• Do You Want The Good News Or The Bad News?

    The May election results delivered what was promised – only more so. The winners and losers were eminently predictable, but the voters’ judgments were unexpectedly savage.

    The night’s big losers were, of course, the Liberal Democrats. They certainly expected a poor showing but they must be surveying the post-election wreckage with something approaching dismay.

    The overwhelming rejection of electoral reform, and the slim prospect of its reappearance as a viable option, mean that the holy grail of Liberal politics – and the assumed pay-off for a risky coalition deal – has crumbled in their hands. They are now left as the fall guys for the disappointments of coalition government, not only with no compensation for bearing the brunt of unpopular measures dictated to them by their senior partners, but with that downside underlined by the demonstrated failure and unpopularity of their central selling proposition.

    Sadly, the mishandling of the way the issue was put to the electorate means that the UK remains saddled with an electoral system that serves the interests of adversarial politics and puts a premium on posturing rather than serious policy-making. There is, I suppose, a kind of poetic justice in the Lib Dems now finding themselves – with no salvation in sight – hoist on the petard of extreme policies that their coalition arrangement commits them to supporting.

    The Lib Dem plight is, in other words, bad news for the wider politics of the UK. A similar judgment can be made – at first sight – of the Scottish Nationalist triumph. Closer examination, however, reveals that the message may not be as depressing as it seems. Alex Salmond’s success can best be regarded as partly the result of his own merits as First Minister and partly a reflection of the poverty of the message that Labour chose to deliver to its traditional supporters.

    There are two optimistic interpretations that can be made. First, (and perhaps a little fancifully), the severity of Labour’s reverse might just persuade a timid and moribund Scottish Labour Party – and the wider Labour leadership in the UK as a whole – of just how much they have to do (in the aftermath of Blair and Brown) if Labour is to re-establish itself as the natural and accepted defender of the less advantaged and as the most convincing deliverer of a more equal and therefore more efficient economy and society.

    Secondly, it is one thing to vote SNP for the purposes of identifying an effective Scottish administration – particularly when the alternatives were so unprepossessing. It is quite another to vote for Scottish independence. There is nothing to suggest that voters are ready to take that further and momentous step. But those who want to maintain the United Kingdom have been put on notice of how little time they now have to persuade Scottish voters.

    If the messages were stark for the Lib Dems and encouraging for the Scottish Nationalists, what of the two main parties? For the Conservatives, it was a successful exercise in damage limitation. They avoided major losses in their own strong areas. They maintained a reasonable party unity and escaped the internal recriminations that a Yes vote on electoral reform would have produced. They preserved an electoral system that maximises their chances of staying in power, even on a dwindling minority vote. They have been able to use the Lib Dems as a lightning conductor for voter disaffection at the damage inflicted by government policies.

    For Labour, the message is – or should be – a sobering one. The Scottish result is a warning of the price to be paid for taking voters for granted over a long period and of wandering across the political spectrum so that voters feel they no longer know what they are asked to vote for. And, looking to the future – and a pretty immediate future at that – a consolidation of that Scottish result in future general elections would destroy any chance of a Labour government of the United Kingdom.

    Even in England and Wales, Ed Miliband now knows how much Labour needs still to do before it can translate an anti-Tory majority into an effective and well-supported government of the centre-left. It needs to be clearer, braver, more confident and distinctive. It needs to stop the ceaseless preoccupation with short-term polling, triangulation and spinning. It needs to strike out with a clear statement of a genuinely alternative and attractive option. The British people yearn to hear that voice.

    Bryan Gould

    8 May 2011

    This article was published on 9 May at http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/

  • The Labour Leadership

    After thirteen years in government, it is not perhaps surprising that Labour’s response to election defeat has been somewhat uncertain. Almost all of those who now seek to lead the party have spent most of their political lives persuading both themselves and the electorate of the great virtues of New Labour. Their forward political horizons were bounded, until a few months ago, by New Labour. Now, with the voters’ rejection of New Labour, their lodestar has been shot out of the sky.

    It is true that the candidates have, to varying degrees, recognised that change is now the order of the day. They have understood that a line must be drawn beneath election defeat. As professional politicians, they have quickly learned to speak the language of new beginnings. But the suspicion must be that the need for change is something they know, but do not yet understand.

    So, while each of the candidates is clear that a readiness to embrace change is required to win the leadership and, more importantly, lead Labour back to power, there is a marked lack of any precision about what that change might comprise. There is confusion not only about where change might take the party, but even about what it is in the party’s present and immediate past that needs changing.

    Some say that a change of direction is needed; others that going further in the same direction will bring success. Some urge a return to basics; others argue that the party must recognise and adapt to the new political imperatives created by a right-wing coalition government. Those at the back cry “forward” and those at the front say “go back”.

    Underpinning this confusion is a great mystery. We have lived through the most serious economic crisis of most lifetimes, a crisis brought about by the individual greed and irresponsibility of those exploiting an unregulated market for their own ends, a crisis averted only by government which alone had the will, legitimacy and resource to undertake the task – and the election result seems to mean that the correct response is to diminish the role of government so that it is smaller and weaker and less able or willing to restrain the greedy and selfish.

    Here, surely, is the change that is needed for Labour. Instead of New Labour’s acceptance of the supposedly inevitable triumph of the “free” market, why not say in terms that the whole point of democracy is to use the political power of the people, as exercised by their government, to offset and restrain the overwhelming economic power that an unregulated market otherwise delivers to a tiny and selfish minority? If market outcomes cannot be challenged, what is the point of democracy?

    Why not say that a strong and successful society depends on a real sense of community – not the meaningless slogan of “we’re all in this together” which is manifestly contradicted by the purpose and impact of government policy – but a genuine community of interest in which the gap between rich and poor is reduced, the old and the sick and the poor – not forgetting those who might become so some day – are supported, everyone gets a fair share of the benefits of economic and social cooperation, and the potential of every individual skill and talent is realised for the common good?

    Why not say that, despite the bad press that government has received – something largely engineered by media barons and exacerbated by the self-inflicted wounds of the expenses scandal – it is government that, by setting the ground rules to take account of the interests of everyone and not just a minority, remains the best hope for building a society in which everyone feels they will get a fair deal.

    The loss of faith in government over recent years, even by those who have most to gain from effective government and most to lose from its enfeeblement, is one of the most serious indictments of New Labour. Nothing better serves the interests of the selfish and privileged than the acceptance that government is just another part of a power structure that ordinary people have no ability to change.

    The conviction that progress is possible, that a better society can be built by giving people more control over their own lives, and that the task is best undertaken by harnessing the power and legitimacy of democratic government, is central to Labour politics.

    Votes in the Labour leadership contest should be given to the candidate (Ed Miliband?) who most convincingly and clearly re-states the case for government and spells out the intention to use the power of government to build a fair, strong and united country. This is not “going back to basics” or re-inventing “old” Labour. It is the re-affirmation of a bedrock of vision and principle from which to face the sharp and changing challenges of the modern world.

    Bryan Gould

    12 September 2010

  • It Has Come To This

    So, it has come to this. In twelve short years, New Labour has travelled from the exultation and boundless optimism of the 1997 election victory and of a movement whose time had come to a craven pursuit of self-preservation by frightened MPs.

    And even then, it is a self-preservation that can only be pro tem. So narrow have horizons become, so short-term the perspective, that the interests of party and country will be sacrificed for a few more miserable months in a crippled parliament and a dying government.

    Let no one be deceived into thinking that the decision to soldier on under Gordon Brown’s leadership was taken in the wider interests of the party or the country. Nor was it a signal of affection or respect for their leader, or even just loyalty. This was every man for himself. The only calculation that seems to have mattered was the one that said that the pay packet could be kept coming for a few more months. For who could doubt that the warning from Lord Mandelson, with his unerring instinct for the baser motivations of political life, that to change leaders would inevitably mean an early general election, was enough to stop many potential rebels in their tracks?

    This, then, is the end game of the New Labour project. To the extent that history ever makes final judgments, we can begin to see where it has led – not to a long period of Labour hegemony, as was so confidently foreseen, but to the real danger that Labour will have destroyed itself.

    Let us remind ourselves of the course pursued by New Labour strategists. The catalyst for that strategy was the 1992 election defeat, although its seeds probably go back to 1987. The Mandelsons, Blairs and Browns concluded in the wake of those defeats that Labour was unelectable and that the Thatcherite hegemony could not be successfully challenged. They decided that the greater part of Labour’s analysis of what was needed to reform Britain should be abandoned, and that the Thatcherite agenda should in essence be adopted.

    In this, they were surely wrong. Of course Labour needed to modernise, and to adapt its principles to new and continually evolving challenges. But the Thatcherite revolution had largely run its course. Mrs Thatcher herself had been rejected by her own party, which proceeded – under John Major and his successors – on an increasingly uncertain course. By 1997, the Labour alternative under almost any leadership would have defeated the Tories. The sacrifice of Labour’s central values in favour of a callow and unsophisticated acceptance of the market’s infallibility was simply unnecessary.

    By then, however, the New Labour style and purpose had been fully developed. The project developed its own ideology. What mattered was the winning and keeping of power, rather than actually doing something with it. Power, once achieved, should be used for its main purpose – to perpetuate itself. New Labour would be all things to all men, taking the pain and hassle – and even the politics – out of politics. It would occupy the centre ground, careful not to offend the powerful. It would thereby force other contenders to the margins, and usher in a long period of unchallengeable dominance.

    The simplicity of this goal and this strategy meant that the Labour Party itself could largely be ignored, both as an organisation and as a source of ideas and analysis. New Labour leaders and tacticians could appeal directly to the voters, through the media, and through spinning the message, and could thereby free themselves from the need to take the party with them. The loyalty of the ambitious could be guaranteed since they would quickly recognise that the path to power lay through New Labour.

    It hasn’t quite worked out that way. The voters quickly tired of spin. They intuitively recognised the unattractive limitations of pursuing power at any cost. They were repelled by the contortions produced by the absence of principle and strong values. But most of all, they were brought in time to make an ever harsher judgment of policy failures.

    Those failures were partly the result of hubris – on the part of a leader who was so persuaded of his moral infallibility that the country could be led into an ill-judged invasion of another country on no greater foundation than his own say-so – and partly the consequence of a sickening obsequiousness in the face of the rich and powerful. And, while New Labour could just about be held together by a brilliant front man, there was nothing else to fall back on when the voters tired of him and when his successor was revealed as totally lacking in political – not to say human – skills.

    So, the voters look certain to reject New Labour. A whole generation of Labour leaders who could and should have stood for something more than simply hanging on to power will close the New Labour chapter by – appropriately enough – doing just that for a few more months. It will be a long and hard road back if a renewed (please not “New”) Labour Party is to rise from the ashes.

    Bryan Gould

    9 June 2009