Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Labour MUST Demonstrate Its Distinctiveness By Opposition

I do so very much enjoy Dan Hodges’ blogs for the Telegraph.

Many people don’t. Mr Hodges earns the wrath of those narrow-minded people who cannot see a place for any opinion but their own. Between you and me, I would find it hard to cope with the level of abuse he gets.
It is unwarranted. Mr Hodges knows his Westminster, and for me he is informative and challenging.

That does not mean that I always agree with him, or even that he is always correct.
Today – in an entertaining article about Labour’s ‘Flash Gordon’ tactics on the NHS – he was wrong.

Have Labour’s tactics over the NHS reform bill backfired?
Mr Hodges, not to put too fine an edge on it, thinks that Labour was wrong to oppose the NHS Bill. He thinks – as he admitted explicitly in a later exchange of tweets – that ‘Labour should have done nothing over the NHS bill and just agreed with the Tories’.

Indeed, let’s face it, it is eminently arguable that all Lansley is doing is more-or-less an extension of what New Labour intended to do anyway.
But it is not the alleged hypocrisy of Labour’s position on the NHS Bill which concerns Mr Hodges.
Unlike many critics of Labour, Dan Hodges DOES want Labour elected in 2015.
It is just that he believes sincerely that Labour is going about it the wrong way.

The Labour leadership, he says, is listening to the wrong people. They are listening to their activists – to their rank and file.
Worse still, they are ‘subcontracting’ their opposition of government policies to even more extreme groups – such as UK Uncut.

This, says Mr Hodges – and unless you are a complete idiot you will give what he says very careful consideration – is electoral suicide.
Because what the extremist protest groups, and even what the rank-and-file Labour activists, want is NOT what your ‘average voters’ want or believe.
And the way to win the next election, believes Mr Hodges, is to hit the needs and the beliefs of the general public – to hit the ‘centre ground’.
Like it or not, he avers, the Tories have got a better handle on the ‘centre ground’ than Labour at the moment, and therefore to oppose popularly-accepted measures such as deficit-reduction, the welfare cap and NHS reform is just to convince the ‘average voters’ that Labour is not for them.

This is only what Liam Byrne, and Progress, et al. have been saying all along.
And there is plenty of evidence to suggest they are right.
The NHS Bill has worked in Labour’s favour, but it has NOT been Cameron’s ‘poll tax’. Labour have moved ahead of the Tories in the polls, but only fractionally, and Ken Livingstone is well behind Boris Johnson.
NHS vigils the other night drew only handfuls of demonstrators. Even the Unions’ response has been bewilderingly muted.

Opposing the Tories for the sake of opposing the Tories, says Mr Hodges, is just making Labour look silly. What will Labour do when the NHS doesn’t fall apart? If the economy revives?
Labour, he says, needs to face ‘political reality’.

The REAL political reality
I have to admit that, when he and others talk like this, I suffer pangs of self-doubt.
For I am one of those urging the Party to listen more to its rank-and-file, to move its politics slightly to the left and, most of all, to oppose the wicked, divisive reforms that the Tories are forcing through.

Nevertheless, I am going to stick to my guns here for, persuasive though Mr Hodges’ argument is, it is flawed.
It is flawed primarily in its perception of ‘political reality’.

For the REAL political reality is that Labour IS IN OPPOSITION.
I am convinced that Labour – especially the Blairite right-wing who dominated policy for so long – have simply not yet managed to make the cognitive adjustment to this fact (Mr Hodges with them).
As I have said before, there is no point in declaring gubernatorial policies … because we are not in government! Jim Murphy tried it regarding defence policy – and who can remember a word of what he said now?
The spectre of Labour setting out ‘policies of government’ is risible.

So let’s take a reality check: Labour is the Party of opposition.
Therefore it must oppose.
It was simply NOT AN OPTION to have ‘done nothing over the NHS bill and just agreed with the Tories’.
That would have been even more risible than setting out a purple-skies ‘alternative policy’.

(As an aside, for goodness sake, even Mr Hodges must surely accept that there was enough palpably wrong with this Bill to drive a coach and horses through it. And it is Labour’s constitutional duty to point out such flaws, and to denounce the unfairness in the legislation that, again, even Mr Hodges must acknowledge, sullies and defames every Tory bill.)

The Reality of Losing and the Necessity of Opposition
And here is another reality: Labour WILL lose EVERY time.

“I’ll ask again.” Mr Hodges insists, “What does Labour do now? Ed Miliband said the bill could be stopped. It wasn’t.”

Of course it wasn’t, and no Tory measure ever will be stopped, because the coalition has a majority of MPs, and of course they are simply going to outvote the opposition.
Because that is the nature of government.

And it is at this point that Mr Hodges is proven wrong, and I undeniably right.

Up until this moment, after 13 years of government, the NHS was Labour’s NHS. Anything wrong with it was Labour’s fault.
Today, it became, very publicly, Cameron’s NHS.
And, yes, its successes will be Cameron’s successes (though they would have been so anyway) … but – BECAUSE LABOUR OPPOSED THE BILL – its failures will be the Tories’ responsibility.

It is the same with the economy. After 13 years of a Labour government, the public blamed Labour for the Crash. It’s almost pointless arguing that it wasn’t Labour’s fault, or even that Gordon Brown prevented global meltdown – it happened on our watch, and we picked up the blame.
But as time goes on – as long as we oppose George Osborne’s strategies – it will become the Tories’ economy, and they will be answerable for its successes … and accountable for its failures.

(You will be able to tell when this process has taken place if you listen to Any Questions on Radio 4; it will be the time when the Tory minister blames Labour for the mess and the audience GROANS. At the moment they applaud – but the time will come when that excuse does nor wash any more, because the public realise that any fault in the economy is the Tories’.)

Conclusion
And that, Mr Hodges, is why we must OPPOSE.
Not because we have succumbed to a left-wing internal coup.
But because we need publicly to identify the Tories with their own policies.

All the meagre vigils, the lacklustre demonstrations, the failed protests by medical bodies, the defeated Lords’ amendments, the ineffectual attempts to publish the Risk Register … YES they have failed to stop the Bill, but – as the Tories have lowered their heads and forced it though – they have made it very clear who is forcing this Bill upon the British people.

The alternative – to roll over spinelessly and say that we agree with the Tory laws because we think they occupy the centre ground and we want to do so too – is unthinkable.
Not only would it be morally wrong, but it would be disastrously politically.
For it would then identify Labour with the Tory policies.
It would still be ‘our’ NHS, rather than the Tories’ NHS.

Eventually (and sooner rather than later one would hope) the public will get sick of Tory Britain. They WILL turn against the current government’s laws – they always do.

But when that time occurs, the last thing we need is people saying – ‘and that Labour lot – they agreed with it all too’.
This is not a National Government.
We MUST be distinct from the Tories so that when they – as they inevitably will – crash and burn, we can step in and be the alternative.

And that, Mr Hodges, is realpolitik.

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