Thursday, 27 May 2010

More on the (British) Labour leadership issue

John Rentoul in the Independent has written an interesting column considering how Labour should respond to a fairly novel and menacing threat - a progressive coalition of the Conservative and Liberal democrat parties that has, so far, confounded Labour's hopes by pursuing the sort of progressive good ideas that Labour neglected to investigate while it was in office. Of course, there is plenty of time for the both parties to revert to type and for the coalition to crack ... but that's a pretty uninspiring route for Labour to follow. Unfortunately, as Rentoul points out, it seems to be the one the party is opting for:
At the weekend I attended a Labour Party inquest. It was organised by the modernisers' faction, Progress. There were a lot of young people there, and some of them were most excited by the novelty of being in opposition. It wears off, you know. As someone who spent most of his formative political years attending leftish inquests into Labour defeats, I have to say that they are all the same and that they are mostly beside the point. A lot of people become animated about electoral reform or impatient to take the fight to the Tories (and in the present case, the addition of the Liberal Democrats to the government seems to have made no difference); while in between sessions all the talk is of nominations and shadow cabinet elections.

Furious denunciations were made of the coalition and all its works. The 55 per cent threshold for dissolving a fixed-term parliament was attacked as "gerrymandering". This overlooked the fact that, had Labour won the election, or if it had succeeded in stitching together a deal with the Liberal Democrats, it would have introduced fixed-term parliaments itself. In order to mean anything, a law setting a fixed term for parliament must have some mechanism to make it difficult for a party or parties with a bare majority to pre-empt the fixed date and seek a new election. Oh well. Similarly, the coalition is attacked for wanting to equalise the sizes of constituencies. Yes, that might help the Tories – much less than the Tories imagine, incidentally – but how can the opposition argue against the principle of reducing a bias in its favour?

Similar denunciations were made of colleagues seeking common ground with the enemy. Candidates for the leadership were condemned for blaming Labour's defeat on immigration and welfare dependency. Karen Buck MP, who defeated Joanne Cash to hold her seat and who is usually on the sensible wing of the party, said she did not want Labour to respond to defeat for the first time by "lurching to the right". But if the party is on the left of the centre, and most of the voters it needs to win are in the centre, lurching to the right might be a sensible response to defeat. (1)
Now, there is some sense in what Rentoul says, but I can't help feeling that he is politicking on the behalf of the Blairite candidates for the leadership. He's as guilty of the tribalism as the left-leaning members he castigates. Of course, he doesn't admit his tribalism is tribalism - it is presented as good, plain common sense.

I remember an anecdote comparing Bill Clinton to FDR. FDR, so the yarn went, would go out, meet people and convince them that his ideas were right. Clinton, on the other hand, would go out, meet people, and become convinced their ideas were right ... And how much more so Blair and New Labour. So - as you may have gathered, I disagree with his suggestion that Labour needs to continue moving right. For every vote it picks up there, it will lose one on the left. Far more sensible would be to come up with a vigorous set of centre-left ideas, go out and convince people they are good ideas that are worth voting for.

I also suspect that the electorate are more left than their voting suggests. In 1997, faced with a tired, corrupt administration tottering towards its quietus, they voted massively in favour of the bright, untried, centre-left alternative. In 2010, faced with a tired, corrupt administration tottering towards its quietus, they voted much less massively in favour of the bright, untried, centre-right alternative. Probably the deciding factor wasn't economic doctrine, but simply revulsion at the government's berserk authoritarianism - the seeming demented desire to inflict things upon people in the face of their opposition - that's the convincing people things are a good idea bit.

Finally, to make a troika of truculent tiffs, I also think Labour has to face up to Iraq. Yes, I know it was years ago and it is something Miliband the elder, Burnham and the Blairites would rather not talk about, but it is something that still rankles with a lot of party members and supporters, especially those of us who were proven right by events. A bit of mea culpa, humility and an explanation would be appreciated by those who were so blind to the evidence against war in 2003, rather than high-handed - that authoritarian streak showing through again - attempts to pretend it isn't worth talking about.

After all, if they can't account for such a colossal error of judgement over the most important foreign policy decision in decades, then how on Earth can they be trusted to lead the party?
1 - "A return to tribalism won't help Labour," by John Rentoul. Published in the Independent, 27th of May, 2010. (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/john-rentoul/john-rentoul-a-return-to-tribalism-wont-help-labour-1983718.html)

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