Labour needs to shape the debate, not reflect conventional wisdom

Super Corb

I remember reading an interview with the aspiring deputy leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, about how he thought Labour should rebuild itself in the wake of its May electoral defeat. It began –

“She didn’t really think we should microchip all immigrants; what she was trying to say was that the system isn’t working,” insists Tom Watson, Labour MP for West Bromwich East and the bookies’ favourite to be the next deputy leader of the Labour party.

The woman had said “When you get a pet, you microchip them, can’t we microchip the immigrants? We have got to stop them coming in, those wrong ones.” Quite apart from the sadness I felt at how we’re now in a position where a senior Labour politician is incapable of taking on more or less overt racism, the episode is an example of a wider problem in the party and its attitude to electoral politics.

The reason given for not calling a proposal to microchip immigrants racist, or for failing to challenge remarks of this type, is that it’s useless shouting ‘racist’ at the electorate. Middle class metropolitan intellectuals might find it distasteful, but we can’t sneer at these people; we need to engage with them and understand their legitimate concerns.

This all sounds measured, considered and even tolerant (paradoxically, given the ideas – micro-chipping immigrants! – that are being floated), but to what extent can it be called ‘engagement’ with the electorate? Engaging in a dialogue doesn’t mean you jettison the ideas you think are right and replace them with the ones preferred by your interlocutor. That’s not a dialogue, it’s just a form of mimicry, an uncritical reflection of somebody else’s opinion.

We’re seeing the same thing play out in the Labour party now. Harriet Harman has said it’s no good opposing policies like the Tories’ welfare bill because Labour lost that argument at the last election. Similarly, Chuka Umunna has written that it’s useless shouting at the electorate about austerity because Labour ran on a left economic platform in May and the public rejected it; we need to win over Tory voters who don’t trust us on the economy.

It’s true that people didn’t trust Labour on the economy. It’s also true that to win the next election, Labour will have to win over swing voters who voted Conservative in the last election. But it’s not true that Labour ran on a coherent anti-austerity manifesto.

Certainly, Miliband’s Labour were to the left of previous Labour governments (which, incidentally, also won them a greater share of the vote than in 2010), but his economic policy wasn’t a coherent one. As the economist Andrew Fisher has argued, it’s illogical to say that Labour spending wasn’t the problem but that spending cuts – or even less swingeing cuts – are the solution. No wonder the polls showed that no one trusted Labour on the economy; what we were saying made little sense.

The point is that the participants in political debate don’t just reflect the views of the electorate, they shape those views too. We’ll fail if we just repeat back to the electorate the conventional wisdom that cuts are good for the economy; austerity only makes sense if you think that the reason for the economic crisis is the profligacy of the previous government. Labour signing up to further cuts, whatever ‘nicer’ variant, just confirms this view.

The boom years are gone. A ‘third way’ of economic growth, rising living standards and soaring profits is no longer possible. It’s left or right, there’s no in between, no coherent or convincing middle ground in this debate or room to ‘triangulate’. That the Liberal Democrats, a party who ran as a not-too-hot version of the Labour party and a not-too-cold version of the Tories, were decimated in May is evidence of the fact.

The best way for Labour to sound credible on the economy is not to move closer to the Tories but to provide a new, coherent narrative about the causes of and solutions to the economic malaise we’re in (this is, of course, totally contrary to the view of the Labour right). We need to engage – actually engage – with the electorate by winning them to a new, coherent economic strategy that addresses the real causes of economic stagnation.

Labour should be acting as a lightning rod to all the voters who don’t like what the Conservatives are doing to the economy, but who have succumbed to the idea that ‘there is no alternative’. Our job in the debate is to show them that there is. This means a policy of investment in the economy that puts maintaining and improving the living standards of the majority at its core.

Now is the time for both bold, original statements of economic intent and aggressive opposition. Of the four Labour leadership candidates, it’s only Jeremy Corbyn who is providing this alternative analysis. Ironically, given the rush to brand him unelectable, this fresh perspective is exactly what the party needs if it’s to be reinvigorated as a party of government. We need to stop cravenly reflecting what we think people want to hear and instead start shaping and owning the debate. That’s where the future of Labour lies.

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Some late thoughts on Labour & the welfare bill

The line peddled by the likes of Burnham, who argues that he did oppose the welfare bill because he voted for a Labour amendment (which fell), is nonsensical. Putting aside the fact that Labour’s amendment wrongly conceded on some important aspects of the bill, this position would only be defensible if Labour MPs were then to vote ‘no’. They didn’t: the whip was to abstain. This is not ‘opposing the bill’ by anyone’s reckoning. The 48 Labour rebels who did vote ‘no’ should be celebrated as heroes. Those who abstained should be ashamed of themselves.

On a different note, the figure of 48 rebels is important to another debate in the Labour Party: the leadership election. The first thing to say is that the vote demonstrates that Jeremy Corbyn is the only candidate who is serious about opposing the Tories and the austerity agenda. Jeremy succeeded in getting 35 nominations for Labour leadership, which was brilliant. It should be noted, however, that the nominations were garnered on the basis of a democratic demand – the demand to ‘widen the debate’ – rather than any affinity with Jeremy’s politics. It seems to me that the figure of 48 is significant because it demonstrates that opposition to austerity policies goes beyond the narrower parliamentary support for Jeremy, to a broader layer of MPs who – for whatever reason (perhaps they don’t think Jeremy can win) – support other candidates for the leadership. I say this as an ardent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, but I think that the only conclusion to draw from this is that the dividing line in the fight against austerity insofar as the Labour Party is concerned is not whether or not you support Jeremy, but whether or not you support austerity. This amounts to the observation that by putting the politics first, you create a broader alliance than by putting a leadership candidate first (which makes intuitive sense to me, and is the underlying rationale behind any united front).

So, I think it’s vital that socialists in the Labour Party do everything they can to promote Jeremy’s electoral campaign, but I think it’s also necessary to wage a concerted political struggle against austerity in the Labour Party that draws in broader forces as well, a campaign for a policy of investment, not cuts. In fact, if Jeremy’s electoral campaign and the political campaign against austerity are overly conflated, we run the risk of a defeat for Jeremy’s candidacy being construed as a defeat for broader anti-austerity forces. This would severely weaken the Labour left in the aftermath of the leadership election, making it harder for us to promote a progressive economic policy under whoever takes the reins of the party.