Friday, August 07, 2015

Who to vote for in the Labour contest?

This is proving a surprisingly hard question.

1. It's hard to disagree with the proposition that policies which:
  • get the economy right
  • apply a level of redistribution to maintain an effective state
  • ensure social cohesion 
pretty much define the programme of a sensible political party. In the UK, this is called governing from the centre.

2. With a still-damaged economy, most people agree that the current priority is to clear debt-overhang, improve productivity, maintain growth and preserve social cohesion. Broadly that's where the Conservative Government has positioned itself and it's proved electorally sufficient.

3. When Labour was last in office, under Blair, it occupied essentially the same ground - albeit with less reforming zeal on public services. Blair won because the Tories had at that time narrowed their appeal to just their privileged friends and had lost the middle classes. The Tories continue to have the problem that the UK elite is culturally quite different from the mass middle classes; the latter typically find the former old-fashioned and rather repellant.

4. The brutal truth is that there is no political space right now for a successful Labour Party strategy, one which would be correct as in point (1) above (with Labourist nuances) but which would differ substantively from what the Tories are doing. That's why no one has come up with one.

5. The Labour Party in the fifties and sixties was the party of blue and white collar workers. Its powerhouse was the unions, while the TUC was a power in the land. The vast expansion of the middle-class in the sixties, seventies and eighties (fuelled by vastly increased university uptake) undermined the power and social weight of traditional organised labour.

6. Following these social changes (a testimony, by the way, to the success of capitalism in increasing all-round wealth) Labour politics moved to the Guardian agenda: identity politics and support for diverse 'victims and causes'. A rainbow coalition model always had the potential to destabilise the party: redistribution from those with wealth eclipsing any concern as to how that wealth might actually be produced in the first place (the not entirely trivial question of how a successful capitalist economy can be facilitated). The danger?  A fervent but self-limiting voting base, as Angela Eagle tried to point out in coded language the other day.

7. A party comprised mainly of a coalition of needy pressure groups is not that useful a project to safeguard the future of the UK. All parties tend to get captured by their natural backers despite the best efforts of their smarter leaders to undertake a truly national project. When that happens, it's vital to have a ready alternative. So when the reforming Thatcher government decayed to the ineffectual Major regime, we had a fresh-off-the-shelf Blair government to restore competence and re-address neglected concerns. The same will happen eventually with the Cameron-Osborne project.

8. OK, so we finally get to the point. Which is the least bad candidate to ensure that a future Labour Party will be fit for purpose?
  • Jeremy Corbyn is the worst candidate, because his passionately-held beliefs have essentially nothing in common with policies and strategies which actually work. A Corbyn leadership will lead to a cul de sac* at which point the party will have to have the discussion alluded to above in far more desperate straits.

  • Andy Burnham is not a good choice. All politicians are open to the accusations of hypocrisy and lack of principles, but Burnham seems to make an art form of it. I am inclined to believe he really is an unprincipled hypocrite standing on retrograde, statist and deeply-unhelpful policies.

  • Liz Kendall has neither the stature nor the ideas to take the party anywhere. Blairism was a model of Labour centrism for the 1990s; Labour centrism for 2020 and beyond has yet to be defined and I can't see Kendall playing any role. To start with, arguing for Blairist continuity going forwards is the stupidest political stance imaginable in the current febrile state of party opinion.

  • This leaves Yvette Cooper: machine politician, wife of Ed Balls, essentially invisible in this campaign. Three strikes there then. Paradoxically, electing a competent minder might be just what the party needs for the next few years. It has to wait out a Tory decline before it has a real chance of power again - and Yvette might be the one to take it there and oversee the new thinking required.
9. For deputy, one should vote for someone who can reach out to the membership and bring them along. Angela Eagle wouldn't be a bad choice; according to the latest polls, Caroline Flint might have a better prospect of heading off the malign Tom Watson.

(See what I did there? I ended up with three women candidates and their gender didn't even cross my mind until this exact moment).


* Adam Smith once wrote: "There is a great deal of ruin in a nation" by which he meant that mistaken policies take a while to wreck a strong economy. But at best they don't help and in the worst case, over a period, wreck it they can. We should not indulge utopian fantasies masquerading as political programmes.

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