• Tony Blair Gives the Game Away

    Tony Blair’s advice to Ed Miliband this week is unlikely to influence the direction taken by the current leadership of the Labour Party, but it does have the merit of providing a telling insight into how New Labour wasted an unparalleled opportunity.

    It is of course appropriate that the advice comes in the week of Margaret Thatcher’s death, since it may be regarded as Blair’s most recent act of homage to the departed former Prime Minister. It was always the (usually unspoken) guiding principle of the Blair government that the Thatcher legacy was too well-entrenched, and too valuable, to be challenged – and it is clear from this latest effusion that this remains the cardinal principle of Blair’s politics.

    He seems not to remember that Margaret Thatcher was thrown out in 1990 by her own party or to notice that her death has revived bitter memories of the division and damage she created. For him, it seems, the whole of the Thatcherite agenda lives on.

    Both then and now, however, Tony Blair commits a fundamental error in his analysis of how political opinions are formed. What he fails to recognise is that most of our fellow-citizens do not think about politics or economics in any systematic way. It is only a small minority, whatever their position on the spectrum of political views, that has developed a fully coherent set of beliefs and principles.

    The majority are perfectly capable of holding in their minds quite contradictory notions and allegiances and of nodding in agreement to any one of the propositions offered from any part of the political spectrum. What matters, what determines the way they will think on any particular issue and the way they will vote, is which of those contradictory values is closest to the surface, or in other words has the greatest salience for them, at any particular time.

    As we confront the various issues and challenges that are the stuff of politics – the necessary compromising of conflicting interests and the proper allocation of scarce resources, power and freedom – we will find that each of those issues and challenges can be defined and described according to competing narratives. The battle for political support and the disposition of political power will depend on which of these narratives is the most persuasive.

    The challenge, therefore, and particularly for a party of the left that will usually stand for change and therefore progress, is to produce a narrative or narratives that explain difficult and complex issues most persuasively and relate them most accurately to the values that voters hold and that we espouse.

    Most people in Britain will affirm, if asked, their continued belief in the values of fairness, compassion, tolerance, concern for others. But those values have become submerged under the tidal wave of free-market propaganda; if we are to rescue them, we need to find effective ways of bringing them back to life, and back to salience, by showing their relevance and value to the solution of current problems.

    We do not meet this challenge by accepting Tony Blair’s advice. His response to the apparent Thatcherite hegemony, now and when he was in government, is and was to move the whole of Labour’s agenda rightwards. The values of our opponents were affirmed; the principles and policies that the voters knew were those that Labour had always stood for were abandoned.

    But the voters had not moved rightwards en masse. They had, it is true, become disillusioned with some elements in Labour’s programme – elements that needed updating and re-thinking – and they had been persuaded by an effective competing narrative to support some elements in the programme of our opponents.

    But for the large number of voters, of almost every political allegiance or none, who continue to embrace the values of community and compassion, the wholesale move rightwards was confusing and uncomfortable; it left Labour voters with a sense of abandonment, undecided voters with the perception that there was no real alternative to Tory extremism, and voters who would not ordinarily vote anything but Tory quite unpersuaded that New Labour was a convincing alternative.

    Moreover, in politics, unforeseen events happen and circumstances change; the issue as to who has the most persuasive narrative to explain those changes is therefore constantly redefined. The Global Financial Crisis was not, as Blair argues, an event that left opinion unmoved; the voters, it may be safely asserted, were desperately keen to escape the wreckage and to find a way forward.

    Their partial and now reducing adherence, in the aftermath of the crisis, to neo-liberal orthodoxy was in many ways a reflex action; a dash back to mother’s apron strings in times of danger. It will take time – years – to bring them to a realisation that the crisis was the result of market failure; but the fact that this will take time and effort is no reason to concede the whole of that issue to the Tories and to make no attempt to increase understanding of what went wrong so that we can avoid such crises in future.

    The only people who might think that this is a correct response are those who believe that the Tories are right and that the whole issue was the fault of supposedly “big” government; even precious few Tories now truly believe this – but Tony Blair apparently does.

    Tony Blair’s advice is, in other words, not only defeatist in electoral terms, but also a betrayal of the interests of most people. If he genuinely believes that George Osborne has got it right, then he should be honest enough to come out and say so. Otherwise, he should surely accept that his duty as an experienced political figure is to help towards learning and applying the necessary lessons.

    It is significant that, in Blair’s list of seven priority issues for Ed Miliband, there is no mention of the fundamental issue of how the economy should be managed so that we escape from recession and rebuild our shattered productive sector. It is true that Tony Blair never showed much interest in economic policy and seems to have overlooked its importance; yet that is precisely where Labour should focus its efforts, both in its own – and more importantly, the country’s – interests. To take up that central challenge is not only a duty but an opportunity – to reject the canard that we have to choose between social justice on the one hand and economic efficiency on the other.

    We should now argue that there is nothing economically efficient about keeping large numbers out of work, about leaving manufacturing flat on its back, about using vast amounts of money from both the taxpayer and the central bank to boost the banks’ balance sheets while both demand and investment remain depressed.

    This is now our opportunity to take the argument forward on our terms. We don’t have to choose; the solution to our economic problems does not lie in piling burdens on the most vulnerable. The path to economic efficiency lies instead in creating a more inclusive and equal society in which everyone – as contributor and beneficiary – is able to share. We can develop a narrative that convincingly explains the failures and – in accordance with the values that we share with so many of our fellow-citizens – takes us forward in both social and economic terms.

    Bryan Gould

    12 April 2013

  • Labour Bounces Back

    Eight months after the general election defeat, Labour is in surprisingly good shape – and, paradoxically it may seem, that perception is strengthened rather than reversed by the Shadow Cabinet reshuffle forced by Alan Johnson’s resignation.
    The improvement in Labour’s fortunes is not just a matter of the encouraging bounce back in the polls or the Oldham by-election victory. It is not even the choppy water already encountered by the briefly popular coalition government or the prospect of the much stormier seas yet to come. Labour, it seems, has started to feel good about itself again.
    This is partly because it is now becoming clear – assuming that it wasn’t on the day after the election – that, as Ed Miliband said in his Guardian article last week, Labour may have lost the election but the Tories failed to win it. That failure was more than a statistical fluke; it was a reflection of the fact that progressive opinion in Britain is in the majority. Labour lost because it failed to represent that opinion. It now sees the need and the opportunity that remedying that failure represents.
    But Labour’s improved morale is also the consequence of the canny strategy being pursued by its new leader. Ed Miliband has been criticised, in media accustomed to a diet of constantly manufactured headlines, for a lack of action. But what he has done has been well directed.
    He has understood the need to distance himself and the party from New Labour. Newness is of course and by definition a wasting asset, but Miliband recognises that “New” Labour was a victim not just of the passage of time but of its own hubris.He has accordingly done what is needed to acknowledge the most egregious of New Labour errors – the invasion of Iraq, the obeisance to the City, the tolerance of widening inequality, the “intense relaxation” about the “filthy rich”, the genuflection to market forces, the subservience to President Bush; the list must be ended for reasons of space rather than because it has run out of items.
    The one significant area where the new leader has seemed reluctant to start afresh has been the economy. The uncertain response to the government’s deficit inherited from the Brown government has left the coalition government free to re-write history and to invent a new narrative which lays the deficit at Labour’s door.Miliband has seemed content to allow unfolding events to conduct the argument for him. Fortunately for him, Alan Johnson (whose appointment as Shadow Chancellor was in any case a puzzle) has forced his hand. Ed Balls seems certain to carry the argument to the Tories, and to expose the supposedly inevitable cuts as an ideologically driven attack on public spending in principle and as precisely the wrong response in economic terms – a response which guarantees a longer recession and tougher times.
    But Labour’s bounce back is more than merely the renunciation of particular items on the agenda of the new leader’s predecessors. Miliband has begun the task of re-building the values and principles on which a modern progressive party must operate.In doing so, he has of course half an eye on disappointed and disaffected Lib Dems. This is partly a matter of electoral calculation and none the worse for that. But the attempt he makes to re-position what, in today’s Britain, should constitute the progressive force in British politics, while of obvious interest to many Lib Dems, is also critical to Labour’s future.
    His starting point seems to be that New Labour’s fundamental mistake was to abandon Labour’s historic mission by aligning itself with the big battalions. Those big battalions included most notably the rich and powerful who had most to gain from the unfettered operation of market forces. If the market was not to be challenged, was to be regarded as virtually infallible, (and this was the sometimes explicit basis of New Labour policy), the ability of a supposedly progressive government to intervene in the search for social justice and – crucially – economic efficiency as well was severely curtailed.
    But the powerful forces with which New Labour aligned itself were not limited to those who were dominant in the market. To many of those ordinary people who expected the support of a progressive government against those big battalions, the government itself was one of the oppressors. Ed Miliband is clear that New Labour’s betrayal of its natural supporters was a double let-down; they not only left many defenceless against the economically powerful but they used the power of government to reinforce that sense of powerlessness by failing to listen to what ordinary people wanted.
    In arguing that Labour must now correct those mistakes, the new Labour leader seems to adopt a view of progressive politics with which I strongly agree. I have long argued that the fundamental issue in politics is the response that must be made to what – if left uncorrected – will be the inevitable concentration of power in a few hands. Dominance of an unfettered market is one obvious form of that concentration. A government that is unresponsive to the people is another. The role of progressive politicians should be consciously to counteract those concentrations of power, and to ensure that power is as widely diffused as possible throughout society. The goal of progressive politics must be that people should have the greatest possible degree of control over their own lives.
    This kind of thinking is not new. It gains increasing expression in the many voluntary and community-based activities and initiatives that are springing up around the country. The task for progressive politicians is to show that government is an essential ally, and not an obstacle, to this kind of people- and community-based politics. People who are active in politics will be more effective if the government is on their side. That, after all, is what Labour came into being to achieve.
    Bryan Gould
    22 January 2011