• What’s Left for Labour?

    Barring a miracle, and miracles seem likely to be in short supply, Labour will lose the next election. The question is not the survival of the Labour government, but the survival of Labour as a force in British politics.

    Ensuring a positive answer to that question should be the sole preoccupation of Labour loyalists and activists between now and the election. A change of leadership is unlikely to make a real difference and should be considered only if it would.

    The lost election, and the failures that preceded and caused it, are not solely the responsibility of Gordon Brown. Yes, he has failed to provide the requisite miracle, but the need for a miracle is the result of cumulative failures over nearly a decade and a half of lost opportunities and abandonment of principle.

    It is ironic that we are told that the greatest threat of a leadership challenge now seems to come from the remaining standard-bearers of New Labour. The existential crisis for Labour is, after all, the end-state of the whole New Labour project. It is the end of New Labour, not a renewed New Labour, that is now needed; we can all have too much of a New thing.

    But all is not lost. Political parties can and do recover from electoral wipe-outs. My own native New Zealand provides a good and encouraging example.

    The New Zealand Labour government of 1984 confounded opponents and supporters alike by embarking on a ferocious revolution that saw New Zealand become the test-bed for a daring experiment in far-right, free-market economics. The electorate suspended judgment in 1987 and gave the Labour government a further chance; but by 1990, it was thumbs down, ushering in nine years of conservative government.

    Many people felt that electoral defeat was not the most serious issue for Labour as it faced its future. The real problem was finding a way back to a role in New Zealand politics which would allow Labour to re-connect with supporters who had been confounded and felt betrayed by their party in government.

    The abandonment by New Labour in Britain of what might have been expected of a Labour government was not nearly as dramatic or initially shocking as the policy reversal delivered by New Zealand Labour. But it was equally far-reaching and ultimately distressing to Labour’s natural supporters.

    From the Iraq invasion to complicity in torture, from the obeisance to the rich to the faith in the infallibility of the unfettered market, from the infringement of civil liberties to the belief that spin mattered more than action, from the subordination of economic policy to the interests of bankers to the devaluing of the public sector, New Labour has dashed the hopes of Labour voters and distorted the political landscape. As in New Zealand in the 1980s, voters no longer know what to expect, or where to look if they are to secure the policy framework they want.

    The good news is that, in New Zealand, the sense of betrayal and disorientation engendered by Labour’s performance in government was followed by a period in the wilderness but was not terminal. After nine years of opposition, Labour returned to office in 1999 and – even with the added challenge of a new proportional representation electoral system – then delivered a competent and well-regarded government which not only won two further elections but also restored sense and order to New Zealand’s political scene.

    Even after an election loss last year, Labour remains the government in waiting. Voters know that, if they want a left of centre government, Labour will deliver. Even in opposition, Labour remains identified with left positions and attitudes and is widely seen as where voters will go when they tire of the new conservative government.

    The leader of that nine-year Labour government was Helen Clark, recently identified by an opinion poll as the greatest living New Zealander. How did she manage to restore Labour’s fortunes and its rightful position as a contender for and deliverer of government?

    The answer should surely be of some interest to those who might aspire to the leadership of Labour in Britain. What she did was to re-state Labour’s traditional values – compassion, social justice, an economy that serves the interests of everyone and not just a privileged minority, an inclusive approach to what it means to be a New Zealander in the twenty-first century.

    Her government wasn’t perfect – what government is? But she not only restored a sense of what Labour stood for; she moved the agenda forward so that Labour values were seen as newly relevant to New Zealand’s current needs. Most of all, she carried the debate to her opponents and made the case for a left programme.

    What British Labour now needs is a new generation of leaders who have a sense of the political legacy to which they are heirs and who have the courage and conviction to move that legacy forward. The British electorate will want to punish Labour for the failures delivered in the name of that short three-letter word with the capital N; but they will respond to a party that gives them a real choice and that knows what it stands for.

    Bryan Gould

    27 September 2009

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 3 October.

  • British Labour in 2007

    As we enter the new year, the first task for Labour should be to draw a line under an egregious error made in its name – an error that began with an abuse of power and a breathtaking deception of the British people, and then proceeded to devastate a faraway country, undermine the rule of international law, threaten the fragile integrity and cohesion of British society, increase the burden of religious division – in Britain, the Middle East and around the world, advance the claims of terrorism, and engulf the entire ten-year record of the Blair government in disrepute. It is hard to think of a parallel in modern times to such a tragic catalogue of catastrophe brought about by the blind certainties of an inherently good man.

    Tony Blair’s departure will help to draw that line. So will the election of a new leader. That new leader, however, will face a Herculean task if a fresh start is to be made and a renewed mandate obtained.

    If the new leader is Gordon Brown (as I – and most others – assume it will be), his first hurdle will be the need to demonstrate that, without the presentational skills of a Tony Blair and faced with a Tory opponent who is at least electable, he can still engage with the British electorate and enlist their support.

    His best strategy in approaching this task is to be himself – to demonstrate that, when the voters look at him and the Labour Party, what they see is what they get. So, what is needed is an end to spin, to the short-term preoccupation with electoral advantage and news manipulation at every turn, and a return to recognisable Labour values – values updated and adapted to society’s needs of course, cutting-edge values applied to new and as yet unrecognised issues, but values so true to Labour that voters will feel that they know where they are.

    So, let us have an end to hobnobbing with the rich and powerful, to riding shotgun for the Americans however crazy the enterprise, to the indifference with which widening inequalities in our society are tolerated, to the casual assumption that the government is above the law, to the disdain for the Party and the trade unions, to the belief that globalisers like Rupert Murdoch represent the only possible future, to the gut instinct that the private sector will always offer better solutions than the public sector, to the carelessness with which divisions in our already divided society are exacerbated, and to the self-serving belief that what the government wants is, for that reason alone, good and right.

    Let us, in other words, have an end to New Labour (or, rather, Not Labour). Let us have instead Labour tout court, Labour unadorned, Labour true to itself. That would free the new leader to use 2007 to begin to build a new trust with the voters, based on a commitment to restoring the cohesion of our society, across social, economic, ethnic and religious divides. It would mean a return to Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy, so that a relationship of trust is extended to include our international partners. It would mean recognising that the current world order, disfigured as it is by huge and growing imbalances and a dizzying attempt to stop the United States from toppling off the high wire of its unsustainable deficit, must be reformed.

    It would mean a return to that central Labour preoccupation with diffusing power and wealth throughout society, rather than aiding and abetting its concentration in fewer and fewer hands. The new leader could give priority to the real economy in which most people live and work rather than the financial economy which disproportionately rewards the few, reassert the value of public service and the public domain, and return the most important decisions about the economy to the democratic process rather than handing them over to self-serving bankers.

    If any of this is to be attempted, let alone achieved, there is no time to lose. It is essential that the first part of 2007 should not be wasted on the personal rather than collective project of protecting what remains of the Prime Minister’s reputation. The sooner the new leader is in place, the better.

    Bryan Gould
    19 December 2006

    This article will be published in the first 2007 issue of The Parliamentary Monitor.

  • Implications of the Euro

    Implications of the Euro

    The subtitle of “Implications of the Euro’ (edited by Philip Wyman, Mark Baimbridge and Brian Burkitt and published by Routledge, 2006) is “A critical perspective from the left”, and that is exactly what it provides. With a foreword by David Owen, and essays from academics like the editors and Jonathan Michie, politicians like Austin Mitchell and Tony Benn, and journalists like Larry Elliott, it is a long overdue and valuable exploration of the political and economic aspects of the euro from a left perspective.

    Bryan Gould provides a preface which summarises the issues in these terms:

    “This book is long overdue. The debate about Britain and the euro – so far as there has been a debate at all – has been largely the preserve of the right, and has been pretty much dominated by simplistic posturing. On the one hand, those in favour of British adoption of the euro have stressed the lower transaction costs and the convenience to travellers, and – if they are a little more knowledgeable – the familiar argument that to stay out would be to threaten trade and investment.

    The opponents, on the other hand, go for the nationalistic pitch, stressing the importance of national symbols like the pound and the Queen’s head on our currency. Neither side seems greatly interested in exploring the fundamental issues of economic and political significance that could help shape both Britain’s and Europe’s future.

    The left has hardly entered the debate, reflecting an unwillingness to be identified with either position adopted by the right, a broad but rather fuzzy commitment to internationalism, and an unthinking suspicion that exchange rates and currencies are properly the concerns of right-wing businessmen and technicians. Some – like the commentators – prefer to see the issues in terms of domestic and especially personality politics. Could Tony win a referendum? Or will Gordon use opposition to the euro to open the door to Number Ten?

    All of this misses the point – or rather several points. As a policy issue, the euro poses real challenges, and real opportunities, to the left. The careful exploration and successful resolution of these issues could determine the prospects of Labour governments for years to come.

    The economic consequences of embracing the euro can hardly be overstated. A single currency inevitably requires and dictates a single set of monetary conditions brought about by a single monetary policy. In an economic zone as large as the current European Union, it is inherently unlikely that a single monetary policy could conceivably meet the interests of all the diverse parts of that economic zone. A monetary policy that suits the stronger countries (who have the major say in what that policy should be) will harm the interests of the weaker, reinforcing the natural tendency in any economy for productive capacity to concentrate in the stronger parts.

    A single currency means the renunciation of one of the major (and potentially beneficial) instruments for dealing with this misalignment. Correctly aligned exchange rates allow differently developed economies to interact with each other to mutual advantage, encouraging each to move resources to the potential growth points where they enjoy a comparative advantage. With a correctly aligned exchange rate, a weaker economy can trade productively with a stronger one, with both concentrating on the things they do best.

    In the absence of that possibility of adjustment, inequalities do not disappear. They simply re-emerge in other forms. Those parts of the wider economy that find the going tough will experience a further loss of economic activity, investment and employment. The consequent fall in demand will in turn depress the wider economy, affecting even the stronger parts who were the initial beneficiaries of the single monetary policy.

    It is for these reasons that the United Kingdom’s decision on the euro is important for Europe as well as for the United Kingdom. A decision to stay out of the euro zone could be argued not only to be in the United Kingdom’s interests but to point the way to a better economic future for the European Union as a whole. The European economy would function better if component parts had the freedom to set their own monetary conditions and exchange rates so that they can trade with each other in optimal conditions.

    These arguments are not purely theoretical. The experience of European countries over the last twenty years (bearing in mind that the Exchange Rate Mechanism gave us an early test of the economic consequences of currency union) testifies to the damaging effects of compressing diverse economies into a single monetary and currency zone. It is no accident that the European Union continues to struggle while the United Kingdom has, by comparison and since leaving the ERM, prospered.

    In the absence of any possibility of exchange rate adjustment, there are only two escape routes for depressed parts of a wider currency zone. First, they can wait until a lower level of economic activity so depresses comparative living standards and wage rates that investment is attracted by those lower labour costs. The problem with this is that it takes a long time and that the loss of output while this slow and painful adjustment takes place will harm both the particular component part and the wider economy. This is, nevertheless, where the euro zone now is.

    Secondly, the depressed area can throw itself on the mercy of the wider entity, arguing that it is making a sacrifice of its own economic prospects for the sake of some wider goal, and that it is therefore entitled to all the benefits (such as they are) of the wider entity’s regional policy and, ultimately, social security largesse, in order to offset the loss of economic welfare.

    The wider goal for which this sacrifice is made is presumably a degree of political integration which is also the necessary pre-condition for the assumption of regional policy and social security responsibilities by the wider entity. It is only in a political union (and even then the strains are immense) that the parties recognise such a community of interest as to make possible both the sacrifice on the one hand and the assumption of responsibility on the other.

    The economic aspects of a single currency, in other words, inevitably elide into the political aspects. The deleterious economic effects of an inappropriately wide currency union can only be made tolerable – so it is calculated – if the parties agree to throw in their lots with each other to the point where the value they place on their common political identity outweighs the economic sacrifice. Those who do not dare propose such a step in its own right calculate that it can be achieved by a detour.

    Such a step remains, however, fraught with difficulty. We know from our own experience in the United Kingdom that even a long-established political union suffers huge strains that are only exacerbated by economic divergence. Major questions of concern to any democrat arise – issues of self-determination and accountability, representation and identity. Democracy is, after all, about more than voting. It means being governed by those by whom we choose to be governed.

    The price we are asked to pay for a less than optimal economic performance is, in other words, a political step which we might be prepared to take one day, but which even its proponents do not dare to describe openly right now. This should be of real concern to the left – indeed, to any democrat – and this book is a valuable step towards a proper exploration of that concern.”