Thursday, 29 December 2011

Is the 'Tory Trap' the Future for the Labour Party?

Yesterday, Ben Jackson and Gregg McClymont published their pamphlet: Cameron’s Trap – Lessons for Labour from the 1930s and 1980s.
The report, which received some publicity in the press, seemed quite controversial, and was reported by Nicholas Watt in the Guardian as follows:

“Ed Miliband will lose the next election if Labour falls into a trap set by the Conservatives and allows itself to be defined solely as the defender of public spending, one of the party's leading frontbench intellectuals has warned … Labour will avoid the Tory trap only if it resists the temptation to appeal to its core supporters in the public services.”

Coming out of Peter Mandelson’s think-tank group, the report has thus been perceived as a right-wing attack on Ed Miliband, and has provoked negative responses from Sunny Hundal and Eoin Clarke.

The Limits of Historical Parallels
Being an historian, of course, I was especially interested in Jackson and McClymont’s approach, which was to draw comparisons between Labour’s position today, and the situations in which Labour found itself in the 1930s and the 1980s. The majority of the report, indeed, consisted of a relatively dry historical review of Labour in opposition last century.
A lot of the points made by the authors were quite interesting, undeniable factually correct, but essentially ephemeral for current debate:
- they were casting back through history looking for parallels and, hey presto, they found some; this is a far cry from saying that the situations were parallel or that their ‘lessons-to-be-learned’ were valid.
- historical situations only carry ‘lessons-to-be-learned’ if the situation today is the same as the comparable situations in the past … and of course it isn’t.

What the Authors Actually Said
Above all, however, I found that – far from being a right-wing diatribe against Ed Miliband – when you read the actual report (and not its summary in the newspaper), it became clear that the article was anything BUT a contentious attack on the Labour Left … and was, in fact, a rather banal statement of commonly accepted truths interlaced with some significant concessions to the left-wing of the Party.

So, before we go rushing to imagine a Party split, let’s remind ourselves of the points the authors actually made (you can read them for yourself here):

A. The Conservatives benefit from economic recessions
They manage successfully to blame the economic problems on previous Labour fiscal incompetence.
They introduce politically-motivated austerity measures, but dress them up as ‘in the national interest’, claiming that there is ‘no alternative’.
Thus the Tories get re-elected even when they are presiding over a failing economy and, indeed, going into an election cutting benefits and seeking confrontation with the Unions actually benefits the Tories, because they are then able to brand the Labour opposition as a ‘tax-and-spend’ party in thrall to the Unions.

B. To sidestep this ‘Tory Trap’, Labour must do four things:
1. refuse to be driven back to its core support – an unnecessarily controversial phrase, by which the authors merely meant that Labour should not imagine that it could win the next election simply by opposing the cuts in welfare benefits and public services ... such would simply play into the Tories’ hands. Rather, Labour must avoid simplistic ‘borrow-and-spend’ or ‘tax-and-spend’ solutions based wholly on opposition to the cuts, and instead propose a pro-active economic policy for growth.

2. mount a contrasting manifesto to the Conservative ‘small state’ policies based on an ‘activist state’. This – the authors stated – is an area where Labour can take on the Tories, and where Labour can win.

3. highlight the regressive nature of the Tory cuts, and propose instead an alternative policy ‘offering more progressive funding mechanisms, and developing new welfare policies that reduce economic insecurity’.

4. focus on the ‘economic underperformance and relative decline [of the economy], presided over by an out of touch Tory elite’ (my italics).

A Significant Lurch to the Left
Couched in these terms, the pamphlet presents itself, not as a right-wing attack on the Left, but as a substantial move by the Right-wing of the Party to reconcile itself to the Left.

Let’s look in turn at the article’s four proposals:

1. Surely everybody on Right and Left agrees that – as indeed I pointed out in an earlier article on this blog – that the Tories are just lying in wait for us to start opposing the cuts so that they can label us ‘the profligate party’. To say so is a truism, not a statement of a right-wing position.
It is something that the left-wing of the Party can justifiably concede:
- Eoin Clarke has consistently stressed the need to cost all Labour Left proposals.
- NOBODY suggests (or indeed has even suggested) that we can keep on borrowing to fund a revenue shortfall.
- and whilst there is probably some pretty hard bargaining going to have to be done between Right and Left over just exactly whether and how much a Labour government would increase taxes, surely NOBODY is suggesting indiscriminate taxation, especially of business (my own personal inclination would be gradually first to close the tax loopholes, perhaps target bonuses and the super-rich … and then see where that takes us).

2. The pamphlet’s proposal for an ‘activist’ state is a radical departure from right-wing laissez-faire policies, and something that left-wing Labour can thoroughly agree. The authors use the term ‘activist state’, but they might as well have said ‘Courageous State’ – the intention is evidently similar.

3. The authors’ proposal to offer ‘more progressive funding mechanisms’ is surely a major concession by the Right to the Left of the Party. This, surely, is what the Left have been arguing for; now we have Mandelson’s protégés implicitly accepting the need to rebalance wealth, to tax the super-rich and the close tax loopholes. Again, there will have to be some hard bargaining over exactly what form any ‘new welfare policies’ might take – I can see Right and Left of the Party having some pretty polarised views on this issue – but at least we have moved away from a Darlingesque ‘cuts’ agenda towards a more proactive ‘welfare-reform’ agenda.

4. Again, do you not see a considerable concession here, as Jackson and McClymont explicitly reject the suggestion that the Tories have ‘got it right’ on the economy, and instead wheel round behind the Left’s assertion that the Tories are out of touch and elitist. OK, it’s not quite ‘vicious blood-suckers’ language, but the explicit assertion that the Tory cuts are political and unnecessary is a significant lurch leftwards from the Right of the Party.

A Basis for Discussion
Thus it is incorrect to label this article a right-wing attack on Miliband and his attempt to move the Party a little to the left. Indeed, in places it conspicuously echoed Ed’s ethical capitalism speech at Conference, and it would not be too difficult to find significant parallels with Ed’s 2011 (and, if we are to believe Dan Hodges, 2010) New Year’s message.

It would be a disaster if the Left were to accept the Guardian’s caricaturing of this article as a right-wing attack on Ed, and to reject it.

I read it as a significant concession by the Right of the Party towards the Left, and – personally, for what it is worth – I would be quite happy to take its proposals as a basis for further discussion.


  1. This is really excellent. Will be visiting this page more often.

  2. Excellent analysis. Have any of the left critics of the pamphlet actually read it? I'm on the left of the party and I pretty much agree with what Jackson and McClymont say. The Guardian's attempt to stir the shit is very annoying and unnecessary.

  3. I'm pleased (and vindicated) to see that the authors published a letter in today's Guardian criticising its reporting of their article, and pretty much saying what I said: