A guest slot on the contest for the LAB leadership
The current fight for the leadership of the Labour Party seems so far to be presented as a choice between who will make the better leader, with the requirements of leadership being defined either as the person most in tune with the membership or the person most able to win votes from non-members. Nothing unusual about this, you might think. There seems to be very little difference on policy, as Smith has happily admitted. So why not concentrate only on the leadership qualities needed?
Well, one reason might be that a person cannot be an effective leader if the organisation they want to lead has no clear idea about what it is for and why it exists. A party’s raison d’être has to be more than the collection of its manifesto policies and more, I would argue, than simple recitals of concepts such as fairness and a more equal and just society, ideas with which – in the abstract – few would disagree.
In the gap between nice-sounding slogans and detailed policies is to be found a party’s default instincts, its particular perspective and approach, its political conscience, if you will. How that is shaped is probably more important to its chances of presenting a coherent account of itself to the nation it seeks to govern than the leadership qualities of particular candidates. A candidate’s list of policies, however well presented, does not make a political party let alone a vision. As someone once said, if you want visions, go to a convent.
So here are 5 questions, the answers to which might help tell us what Labour’s (or any other party’s) political conscience looks like.
- How should the economy be run?
Free market with some appropriate regulation here and there? Or what used to be known as the “mixed economy”? Or should the state take a much more directing role? Should the state decide how the country should earn its way? Or let others do the earning and only step in when needed? Whatever Labour’s economic policy has been in recent years, its heart has plainly not been in it. It has given the impression that its economic policy is made up of what it ought to believe rather than what it actually believes. And that inauthenticity has been obvious to voters.
- What is the state’s role?
Put simply, what should the state do? And how? The most basic duty of the state is to protect its citizens from threats at home and abroad. It is a mark of how misshapen Labour’s conscience now is that some doubt the current leadership’s commitment even to this basic duty. Talk of public services is all very well. But Labour seems to have forgotten how to explain why some services should be run by the state, whether being owned and run by the state is enough and whether the outcomes for the public are what matter. Too often it assumes the first, stops at the second and never thinks about the third point at all. The idea of public service and, indeed, of public services needs to be rethought for the 21st century. Sacred cows may need to be slaughtered rather than worshipped.
- The fairness question.
Saying that you believe in fairness risks leading to you claiming an unjustified sense of moral self-righteousness and a concomitant refusal to allow for even the possibility of legitimate disagreement. If you think you are right and a good person then the person who disagrees is not just wrong but a bad person. Too often Labour has fallen into this trap. Treating your opponents thus is almost guaranteed to make it as hard as possible to convince them of your views.
Equally, using taxation as a form of punishment of less favoured groups is not perhaps the best way of persuading them that paying tax is a necessary part of citizenship. What is the purpose of taxation? To pay for the state, yes. But should efficient collection or redistribution be the aim? And if the latter, from whom and to whom? And how does this fit with fairness? Is it fair to take from those who work and give to those who refuse to? Welfare seems a given but it is a complex mix of entitlement, imposition, altruism and social efficiency. What is it for? To make work pay and nothing for the shirkers have been the Tories’ recent answer.
What is Labour’s view? A helping hand for the unfortunate or a goody bag for all, as of right? Hard-working people are everyone’s favourites. But working hard does not necessarily make one deserving (there are plenty of City workers who work far longer hours even than junior doctors) and not all work done is necessarily of any value. Easy to say that one is on the side of the deserving. But how should Labour choose who is deserving? All too often Labour seems to think that making a choice at all is somehow wrong because someone will be left out. Doing nothing because doing something would be to make a choice is to adopt Pontius Pilate rather than Aneurin Bevan as one’s guide. The public, inconsistent as they may be, rarely have such qualms.
- How does it feel about the nation it seeks to govern?
No party has a monopoly on patriotism. But all parties in a country have – or should have – in De Gaulle’s phrase “une certaine idee” about Britain and what it means to be British. Britain’s role in and responsibilities to the world outside its borders matter of course but a political party needs above all to be rooted in and have an instinctive feeling for its own country.
It needs to make voters here feel that they are its primary and most important concern. A party which seems to voters to be a Mrs Jellyby, more concerned with the far off poor than with the needy in our own neighbourhoods (e.g. Corbyn’s concern with the migrants in French camps) is likely to end up wondering why those needy persons no longer answer their doors when it comes knocking for votes. A bleak future indeed.
- The individual vs the collective
The hardest question of all, particularly for organisations which by their very nature are a collective endeavour. The desire to categorise voters and to promote issues of particular relevance to certain categories (as Labour has done in the past with its admirable focus on what were then unpopular minority concerns) has all too often recently led to it viewing people as no more than the characteristic which puts them into that category.
But people cannot so easily be reducible and seeking to devise policies by pulling together a policy for group A with a policy for group B without any underlying principles is like throwing a load of magnets together. They are just as likely to repel each other as to form a coherent whole. Ad hominem policy making is as empty as ad hominem argument. The mess which Labour has got into over racism and anti-Semitism is what happens when the principles it claims to espouse are made secondary to an identity Top Trumps competition.
Voters are less concerned with the minutiae of particular policies and more with a party’s general direction, where the party’s compass is pointing and what that tells them about how Labour might respond to and seek to shape unknown events. I am not of the Labour tribe. But outsiders can have a perspective. Labour might usefully do some hard unsentimental thinking about why it exists and what it is here to do. Until it does it seems to me that the Corbyns, Smiths and Eagles of this world are little more than the stakes used to prop up a dying plant. Labour needs to attend to its roots.