Friday, 23 December 2011

Conflicting Messages for Labour's Future

Labour List sent me two reviews of the year today.
To a degree, it’s distressing that these observations are coming in just before Christmas, when we’re all too busy wrapping presents and peeling sprouts to consider them properly.

But here, for what they're worth, are my thoughts on them...

Michael Dugher: Have Confidence
Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and Shadow Minister without Portfolio. His review made me laugh out loud; it reminded me of the LP sleeve which said: ‘Crisis, what crisis?’
He is clearly pitching for a better post in the shadow cabinet at the next reorganisation.

Mr Dugher believes that, apart from ‘a good joke at Prime Minister’s Questions’ (omg, not that again!), Labour has made ‘remarkably good progress’ in 2011. ‘Normally speaking, a new government tends to enjoy a comfortable lead early into office’, but Ed and his team are consistently giving the Tories a bloody nose in the polls. We are winning by-elections, party membership is up, and Ed’s concept of ‘the squeezed middle’ has become big news.

‘History tells us that once Labour is defeated, disunity and disarray almost inevitably follow. Yet far from turning in on ourselves as many predicted or feared, Labour has picked itself up and showed from the outset that we can be an effective opposition,’ opines Mr Dugher. ‘On issues ranging from police cuts, tuition fees, benefits to cancer patients, the NHS and News Corp’s planned takeover of BSkyB, Labour has embarrassed and exposed the Government … We are not only opposing, we are beginning to win some big arguments too’ – not least on the economy.
Etc., etc., etc.

Do I need to spend long on Mr Dugher? He clearly inhabits a different universe.
In the real world, the polls have been fairly disastrous, and in the most recent council by-elections the Tories’ share improved in Brighton, and in Walsall the Labour share fell.
To be truthful, Labour has consistently failed to ‘embarrass and expose’ the government outside Parliament, and as I write the shadow cabinet is meeting to try to find out why Labour's argument on the economy is failing.
And as for Party unity? I think we all realise that this bold statement from the shadow-cabinet is a sign that in fact they are scared that the edifice is beginning to fragment. If they are not, they are idiots – the party is seething with debate.

And I think we can similarly dismiss Mr Dugher’s proposal for the future, which amounts merely to ‘more of the same, in confidence and unity’.
Not good enough, I’m afraid, Mr Dugher!

Anthony Painter: A Pretty Bad Year
From the ridiculous to the seditious?
If you know my blog, you will be aware that I gave the Party leadership a pretty good bashing, but my efforts pale into insignificance compared to Mr Painter’s assault!
The Party, suggests Mr Painter, is a sinking ship: ‘The party is struggling. So is its leader … This has been a pretty bad year for Labour.’

As for the leadership, Mr Painter clearly does not feel any need for friends:
‘The upper echelons of the Labour party is [sic] dominated by brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and friends. They are a group and tribe of their own and they don’t speak to or for modern Britain … It’s a disaster. It’s who you know not what you know. It is a guild – a nepotistic one.’

Indeed, far from appealing for Party unity, Mr Painter calls for rebellion:
‘The highest value within Labour is now loyalty and unity. This isn’t serving the party well. There needs to be more (constructive) disruption … There is no point uniting around defeat. In fact, it’s dumb.... Neither leader nor party is served by the silent suffering of those who can see where things aren’t working and need to be put right.’
And he concludes: ‘I’m afraid one or two or the party’s officer class are going to have to be braver in 2012’.

Anybody familiar with my blog will appreciate that I warmed much more to Mr Painter than to Mr Dugher!
- the leadership HAVE failed to develop a message capable of impacting on the public;
- Ed has had a disastrous time, particularly at PMQs;
- the Party DOES need to speak out more clearly and bravely on things like pensions, benefits, tuition fees etc.

And yet, do you not think Mr Painter goes too far?
Disintegration is not an option; there merely needs to be a DEBATE … and a controlled and constructive one at that.
THAT is where Labour needs listening leadership, strong enough to conduct a dialogue with its own members to discover what they (and the public) WANT it to say.

A Social Problem
Yet Party unity isn’t the main issue on which I disagreed with Mr Painter’s thought-provoking article.

What made Mr Painter’s review most interesting is his suggestion that Labour’s problems were social, as well as systematic and political.
Labour’s malaise, he suggests, lies in the fact that society has changed, but Party attitudes haven’t.
Both Old Labour and New Labour, goes his argument, interpret the Party in terms of two groups – the ‘core [working class] membership’, and the ‘ethical middle class’ attracted by Blair. They disagree over how to achieve it, but both sides see winning the next election as a process of getting both these groups ‘back on board’.
You will appreciate that I was particularly intrigued and challenged by Mr Painter’s ideas here, because I have in the past argued precisely in such terms.

For – says Mr Painter – this social model is no longer appropriate. Society has fragmented into a string of action groups and single-issue campaigns. Megalithic ‘Party’, therefore, is no longer appropriate. It’s not just that the Party organisation is unfit for purpose; the Party as a concept needs to adapt to a new societal situation.

A Neo-Neo-liberal Strategy
Which brings us to Mr Painter’s solutions.

Actually, at this point, Mr Painter throws a bone to the Left. Labour lefties, he acknowledges, have also realised that Labour’s problem is that it does not match society’s needs. However, he summarily dismisses the Left’s solution – which he stereotypes as: ‘they now argue that politics has to change society’ – in a single phrase: ‘it’s stark raving mad, frankly.’

No; instead, Mr Painter suggests that the Party must reflect society:
‘There are some bottom lines and non-negotiables, eg on economic competence, tax, crime, the NHS, welfare and immigration. Beyond these, it is up to you to craft a resonant story for our times … You do it by combining a nuanced conversation with authentic leadership.’

For Mr Painter, successful politics is about playing the percentages. You take the (alleged) current neo-liberal consensus on the main issues, make clear statements of intent, and then hope that people ‘forgive’ you on those issues where they disagree.

Two things strike me about this argument:

Firstly, admittedly dressed up in fancy language, ‘a nuanced conversation’ threatens to amount in the last analysis to nothing different to what Ed is doing already – mouthing enticing words to the various campaign groups whilst trying desperately not to upset anybody else.

And, secondly, quite frankly, if this ‘nuanced conversation’ does include ‘bottom lines and non-negotiables’ of unremitting austerity, tax cuts for ‘wealth-creators’, corporatisation of services and infrastructure, with a strong underline of parochialism and ‘loranorder’, then I’m not sure personally it is WORTH winning. We might as well stay with the conservatives
at least we will have someone else to blame.
The reason I am in politics is that I want different policies on the issues that matter -
economic competence, tax, crime, the NHS, welfare and immigration – and I refuse to accept that there is only one way forward on these matters.

A Labour Party CAN Be Relevant To Today’s Society
You see, I do not buy the current, post-Thatcherite, ‘there-is-no-such-thing-as-society’ line. OF COURSE society is made up of many different groups with many different proclivities. And was there EVER a megalithic ‘Labour Party’ with a single, shared policy?
In fact the skies are just as much a different colour in Mr Painter’s imaginary world as they are in Mr Dugher’s world – they are just significantly murkier.

I assert that there exists, out there in modern English society, the propensity to unite huge numbers of people around left-wing values.
Talk to the rank-and-file membership – the ‘core membership’ whom Mr Painter thinks no longer relevant. Many of them are getting on in years, but all of them warm significantly when you suggest that it might be OK once again to hold core socialist values.
And, yes it is inchoate and infinitely varied, but there are the first rumblings amongst young people of an ethical radicalism which surely will be prepared to put its vote, if not its faith, with the Labour Party if the Labour Party will just say something to convince them that it isn’t the right-wing lackey of the establishment.

Ultimately, we need to re-politicise the working classes. Partly this might be done via the Trade Unions. Mostly, Labour’s opportunity lies in the increasing misery and anger that the government’s coming welfare cuts will create.
It isn’t just a matter of Labour cynically harnessing this misery to get itself elected; Labour needs to throw its weight behind the victims, and fight for them – they are our modern equivalent of the meek, and they need someone to mobilise and represent them. Labour is the true and natural home of the working-class and we need to create a space for them once more.

Mostly, we need to realise that it is NOT ‘stark raving mad’ to try to convert people to a Labour Left way of thinking.
As he stood before the promised land all those thousands of years ago, Joshua must have been aware that he controlled not a single acre of it. But the message was, nevertheless, to advance: ‘Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened neither be dismayed … every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you.’

Both Mr Dugher and Mr Painter are far more influential than I, but – as we move into 2012 – whose philosophy do you find most sensible:
- Mr Dugher’s head-in-the-sand, hum-and-hope approach?
- Mr Painter’s pander-to-the-neo-cons message of despair?

Or an approach which campaigns to win new support for Labour with a message of realistic
, ethical, courageous socialism?

Where do YOU think the Party should go next year?

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