• Nothing to Lose But Our Fears

    The aftermath of election defeat for Labour has been marked by the familiar combination of soul-searching and mutual recrimination. The remnants of New Labour bemoan the supposed failure to address the concerns of middle-of-the-road voters, and point to the lessons they believe should be drawn from Tony Blair’s three successive election victories.

    Those who would prefer to disown the Blair legacy counter with the argument that Eds Miliband and Balls conceded too much to the Tories and did too little to establish their credentials with traditional Labour voters who accordingly failed to turn out in sufficient numbers.

    It is certainly true that a number of familiar factors contributed to the Labour defeat – among them, the huge disparity in financial resources and media support enjoyed by the Tories, and the perennially lower turnout by disadvantaged voters. We can add by way of explanation some issues that were peculiar to this election, among them the collapse of the Liberals, the SNP’s exploitation of the discredited and moribund state of the Scottish Labour Party and the successful gerrymandering of the electoral roll and consequent disenfranchisement of mainly non-Tory voters as a result of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act of 2013.

    But none of these factors – familiar or otherwise – helps very much in deciding where Labour should go from here.  As those behind cry “Forward!”, and those before cry “Back!”, the dilemma for Labour is that one thing is clear – there is little future in simply waiting for the voters to tire of the Tories. History tells us that that can take a long time.

    The options that are regularly recommended – returning to Labour’s core support (declining as it is) on the one hand or posing as Tory-lite in the contest for the centrist vote on the other have little to commend them, either in principle or practice. There is no point in fighting the next and future electoral battles from either of these stances (or more typically from a confusing attempted combination of the two) when there is no reason to expect that they will produce any better result than they have done in the past.

    What is surely needed, rather than simply repeat failed strategies, is a game-breaker, not in the sense of some hitherto undiscovered silver bullet, but in the form of some genuine new thinking that breaks free from the neo-liberal consensus that has in effect imprisoned the left in an intellectual straitjacket for three decades or more.

    Both those who would go forward and those who would go back reflect thinking that is the product of a debilitating lack of intellectual self-confidence. Those who would take refuge in the past are happy to bemoan the consequences of Tory policies but have no convincing alternative analysis or prescription to offer. They dare not admit it, but they are terrified that if they are seen to depart too far from neo-liberal orthodoxy they will be exposed as having no clothes.

    Those who argue for a move towards the centre are more likely to admit that – at heart – they see no option but to accept the Tory programme. Their hope is that they can persuade the voters that they are nicer people and will deliver that programme more compassionately. The voters prefer those whose hearts are in it.

    Both of these apparently polar opposite positions, in other words, implicitly acknowledge the immoveable centrality of the Tory approach. Sometimes, that concession is explicit, as in the commitment to giving priority to reducing the government deficit. In any event, the defeatism at its heart communicates itself with deadly effect to an electorate that does not need much persuading that Labour does not deserve their confidence.

    The paradox is that the Labour leadership (not just in Britain but elsewhere in the English speaking democracies as well) are so paralysed by fear and lack of confidence that they have failed to notice that the world has moved on. All the major central banks have abandoned the cautious conservatism of conventional monetary policy. The IMF has turned its back on austerity as a proper response to recession. The OECD says that inequality is not the price that has to be paid for economic efficiency but is a major obstacle to that efficiency.

    Other countries have shown how living standards higher than our own can be raised still further through an appropriate policy mix. The way is open to learn from them and to offer the British people a new approach to running the economy – one that does not require us to choose between social justice and economic efficiency (or, for that matter, between Labour’s core values and Tory “aspiration”) but that recognises that we will all be better off if we give proper value to all our citizens and to the contribution they can all make to the general welfare. There is no mystery as to how this can be done if we only open our eyes; the necessary policy levers are just waiting to be pulled.

    Working people – and that means most of us – have nothing to lose but our fears, and principally a fear of abandoning an orthodoxy that is no longer fit for purpose in a modern democracy. As to precisely what alternatives should be adopted, why not at least begin to think about them? They are not in short supply.

    Bryan Gould

    24 May 2015.

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