• Miliband’s Dilemma

    Andrew Rawnsley in last Sunday’s Observer identified, quite correctly, the dilemma facing Labour. On the one hand, the economic arguments indicate more and more strongly that George Osborne has got it wrong and that a new approach is needed; but on the other hand, the political reality is that the voters continue to believe that tough measures are needed and that the Tories are best able to deliver them.

    The dilemma is all too familiar. The left has always struggled to move the economic policy debate beyond the constraints imposed by right-wing orthodoxy. And they have never grappled with the fact that the proposed remedy – that they must conduct the debate as framed by their opponents – means that the dilemma can never be resolved.

    The current dilemma illustrates this well. The Tory insistence that austerity and cuts are the only issue that matters has convinced a large part of the electorate that any alternative that fails to address this goal cannot be supported. But a Labour readiness to show, for the sake of credibility, that they too are ready to inflict pain will multiply rather than solve their problems.

    The acceptance of the Tory analysis would saddle Labour with immediate and multiple disadvantages. Any criticism of Tory strategy is straightaway rendered ineffectual, because they are reduced to attacking the outcomes rather than the analysis and its conclusions; and if they are then challenged to explain how, in the context of the same analysis, they would produce different outcomes, they have no answer.

    Furthermore, posing as ersatz Tories, committed to making the same “tough choices” but doing so with a sympathetic and regretful expression, is unlikely to persuade voters that they would not be better off with the real thing. And the Tories will in any case, as Andrew Rawnsley points out, play it both ways by casting doubt on the genuineness and reliability of Labour’s commitment.

    So, is there no option other than a capitulation that not only jeopardises Labour’s electoral appeal but also – and more importantly – denies the economy the measures that it really needs?

    My own political experience leads me to recommend a quite different strategy. It would require courage and hard work, but the benefits to Labour’s electoral chances and to the country’s economic prospects would be immense.

    The starting point would require no dramatic rejection of the prevailing public perception of what is required from economic policy. It would accept that a reduction of the government’s deficit is highly desirable, and that vigilance must be exercised in ensuring value for money in public spending, though it would point out that the government’s strategy has meant continuing cuts that seem only to make matters worse.

    It would go on to argue that there are much more effective ways of tackling the deficit, provided that it is no longer treated in isolation but is seen as a part of the overall economic picture – because it is, in many respects, a symptom rather than a cause of our wider and more deep-seated problems.

    Those wider problems – of lost competitiveness, of inadequate liquidity, of a weakened productive base, of high unemployment – will not be resolved by ignoring them (as the Tories are doing), or by weakening the economy still more by further cuts. On the other hand, if we address them constructively, a stronger and more buoyant economy will not only raise employment, investment and living standards, but will in the course of doing so resolve the deficit problem as well.

    There will be many who will quail at the prospect of trying to sell such an approach to a sceptical electorate. But there are good reasons to take courage.

    First, we don’t have to win the argument tomorrow. We could expect an immediate barrage of criticism but we have until election day to build understanding and support for what we propose.

    I recall, in the run-up to the 1992 election, the differing fortunes of two different Labour policy initiatives. The tax policies were held back until the election campaign and were a disaster because, with so little time to get them across, they were easily misrepresented. I released our alternative to the poll tax, on the other hand, (on which subject we had been constantly challenged by the Tories) well before the election, and it was widely accepted by the time polling day came.

    This time, we have the further advantage of being able to work with a significant and continuing shift in expert opinion. From the incoming governor of the Bank of England to leading monetary economists, there is a renewed interest in a different approach. And the successful experience with that approach of leading economies overseas will also strengthen our case.

    These factors may not impact immediately on public opinion but -with hard work on our part – will help enormously to force the Tories to join the debate on our terms.

    Yes, the dilemma is not just economic but inevitably political as well. That means we can end it only through political action. Isn’t that what politicians are for – to build support for what they believe is right?

    Bryan Gould

    1 July 2013

  • Seeking The Middle Ground

    Labour has made its choice. The question now is, will that choice be shared and endorsed by the wider electorate? Ed Miliband must now not only re-energise a party that has been sapped of confidence and enthusiasm, but at the same time reach out to a range of voters who will vote Labour only when they are satisfied that they can do so without prejudicing their interests.

    That unavoidable battle for the middle ground has always been more difficult for the left than for the right. Individual rights and interests – so much the focus of the right – have always had a clearer identity in the forefront of people’s minds and seem to be more directly at risk and impacted by political action than the more diffuse and less clearly defined social concerns highlighted by the left.

    The left’s response to this challenge has often been uncertain. On the one hand, there was the stance that dominated in the early 1980s and that was memorably characterised by Denis Healey as “no compromise with the electorate”. At the other extreme has been New Labour’s adoption of Clintonian triangulation and the conviction that power could be won and held only if Labour’s traditional opponents in the City and the Murdoch press could be placated by conceding to them in advance.

    It was of course the issue of how the Labour party might appeal to the middle ground that prompted the Guardian’s leader-writer, no less, to argue that the supposed greater ability of the elder Miliband to reach out to middle England was enough to get him the nod over his younger brother. It was feared that Ed Miliband’s use of language that would resonate with Labour loyalists would handicap the party in making that essential pitch for uncommitted votes.

    It is certainly true that a leader who fails in that respect can be fatal to Labour’s electoral chances. When Neil Kinnock lost a second general election – and the second, one that could have been won – he concluded that it was his inability, despite his considerable qualities, to reach out to the English middle-class that had cost victory and, to his great credit, he resigned rather than fail again.

    The question is, however, whether the contest for the middle ground necessarily demands a Labour leader who is prepared to dissemble on the core values that brought most Labour activists into politics in the first place. Is it really a pre-condition of a Labour victory that the clear outlines of a programme for reform should be smoothed over so that it is unrecognisable? Is it really the case that the English middle-class is so set in its ways that it will vote for a departure from extreme free-market orthodoxy, despite all its manifest deficiencies, only if it is presented in a sanitised and ersatz form?

    What is it, in any case, that is thought to be so frightening to middle voters about a return to Labour’s core message? Is it the commitment to building an economy on a stronger foundation than the greedy irresponsibility of the City? Or to reducing the inequality that now disfigures and splinters our society? What about ensuring the delivery of high-quality, publicly funded health services and education so that everyone has a fair chance? Or restoring an ethical foundation to the way we deal with the rights and freedoms of our own citizens and those of other countries? And are Keynesian economics really so revolutionary that they cannot be trusted as a guide to resolving our economic problems without asking the most vulnerable to bear the burden? Are these so frightening to uncommitted voters that they cannot be articulated clearly and persuasively?

    The authentic voice of social democracy – humane, moderate, inclusive – should surely be heard again. People can be inspired with a vision that does not place the naked individualism of “grab all you can” above all else but sees the fulfilment of every individual’s potential as not only valuable in itself but as an essential element in building a stronger, happier and more successful society in which everyone can prosper.

    So, let us celebrate the election of a leader who promises to do exactly that. There could be rich dividends to be reaped in the face of a coalition government of disparate parts and an uncertain policy stance adopted by default rather than conviction. There is nothing to fear and everything to gain from speaking clearly and confidently – from the heart as well as the mind – to voters from right across the spectrum. New Labour is dead. Long live Labour renewed!

    Bryan Gould

    26 September 2010