• A New Labour Leadership

    In the aftermath of election defeat, Labour seems to be acting on at least some of the lessons of recent history. But there is little to suggest that any of the declared candidates for the leadership have fully grasped the changed situation that now confronts them.

    The leadership contest this time, with multiple candidates and a four month-long campaign, shows that the party at least recognises this time that a period of reflection is essential. There is to be no repeat of the uncontested coronation of Gordon Brown. While the 2010 defeat was on a smaller scale than might have been expected, there is clearly a need for a clear-out of a leadership that led the party down a cul-de-sac and wasted the greatest opportunity offered to a potentially reforming government since the Attlee government at the end of the Second World War.

    And that is precisely where most of the candidates are immediately seen to struggle. It is to be expected, perhaps even inevitable, that after thirteen years in government any candidate with the required experience and standing in the party will be irredeemably associated with the record of the Blair/Brown government. Yet making a decisive break with that past is what is now needed.

    This is not just a matter of acknowledging the mistakes that in the end disqualified Labour from re-election, though those failures – the shocking invasion of Iraq, the sickening subservience to the City, the “intense relaxation” about widening inequality, the complicity in torture –must be repudiated. Some of the declared candidates have – somewhat belatedly – begun that process, particularly in relation to the Iraq invasion. But there is also the small matter of a failed economic policy which has resulted in a serious structural imbalance and a gaping hole in the national accounts.

    It may be, too, that the voters have signalled a reaction against the continued pretension to a world role that marked the Blair premiership, and have decided that what they want instead of foreign adventures is an administration that focuses on the unexciting but important business of providing competent, fair and representative government to a medium-sized and mature democracy, perhaps more akin to the Scandinavian model.

    It is not all bad news for Labour. The election result – with the Tory failure to secure a majority despite the most favourable circumstances imaginable – suggests strongly that the country did not wish to return to what Tory strategists must have hoped were their Conservative roots. On the contrary, the experience of the global financial crisis, the reality of global warming, and the sickening spectacle of the City’s greed and selfishness seem to have had their impact. In the broadest sense, the voters have understood that the era of “grab what you can” and the devil take the hindmost, whether that means one’s fellow citizens or the planet, is over. That almost subterranean shift in sentiment should work powerfully in Labour’s favour.

    But a new leadership must grasp that the world has changed. The 2010 election showed that the voters are not in the mood for a “strong”, “winner-takes-all” government of the kind that New Labour was and aspired to be. The election has produced a government that will be quite different from its predecessors – less tribal, and more inclusive, responsive and consultative. Whatever their eventual judgment of this particular coalition, the voters may well like what they see in this new form of collaboration.

    So the new political context will require a different kind of government, one that will more effectively represent ordinary people and the wider and longer-term interest, and pay less attention to the rich and powerful, or to the political parties’ own interests. Politicians will need to be more humble. With electoral reform, a “hung” parliament and minority-led or coalition government could well become the norm. Labour will have to show that it is better equipped to deliver this kind of human-sized and responsive government than would a reformed and more moderate Tory party under David Cameron or than Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems who will be pitching themselves as the progressive alternative to the Tories.
    That will require a quite different mindset from that of New Labour. It seems doubtful at this early stage of the leadership context whether any of the candidates is ready or able to make the leap of vision and understanding that is needed. We need leaders who can see the shape of the future and can lift their eyes to longer horizons.

    David Miliband and Ed Balls are too much prisoners of their respective Blairite or Brownite pasts, though Ed Miliband is at least starting to use some fresh language that might just herald fresh thinking as well. Andy Burnham has immediately struck the right note in signalling a break with “stage-managed” politics but has a long way to go if he is to show that that means better than just tightening controls on immigration.

    The candidatures of Diane Abbott or John McDonnell, if they materialise, will be welcome in terms of widening the debate but their re-assertion of familiar values will be weakened by the long odds against their election. Jon Cruddas would have been a valuable addition to the lists. If Labour is to grasp the moment, the next four months will have to be put to good use. The party needs time for reflection; the candidates do as well. We can expect further movements in their positions.

    Bryan Gould

    21 May 2010.

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 24 May.

  • A False Dichotomy

    Nothing better illustrates Labour’s current malaise than the reported difficulty the leadership group is having in agreeing on a strategy for an election that is now only a few months away.

    Some, we are told, including most of the “New” Labour veterans, favour a direct pitch for middle-class support, with plentiful assurances that the Party’s leaders come themselves from “comfortable” backgrounds. Others recommend a focus on Labour’s “core vote” in a belated attempt to re-assert the Party’s traditional values and priorities.

    Neither group seems to doubt that this is an unavoidable dichotomy. Just as the Blair/Brown schism is seen as essentially unbridgeable, so this dispute seems to reveal a deep fault-line in the Party’s thinking. After thirteen years in government, and nearer sixteen years with the current leadership group, it is surprising that this is the best that can be done.

    It is hard, after all, to see that either strategy offers much prospect of electoral success. First, the notion that “we are all middle-class now” is hardly new. It has been the leit-motiv of New Labour since its inception. If the aim is to re-enthuse the voters, the strategy seems to lack a certain sense of excitement or breath of fresh air. “Vote for us and we’ll go on doing what is perceived to have failed” is not much of a rallying cry.

    It also commits the cardinal sin in political strategising of allowing one’s opponents to frame the debate. The American specialist in cognitive science and linguistics, George Lakoff, is clear that to adopt the opponent’s language is to concede the debate. In a contest as to which party is more likely to put middle-class lifestyles, privileges, and values ahead of anything else, especially off the back of recession, there will only be one winner.

    There is not much better to be said for the rival strategy. Labour’s “core vote” is now a sadly wasted asset – one of the consequences of ignoring it for the past sixteen years. It is unlikely to be revived by a quick and short-lived about-face by Labour’s spin doctors. And it is in any case a defensive strategy designed only to limit losses – a strategy that, by abandoning a large part of the battlefield to the enemy, necessarily concedes defeat in advance.

    If Labour cannot do better than this, they deserve to lose. The inevitable burden of cumulative disappointments after thirteen year of government, to say nothing of egregious errors like the Iraq War and a recession engendered by a sustained obeisance to the City, will not be overcome if Labour’s much-touted strategists do not come up with something more intelligent and imaginative – and more optimistic.

    The perceived dichotomy in electoral strategy must be rejected as a chimera. There is no success for Labour in either restricting itself to the “core vote” or in ignoring it by manifestly adopting other priorities. Labour strategy has always required a successful effort to persuade a sizeable slice of the more affluent that they will be better off, both materially and in other ways, under a government that accepts as one of its priorities that it should look after the less advantaged.

    The argument should be that both the economy and society will function better if everyone has a chance to make a positive contribution. Excellent public services will produce a better educated, better housed and healthier workforce, better able to take the jobs that full employment will make available. Running the economy in the interests of the whole workforce, and not just City fat cats, will boost output and productivity and increase the resources that can be invested in our economic future. Investing in new skills and technology, and in the development of new products and markets, will in turn lay the foundations for an inclusive prosperity in which all can share.

    An economy run like this would produce a stronger and better integrated society, no longer riven by division, no longer weakened by a disadvantaged underclass that increasingly sees the only way out being achieved through crime, drugs, gambling and prostitution. Even the most purblind defender of middle-class privilege might be persuaded to recognise the benefits of living in a healthier and more inclusive society.

    A message like this might sound impossibly idealistic, but would this necessarily be a bad thing? To set a course that at least aims at something better is more constructive, more likely to enthuse, than constantly triangulating for supposed electoral advantage. Labour should not, in other words, allow itself to be forced to choose between its “core vote” and middle-class support. The two are perfectly compatible, and to act with that conviction offers Labour’s best hope for the forthcoming election.

    Bryan Gould

    19 January 2010

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 20 January.

  • 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.

  • Tragedy

    One of the fascinations of politics is that it unfolds over different time scales and at different levels. At one end of the scale are the personal and short-term; at the other, the matters of policy and principle, the history and development of ideas and of political movements.

    It is no surprise – given the symbiotic relationship between the practitioners of politics and of political reporting at any given moment – that the latter should habitually focus on the human-interest immediacy of the movements in individual political (and other) fortunes as they swing up and down. A case in point, last weekend, were the reports detailing the latest turn in the career of Peter Mandelson.

    The on-again off-again career of Lord Mandelson has provided much innocent entertainment for observers and a rich seam of copy for political commentators over the years. Yet, even so, it is surprising that the momentous events of recent weeks, which could herald a seismic transformation of the British political landscape, could have been viewed through such a narrow lens as was seen in the articles about Lord Mandelson’s latest transformation.

    It is true that Andrew Rawnsley ended his piece by briefly taking a wider perspective. The story was not, we were solemnly assured, one of unalloyed triumph. Peter Mandelson, we were told, genuinely cared about the Labour Party; its probably imminent demise was enough to turn the moment of his greatest success into a personal tragedy.

    We can readily agree that the demise of the Labour Party would be a tragedy – but surely a tragedy on a much greater scale than of one individual’s personal disappointment. It is doubtful, after all, if many tears will be shed for Lord Mandelson. Many – including all those whose allegiance to the Labour Party over recent years has been sorely tested, as well as those who have rejected Labour in favour of other promises to defend their interests – will see the noble Lord’s disappointment as being richly deserved.

    This is not a tragedy in the Shakespearian mould – a fatally flawed individual being undone by his inability to deny the power of the flaw that drives him. This is a tragedy that is likely to engulf an audience of millions, not just the leading members of the cast.

    Peter Mandelson is rather in the position of a ship designer whose vessel is revealed to be unseaworthy. He is consoled by observers with the assurance that they know that he did not mean it to ship water and, having arranged a lifeboat for himself, he then persuades the captain to stay on the bridge until the ship goes down.

    New Labour was, after all, Peter Mandelson’s project par excellence. He signed others up for the journey, and was initially fortunate enough to engage a brilliant skipper for the project. But, when a new captain proved to be no seaman, and the ship’s design faults meant that it foundered, disappointment is hardly an adequate sentiment. Those who entrusted their lives and life-chances to the seaworthiness of the vessel are entitled to require the designer to accept responsibility for, as well as disappointment at, the loss – and at the tragedy that is theirs.

    We are surely now in a position to judge the New Labour project, not according to the claims of its progenitors, but in the light of its likely final outcome. The project started, after all, with an overwhelming parliamentary majority, a popular and telegenic leader, a huge appetite for change and a real sense of excitement and anticipation in the country – all delivered by an overwhelming election victory.

    What has happened in the twelve short years since then is not the familiar story of a government that gradually loses support and – having used its opportunity to best effect but nevertheless having been exhausted by its efforts – is defeated by newly revitalised opponents. The immediate future facing the Labour Party is one of virtual extinction as a party of government. It may take a generation for Labour to recover – if it does so at all. In the meantime, the effective voice of the democratic left – the most consistent and reliable generator of change and reform we have – will be stilled.

    That is the real tragedy – not to be expressed in terms of individual careers – but in the destruction of one of the main forces in our democratic politics. Without it, our whole politics will be poorer. Faith in our democratic institutions and processes will be weaker.

    It is an outcome, a tragic outcome, that is the inevitable and predictable consequence of deliberately removing Labour from its value base and from its supporters. It is the direct result of treating power as an end in itself, of seeking power for the purpose of simply perpetuating it. New Labour not only failed to take a once-in-a-century opportunity; it turned its back on the idealism and creativity that, under President Obama, is reinvigorating American society and politics. This is the end result by which Peter Mandelson should be judged. You bet it’s a tragedy.

    Bryan Gould

    15 June 2009

  • New Labour Betrays Its Supporters

    As the Labour Party steels itself for electoral meltdown, it may seem ironic – after the global-sized catastrophes of the Iraq invasion and the worldwide recession – that it is the descent into venality at home that will count most with the voters. But to underestimate the importance of the expenses scandal would be a mistake.

    The voters understand intuitively that, having presided over and applauded a society in which greed and the pursuit of self-interest have been elevated into positive virtues, New Labour’s own pursuit of power at any cost has produced its inevitable outcomes. The expenses debacle has been much more than a series of individual peccadilloes and defalcations; it has been the expression of a political culture that has created a gulf between what is seen as acceptable and necessary in the political world and the standards of decent behaviour expected of the rest of us. The individual manifestations of that culture may seem grubbily petty and venal, but the embarrassed squirming among the political class as the detail has been exposed is testimony to how out of touch our leaders had become and how serious that is for the whole political process.

    This matters more to Labour than to others. The Tories have never bothered to hide their view that power is to be sought so that it can be used to defend vested interests. The Liberals seem to believe that power is best exercised by “nice” people. Only Labour, traditionally, has pursued power with the avowed purpose of correcting the unfairness and inefficiency of allowing the dice to lie where they fall and of creating a better society.

    It is for that reason that the demise of Labour – under its “New Labour” leadership – is a matter not just for pain and anger at the loss of the opportunity presented by the 1997 election victory, and contempt for those who led us down this cul-de-sac into disreputability. It is also a major blow to our whole political structure which, in the absence of a substantial presence from the democratic left, will be less effective at creating a healthy society and a strong economy than it should be.

    The special importance of the left lies not just in the fact that it is, or at least has been, the major source of progressive ideas, that it has provided the most reliable stimulus of new thinking, that it has generated the most creative dynamic for reform – though all of that is true. Its true value is that it underpins the whole case for democracy and for the power of good government.

    Among the many lessons we should draw from the global recession is that this is what happens if government fails in its purpose. Ever since democracy was ushered in, there has been no shortage of powerful forces dedicated to undermining it. This is for the obvious reason that the whole point of democracy is to offset the power of the powerful with the political strength of the people. In the absence of that political power, without bringing to bear the legitimacy of the democratic mandate through an elected government, there is no force capable of resisting the might of the economically or socially or militarily powerful.

    The failure of government to lean against the economically powerful over the last three decades led directly to the unregulated excesses that created a market-driven recession. And, even as we grapple with the measures needed to recover from recession, the same central question is starkly posed – what is the proper role of government?

    The key feature of a recession is that every individual, every business, will have a cast-iron and rational reason for battening down the hatches. Only government has the capability and responsibility to act in a contra-cyclical way, against market logic, and to pull us out of recession faster than would otherwise happen, by spending and investing at a time when no one else will.

    What this tells us is that it is always the role of government – when necessary – to represent the wider interest against powerful forces, and to act in a way that would be irrational or impossible for the private individual, however powerful. It is only the left that has in the past carried into government this central concept of what the true purpose of democratic government really is.

    If this week’s elections do indeed show how thoroughly New Labour has debased and betrayed the legacy with which it was entrusted, it will not just be Labour’s party warriors who are relegated and enfeebled. The vast majority of the British people – irrespective of their party allegiances or lack of them – will have been significantly disenfranchised. The blow struck by the expenses scandal against faith in the democratic process will claim more casualties than just a few MPs. The real losers from the demise of the Labour Party will be millions of ordinary people who – perhaps without knowing it – will have lost their best defence against the depredations of the powerful.

    Bryan Gould

    2 June 2009

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 2 June