miners knew which side they were on and that it made a difference. Their grand children don’t identify with political labels; they consume them. They choose who they think will be the best managers.
    Labour hasn’t looked like the best manager in the market place for some time.

  2. JOJ is spot on. It’s an important theme in the work of Daniel Finkelstein too, that party insiders and activists overegg the political and moral pudding. The so-called popular lack of political engagement is sometimes mistaken as ignorance or apathy. That is an arrogant misreading. People have got their lives to get on with. They are the authentic implementers of change and, often, real progress. They believe their world is a more real world than the one inhabited by the political class -and it comes across as less dodgy….

    Yes, Llafur/Labour needs to look more like it can manage stuff. Robert Harris made a good point post-election that a Manichean view combined with miserablism won’t cut it. Tories nasties/Labour goodies is so out of time, it’s not even retro attractive or post-modern ironic. Fundamental rethink? Start with this election of a leader. Stop it. There’s not a field worthy of the vacancy. Pause. Rethink. Carry on till 2016 with the interim Harman. Time and reflection may provide more appointable candidates -plus a more thoughtful job description and person spec.

  3. Is it time perhaps to question the value of the whole left/right divide, which I think most people don’t understand anyway. As I understand it we are all positioned somewhere on the left/right spectrum in the same way that we are all somewhere on the male/female spectrum. If, instead of treating “the left” or “the right” as the enemy we should see those we disagree with in the same way as we view those with different sexuality.
    One thing I feel pretty sure about is that climate change will force us to look for a different kind of politics. Instead of arguing about which policies are better for “growth”, or “jobs” etc. we should be discussing how we can save our species from itself.
    One last point – does anyone read these comments?

  4. Both Steve and Jon Owen make very honest statements about the predicament facing their party. I certainly find it hard to perceive which direction Wales is taking with this growth of the right wing in our midst, in particular UKIP which, most commentators seem to agree, has had its share of the vote increased by disgruntled former Labour Party supporters.

    And Jon is certainly right to say that there is a model of politics based around the market-driven society in which one can say for citizen, see consumer. The role that the voter plays is not how can I influence the society of which I am a member, but do the services provided by the public sector for which I pay give me value for money, much as one would about an insurance policy or a second-hand car.

    Steve Brooks begins his piece by saying that it’s no secret that social democracy is in crisis. Yet I would imagine that if I were sitting in Scotland, I would assume that he was talking about another country. The SNP were able to achieve an overall majority at Holyrood under a proportional representation system and took all but 3 Westminster seats at the general election by persuading Labour voters that they had a better chance of living in a social democracy by voting SNP than if they voted for a Labour Party trying to appeal to a very different constituency down south. So the crisis for social democracy is very much an English one and that could engulf Wales if Welsh voters do not prefer the type of government on display in Cardiff Bay. Welsh media commentators have suggested that it is the Labour Government’s record on the NHS that have left people turning to other parties. We have yet to see any evidence beyond the conjecture but it is the case that if Cardiff Bay is not seen to produce a better quality of life here, then voters heads will turn towards our more prosperous neighbour and seek remedies there.

    The point is that social democracy has triumphed in Scotland which demonstrates that it is not an impossibility within a neo-liberal British state. But the SNP have been able to inherit a centuries old cultural tradition that there is such a thing as society, established by the merchants and the Presbyterian Church which believed that Christianity meant having a Christian society. This view of society and social values is deeply embedded in Scotland; the SNP have been able to inherit and adapt it to modern day circumstances. One can also point to the level of public engagement during the Referendum debate to demonstrate that a sense of the citizen as social player is very much alive there.

    In Wales, no such institution has ever achieved that degree of influence. In fact the one institution that is capable of developing and promoting the idea that there is such a thing as society and that citizenship is something more than consumerism is only 16 years old. It still seems uncertain of itself and still operates within very confined limits. We shall see whether the Wales Bill, when enacted, will give the elected representatives the confidence needed to win the argument for social democracy not just within the Chamber but among the Welsh public. At the moment, it does not look like doing so, since it is largely reactive to what happens in Westminster. It is the market-driven society that holds sway here because of the political and economic power that England can draw on.

    Finally, to return to Steve Brooks original point, the Labour Party needs to forget about drawing up a message that will appeal to both Scots and Middle England. Labour needs to win in England and it needs to adopt the policies and strategies that will make that happen. The question for Labour in Wales is, is it capable of forging a politics in Wales that is not dependent on a Labour victory in England for its success but can be the vehicle for a social democracy that will appeal to Welsh voters because it can be actually be delivered from its base in Cardiff Bay?

  5. It may be that Labour have paid the price of being Tweedledum to the Conservatives Tweedledee for too long. This approach may have worked in the binary situation that has existed in Westmnster since 1945. In this year’s general election, the electorate may well have felt that they had had enough of all that cosiness, and after trying coalition, by denying both parties a majority in 2010, may have decided that they needed a clear winner. A consumerist approach, and won, of course, by an advertising consultant with vast financial resources. Policy did not, necessarily, apply.

    Defining yourself against ‘them’ will always strengthen ‘their’ position, which will intensify the discipline and tactical policy distortion called for, for you to win, and consequently strengthen ‘their ‘ position and so it goes on and on until the disintegration of the weaker of the two – which we may have seen this month, as Jon Cruddas suggests.

    Trying to make a binary ‘us and them’ in the Assembly has not worked. Managerial effectiveness is not political policy. Elections are a part of democracy – but only a part. The arguments (and therefore engagement) must be made continuously.

    A party may be in a minority but that does not make it wrong. Omo does not necessarily wash the whitest.

  6. If we’re not ‘real’ Labour, then what’s the point?

    Think about it; what was it that made you become a Labour supporter? For me, it was the ever-growing awareness of the injustices of our society- the gross inequality, poverty, hardship, deprivation and insecurity experienced by so many, whilst a small minority grow ever-richer, by exploiting the rest of us. The fierce desire to see a fairer, happier and altogether better society is what led me to the only place where this dream has a chance of becoming reality- the Labour Party. Isn’t that what brought you here?

    So, if the awareness of these injustices is what brought on our commitment to the Labour Party, then why aren’t our politicians doing so much more to highlight injustice, so that more people will join our cause?

    Labour’s election campaign was notable for its lack of focus on hardship and injustice- the very things that gained it most of its original support and that are the main reason for its existence. Why were the cruel, heartless, and sometimes downright evil policies of the Conservatives not being denounced at every available opportunity?

    Why did we not hear Labour politicians shouting from the rooftops about benefit sanctions and food banks; about flawed ATOS assessments and the resulting suicides; about cutting legal aid and therefore cutting access to justice; about cutting housing benefit and the resulting evictions?

    Why are we STILL not hearing about these things?

    When asked why they no longer support the Labour Party, many people who previously voted Labour state that the Party let them down. You can see their point, can’t you?

    The areas that are suffering the most under the Conservatives’ rule are the Labour heartlands, which have higher unemployment, higher levels of homelessness, and greater use of food banks; along with all the accompanying problems of poverty- higher rates of crime, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, poorer health and much lower life expectancy. By not focusing on these issues, by not doing everything in our power to bring them to the nation’s attention, we let down the very people who our Party was created to fight for and serve. It’s no wonder that so many of our ‘natural’ supporters either turned to UKIP, or gave up on voting altogether.

    Let’s face it; we let ourselves down, we let our core supporters down, and we let the whole country down, as Britain is now going to be a much more unpleasant place to live for the foreseeable future.

    The Labour Party was created to highlight injustice, so as to gain support for the cause and then fight against that injustice. If we’re not doing that, then what’s the point of our Party?

    Labour’s post-election post-mortem has so far been dominated by the Blairite assertions that, instead of looking to win back all those who voted UKIP, or didn’t vote at all, we must instead try to appeal to more of the electorate, by appealing to the ‘aspirational’. This is a ridiculous claim. The Labour Party, is entirely built on aspiration- the aspiration for a decent quality of life for everyone. What the Blairites actually mean, is that we should be more pro-business.

    That is a ludicrous idea. We are obviously not anti-business, because we seek full employment for all. We want a prosperous society, where businesses can be successful, but we want that success to benefit everyone, through decent employment, in good jobs, with good wages and conditions.

    We must not swing to the right. Those whose pro-business agenda trumps all other concerns should consider whether they are in the wrong party.

    We must be who we are supposed to be- the LABOUR Party- the Party of the average working person, the Party of the 99%. If we swing to the right, in an effort to gain more votes, we not only let down our core supporters, we also risk becoming involved in an Orwellian quest for power, for power’s sake. It won’t do; to try to be more Tory than the Tories, to match their promises on cuts to vital services in order to gain votes, so that we can then sneak in some left-wing policies once we are in power. We must boldly challenge accepted (right-wing) wisdom about the way to run society and the economy, and we must even more boldly broadcast our grand vision of a far superior alternative.

    It is time we stood up and proudly declared our values. Let’s not try to hide the fact that we are a left-wing party, or be ashamed that we seek equality, fairness and justice. Let’s loudly proclaim our grand vision and mission- to make Great Britain great for all of us, not just the wealthy.

    When we elect our new leader, let’s think hard about who we are and what we want our party to be.

    Let’s be a ‘real’ Labour party, because if we’re not that, then what’s the point?

    Brian Back

  7. Social democracy has not “won in Scotland”. The SNP has won an election. If that hybrid party tries to implement social democracy we shall see whether it wins or not. They may find it as difficult as continental European parties have in a globalised world.

  8. @ R Tredwyn

    The SNP won in Scotland as a social democratic party and have been implementing social democratic policies for the past eight years at Holyrood.

  9. Rhobat I like the idea that social democracy has triumphed in Scotland however i am not convinced that the evidence bears the weight of your argument.
    Yes the SNP victory was exceptional but it occurred in exceptional circumstances. Months previously, in a very high poll, 45% had voted for independence. In the General Election and in a lower poll 50% supported the SNP. It is reasonable to assume that they were the same people. Were they voting for social democracy? In part no doubt but only in part.
    The SNP are in government in Scotland and are generally seen to be competent(or at least they haven’t been attacked as incompetent)..Perhaps many voters saw them as the best managers available.
    Huw talks about binary choices and Brian clearly sees the world in that way but is Social Democracy and a market driven society really a binary choice.There are no pure versions of either. Countries are all mixtures of both but the market is more restrained in Sweden than in the USA.
    Finally lets imagine an independent Scotland and consider the services it extends to its citizens.I will take health as an example. Here are three factors that will influence the quality of care the Scots receive.
    1 How well the service is managed.
    2 The political philosophy of its government.
    3 The market price of oil.
    Please rank in order of importance to the quality of service.

  10. @ Jon Owen

    Let me start with the electoral results. The SNP are the Government of Scotland with a majority of 5. There is a year to go until the the next Parliamentary election but I willing to bet that the SNP will be returned to Government. Should there be any reverse of their fortunes, which will come inevitably, it will happen at the earliest in 2021. In the recent UK general election, the SNP won 56 out of 59 seats. Therefore I believe it is the case that the SNP will dominate Scottish politics for at least the next 5 to 6 years. If that is not a triumph, I do not know what is. How long that triumph will last is another question. But if a week is a long time in politics, then 5 to 6 years is an aeon.

    To divert slightly, I lived in Scotland for some nine years. One of the things I learnt about the people of Scotland is that they are slow to decide in their public attitudes but that once they have decided, they see it through.

    There is nothing inevitable about politics but there has been a clear shift in self-perception in Scotland as to where they stand; that is not about to be turned around in the blink of an electoral cycle. The fact that the English Conservatives have already ruled out the HS2 extension to north of the border only shows the shallowness of Cameron’s claim to govern as one nation and that they have given up on winning Scotland back.

    My point regarding the SNP as a social democratic party is a simple one. You will know better than I do, having formerly served as an MP, that for a party to become a government, it has to appeal beyond its core vote in a way that does not alienate that core vote. The SNP is at its heart a nationalist party. To win however it had to appeal to voters who were not. There is some mileage I suppose in trying to persuade people to become nationalists. But it is far easier to persuade people to retain their values but change their vote instead. In advancing the cause of the social democratic nation, the SNP succeeds in advancing the nation, thus pleasing its core vote, and in advancing social democracy which persuades Labour voters to desert their party in droves. That is, by virtue of electoral evidence, a winning combination. If the SNP wishes to continue in government, it will have to keep that coalition together. At present that project is secure in the hands of Nicola Sturgeon and her cabinet and, more importantly there is no threat to that hegemony from any other party standing in Scottish elections.

    The one potential threat that could arise would have to come from the Labour Party in Scotland. For that to happen however, it would have to convince the Scottish electorate that it was no longer controlled from its Westminster hierarchy. In other words, Scottish Labour would have to become an independent party. If that happened, then they would have a sound basis on which to rebuild.

    Unfortunately there is still a belief, expounded mainly within the London media, that the Labour Party will have to come up with a position or message that can appeal to both the Scottish electorate and the English Home Counties. To re-contextualise John McEnroe, you cannot be serious. But I suspect that Labour will, for sentimental reasons more than anything, still believe that Britain can be rescued. Yet you don’t have to be a nationalist to realise the folly of that position. As the First Minister of Wales said, “The Union we know is dead. We need to forge a new one …” That is the only realistic starting point that has any chance of success. I suspect however that it is too late. Scotland’s support for the SNP has undermined any chance of a reformed Union; they have all but left. A swing of 6% at the next referendum, and that will not be for a while yet, is all that’s needed. We in Wales will be left with the Anglo-Welsh Union, which is a far more lopsided arrangement over which we have very little power to change the terms to best suit our interests.

    There is another discussion to be had as to Labour needing to win in England. But I shall leave that for another day.

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