Monday, August 28, 2006

Labour’s way forward

Labour seems to have lost its way, and to win the next election it needs to buck up its ideas – on both the policy agenda and how it explains itself. (This post looks at the issues within the political constraints I discussed here.)

Blair and Brown

The leadership issue needs dealing with. Uncertainty over when Tony Blair will go means that party and media attention is focussed on this rather than on broader political strategy, and that those in the party who desperately want him out are motivated to try to destabilise him (which of course damages the whole party as surely as Blair clinging on and on and on). So he has to go before too long – I’d say within a year – and he has to signal this clearly very soon.

You might say that Blair has been undermined by his pledge not to fight the next election, and that this would repeat that mistake. But if my reading of the situation is right, it’s the uncertainty that is preventing so many from thinking about anything else. A self-declared deadline would mean that we can all stop wondering when, and that the Blairophobic plotters can know that any plotting is redundant, as they’ll get what they want soon anyway.

Blair should tell the party conference in late September that his speech there will be his last such, and set out a few key issues that he will focus on in the rest of his leadership. Conversely, Gordon Brown should for once liaise with Blair in writing his own speech, which must be strongly loyal and talk up the policy aims of the coming year – as well as, in rough outline, looking beyond.

Competence and security

People need to feel that their government knows what it’s doing and that it can handle crime and the economy reasonably well. Obviously there have been problems on the competence count, and – to take two examples – sorting out the ‘unfit’ parts of the Home Office and the administration of tax credits is vital. So is maintaining steady economic growth.

The economy has been strong for the last nine years. The other day a Treasury spokesperson said that Brown’s record on the economy “speaks for itself”. No it bloody well doesn’t, according to a recent poll. If you want to take credit for something, you have to keep singing about it. That was one of the mistakes that Al Gore made in 2000.

Crime has also fallen, but the media ensure that this is implausible; violent crime indeed has been rising, and this manifestly needs dealing with.

Terrorism and national cohesion

I’ve tentatively put these issues together: the more cohesion there is, the harder it is to recruit bombers; and the more intelligent and carefully targeted the anti-terrorist strategy is, the easier it is to foster a sense of unity. I could go on about this stuff at very great length, but here I’ll just say that a successful government these days needs to deal with both. Disrupting bomb plots is self-evidently good, and the new ‘Commission on Integration and Cohesion’ has at least the potential to take some steps in the right direction.


I would rather watch anti-climb paint fail to dry than go through another argument about Iraq. Opinions about the rights and wrongs of the war are now firmly set (unlike the paint), but on the matter of its politics there is no doubting the resulting ill will towards the government. Time will ease some of this, and so will the change of leader. But more than that will be needed. I outlined in my previous post some of the ways to signal a change of approach on foreign policy (pro-diplomacy noises, discreet distance from Bush), but those baying for an immediate pull-out and a full repudiation will have to be disappointed: such a vast, humiliating U-turn would be political suicide.

Trust in government

This has become a serious problem – largely, but not wholly, embodied by Blair. As with Iraq, his departure will help to a degree. Making changes to how Parliament works will help here, as Michael Meacher has suggested: select committee membership could be decided by ballots of MPs and not the party whips, and the liaison committee (of select committee chairs) could have some power to table motions.

Lords reform is necessary – not only because of the whiff of ‘cash-for-honours’, but also because it’s an outstanding manifesto commitment. Party representatives should have to be elected, and independents with particular expertise should be appointed in a way utterly independent of politicians.

By the same token, reform of party funding will be another way of signalling that political influence isn’t for sale. Whatever role state funding might take, there clearly has to be a cap on individual donations to prevent the appearance of the party (and for that matter other parties) being bankrolled by a few millionaires. The loans rules obviously need tightening too.


This government has done a lot to reduce poverty – not nearly enough, but far more than anyone else would. This is another thing that’s under-appreciated, largely because of fear of alienating the middle classes by shouting about it. What’s needed is a narrative in which further effort to improve the lot of the least well-off is justified on the same grounds as policies to help the middle classes. So…

Government and the redistribution of power

It’s a commonplace that parties of the right tend to prioritise ‘negative liberty’ – the absence of formal, legal constraints on individual action – while the left focusses more on ‘positive liberty’ – the material ability to grasp opportunities and take control of one’s own life.

Despite Cameron’s changes to the Tories – making them the party that will cut tax and spending slowly – and the ‘new’ Labour approach of making right-ish noises while quietly increasing the mimimum wage and tax credits, this distinction still holds true. And given that many relatively well-off people share with those who are poorer a sense that they lack control over their lives, this presents a political opportunity.

Plenty of people resent Labour’s curtailment of civil liberties in certain areas (and there are probably cases in which a rethink is politically workable). But this anger is, in most cases, a matter of principle rather than at tangible obstacles in people’s day-to-day lives. Not too many of us want to make regular protests in Parliament Square. But lots of people of all sorts find themselves, particularly in their interactions with organs of the state, reduced to the status of supplicants rather than empowered political agents.

In Patrick Diamond’s words: “The empowerment of the individual – strengthening freedom and equality to maximise the happiness and satisfaction of the greatest number – will be at the fore. The central theme of politics is enlarging the scope for individuals to exercise greater power and control in their lives at a time of unrivalled affluence – but also unprecedented insecurity.”

‘Choice’ has become almost as horrific a buzzword as ‘modernise’. It smacks of the market, of privatisation – which rings warning bells in lots of people’s heads when applied to public services. But it tries to get at something that matters: the rich have always had the power to get the services they want, by going to private clinics, paying public school fees, or more recently buying houses in the catchment areas of the best state schools.

Redistribution of wealth remains essential, but – as nobody seriously believes in exact financial equality for all – the remaining disparities must be eased by decoupling economic power from other sorts of power. People need control over the public services they use and over the government policies that affect their neighbourhoods. As Jonathan Freedland argues: “On this logic, the next stage in the journey will be nothing less than a refashioning of the state – replacing the top-down, centralised behemoth of today with a looser, more diffuse, even ‘organic’… network of services that fit the people who use them. Citizens won't be passive recipients, but direct participants.”

This approach would be of most benefit to the poorer people with less ability to buy their way out and less knowledge of cunning, covert ways to play the old system, but its beauty is that the same principle will help the better-off who want to be able to believe in public provision, but who might – if it fails them – be tempted towards the right.

The redistribution of power away from the central state is a bandwagon that David Cameron is eyeing with hunger. But if he took the reins, he’d steer in a quite different direction from Labour’s. He will be very happy to go the American way, with private companies and faith groups not only acting as contractors for implementing public policy, but also acting increasingly to shape policy. And he will diminish – perhaps slowly, but surely – the level of state funding, making service provision less egalitarian. The right – and he is most certainly of the right – fails to understand that the state has an utterly necessary role as the guarantor of a durably equitable distribution of power.

I know I said this would be the second of two posts, but I’ve noticed this morning an article by a Cameron crony that looks the perfect background against which to explain the flaws of the Tory approach. Watch this space… [Update: see here.]


Tom said...

This looks like a pretty good agenda, but I think the blairite distinction of positive and negative liberty makes a mockery of Isiah Berlin's oringinal conception. essentially they are also dismissing people's positive liberties, such as the right to do what they want in a personal sphere, as well as curtailing the negative.

It seems to me to be an oversimplified and silly way to get pro-statist elements on the left (which blairites can hardly subscribe to anyway, especially economically!) to listen to them. Which they will not.

Let's forget the A-level political philosophy and recognise the fundamental change which is taking place between citizen and state (and all of the implications of that) before we have this debate.

We should be thinking about protecting the legacy of freedom left to us by the chartists, tolpuddle matyrs, and later roy jenkins. To do otherwise is to submit to terror and totalitarianism.

Tom Freeman said...

"the blairite distinction of positive and negative liberty makes a mockery of Isiah Berlin's oringinal conception"

Whatever Tone's myriad talents, philosophy isn't one of them. You've just reminded me of the letter he wrote to Berlin in 1997. Highbrow it ain't...