After an epoch of presentation-politicians with vacuous clichés, preaching the gospel of the political centre, the Labour Party is trying very hard to escape. Its chosen Moses is Jeremy Corbyn. For 21 years the Labour Party has put political gain before principle. It is now time to change: he may well lead them into the wilderness, but there like the Children of Israel, they will grow stronger. The party of the left must return to the principles which gave it life and the power to govern in the first place. Or so the argument goes.
On the other hand, the pragmatists of the party point out you can only change things when you’re in power. Fine words butter no parsnips, as John Major would say. The choice is not between capitalism and democratic socialism, but between capitalism without a conscience under the Tories or with one under Labour.
Labour needs to decide what its principles are. The party is split between two choices: either it can combine the providing power of economic liberalism with social liberalism and protection of the vulnerable or it can be a party of the hard left: committed to equality above all things: economic and social. They cannot be both. The debate at the moment is whether a strong economy can give rise to equality or whether equality will give rise to an economy that serves people. What has made people listen to the left this time seems to be the flag bearers: the pragmatists seem robotic, bland careerists. The left appear genuine, colourful individualists.
Many will say that the answer to Labour’s question is in its history, its founding principles, its finest years. They would be right. But their reasons are probably completely wrong. For a party so proud of its history and in particular of 1945, it is utterly ignorant of its own third way (this is, I accept an unfortunate phrase to use). It does not seem to have dawned on the party that for most of its golden years, it was neither of the two things it now wants to be.
The Attlee government is held up as the exemplar of left wing government. But in many ways, it was on the right of our spectrum today: the tripartite system of education was at its zenith, wages were frozen, defence spending remained high after the war, atomic weapons were acquired, it kept the death penalty and in 1951, welfare spending (excluding health and pensions) was 4.7% of GDP, compared to 6% today. Many in the Labour Party were social and economic conservatives: patriots, opposing communism, sceptical of the common market and steeped in the rhetoric of the New Jerusalem.
Labour has lost this tradition. None of the leadership contenders understands it, far less represents it. The Blue Labour movement offers a shimmer of hope, but it may already be too late. In the party at large, there is little attempt to grasp why UKIP has been so able to win old Labour votes. For much of its life, Labour’s success has been sustained by the small ‘c’ conservative working class: people often repelled by the Tories, but conservative nonetheless. Some have gone to the Conservatives, some have gone to UKIP. But they will not find a permanent home in either while they are led by the cosmopolitan Cameron and the libertarian Farage. What is clear is that the Labour Party no longer welcomes them. The Gillian Duffy incident, among other things made that clear.
Let us imagine for a moment the popular appeal of such a Labour Party. Nationalise the railways. Renationalise the NHS. Reintroduce a tripartite system of secondary education. Limit immigration. Commit to a looser relationship with the EU, if not outside altogether, allowing more trade and less aid with developing countries. Strengthen the armed forces. Use the low cost borrowing for large scale capital spending: including housing, energy production and railways, without abandoning austerity: continuing to limit non-capital spending. Underlying this would be a communitarian, small c conservative ideology, rather than a marxist or neoliberal one: the purpose of the state would be to put people in a position to secure their own freedom whilst protecting the institutions that serve them from the excesses of the free market. People forget this also means the European Union, which is committed to economic liberalism: the free movement of all things, which by its nature consumes communities and cultures and allows the strong to thrive at the expense of the weak.
Such a party would be strongly patriotic. For years, the Labour Party has failed to fight nationalism of different colours because it has avoided patriotism like a drunken uncle. The only acceptable talk about Britishness is inane: centred on values like “tolerance” and “respect” (as if other countries don’t have these). There is an embarrassment in anything that singles out Britain as uniquely good or special. If anyone on the left actually bothered to read Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn, they’d realise they have an alternative to self loathing and embarrassment. Being proud to be British now seems to be something consenting adults do in private. Compare this to the self confidence and passion of the SNP. The battle for Britain cannot be won with the head, only with the heart. If Unionists cannot be proud to British, why on earth should the undecided be?
In Wales, this unease has been less damaging, but it is still exists. Too often it has led to devolution as a concession to nationalists or as a power grab for the Labour Party. At no point during devolution have we had the debate: how do we ensure the process does not unravel the Union? What institutions need protecting and what powers need to be retained at a national level to keep us together? Or perhaps, more conservatively, how much of the power devolved is justified by clear and marked economic, social and political differences to England? Reserving defence and foreign affairs will not cut it. A powerful Assembly is likely to threaten the Union, as the Scottish Parliament has done. This is the sort of thing nationalists understand but don’t want to talk about. The party could even ask then, whether local government is a better vehicle for decentralisation. Given the Scottish problem, this is a question that needs answering fast.
Such a party would be anathema to many, if not most in the Labour Party today, yet it would be truer to the Party’s roots than any of them. It would in some ways be to the right of the Conservatives but in many ways to the left of the current Labour Party. It would have the force to appeal simultaneously to middle England, Scotland and Wales. In that sense, it is a political ideology that can create a truly One Nation movement.
Yet it is clear that the Labour Party does not want to be such a party. It has forgotten this tradition and now scorns it. The country is poorer for it.
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