Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Labour - the party of over-reaction

I noticed this a while ago. John Cruddas’ reaction to Labour’s current trials is all of a piece with the way that Labour has developed over the years. For all the talk of a progressive party with a crusade of one kind or another, Labour’s curse has always that it has been shaped only by negative reactions to perceived prior failings.

Take ‘The Third Way’. Anthony Giddens, John Rentoul and Phillip Gould have, with varying degrees of success, tried to nail the term down. But as sympathetic chroniclers, they all ignored the plainest truth about the post 1997 government: It was almost entirely shaped by an over-reaction to previous defeats.

Its attitude to the Unions – fairness, not favours – was shaped by a perception that ‘producer interest’ was a brush that serious voters took seriously. They worried about the question: “How can a government frame good policies on the part of the country as a whole if it’s in hock to vested interests?” More crucially, it was shaped by a perceived need to recruit powerful allies for whom union militancy was a non-starter.

Instead of using the space that a huge majority created to move the unions to another place in which a notion of service was agreed, New Labour simply sought to sit on them while throwing them juicy fish in the shape of public spending hikes and the Union Modernisation Fund.

The Unions could have been Labour’s sounding board. Instead, they became another pressure group to be managed – like all of the others.

Its approach to policymaking and governance – it’s managerialism – again was shaped by a need to manage risk without upsetting noisy interests. To square opponents within a big tent. This needed a dissolution of a viable political class and its replacement with a well-organised and entirely victorious cadre of management consultants. The result has been a frankly awful – almost larcenous - standard of public management.

Similarly, its attitude to party democracy was shaped by a need to suppress the dissent that it believed made the party unelectable in the preceding years. The combination of infuriating Bennite political illiteracy (I’ll go no further because I can’t bring myself to endorse conspiracy theories) and Trot entryism led the party to nail down its internal conversation, creating a glass ceiling for all but a handful of toadies with disastrous consequences. We now have a hollowed-out party that lacks the self-preservation mechanisms it so desperately needs.

The correct reaction to the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy direct-democracy episode should have been a reassertion of parliamentary democracy. The 1990s reforms could have created a party that selects candidates and creates a space for them to deliberate. Instead, it created little more than a highly centralised affinity group.

Labour could have used the space that it created itself (and make no mistake, that space could have been created with or without the Blairite over-reactions) to come up with a sensible social democratic articulation of how it reaches policy decisions. Instead, Labour has continued the Thatcherite trajectory of political centralisation to a point at which even it’s less critical supporters (*clears throat*) have to acknowledge that the party either needs to change or we may have to regard a period of opposition as a necessary evil.

But, if you’ve got this far, you’re wondering what my point is. It’s this: Reading John Cruddas and looking in my crystal ball, I foresee a few years of recrimination – like the ones we had in the early 1980s. New Labour’s failure to adopt a statist and Labourist programme will be blamed for everything and there will be calls to recast the party as a reaction. It will see the Unions making the remarkable claim that the government should have listened to them and that it would have better policies as a result. Similarly, activists will be drawing similar conclusions in the belief that they somehow now have some kind of moral authority.

Most damagingly, Labour will enter a period of bloodletting in which different policies are scrapped over.

Mass parties just can’t set policies. You can come up with all of the arguments you like supporting specific positions, but I’d defy anyone to give me an example of a solid party that has been built on a compositing process.

Labour – if it is to renew itself – must not allow itself to get into a debate in which its most vocal members are allowed to give their old agendas a run-out. Instead, Labour has to recognise that its failure in recent years has been a failure in grasping the link between political progress and democracy.

A solid articulation of the values of representative democracy would fix the Labour Party and it's lack of internal democracy. It would create a context in which it could again attract members. It would fix the quality of policy formation. It would attract the most intelligent, capable and articulate people to the party. It would fix the perceived disconnection between politicians and voters. It would fix the old ‘forward march’ problem – Labour undoubtedly could have been more noticeably radical in a way that would have pleased its core supporters – both its heartlands and its chattering classes.

Most importantly, it would give Labour a platform on which to build for the next election victory. A decentralising social democratic platform is one that we have let the Tories cherry-pick from.

It’s our hand. We could play it very well if we wanted to.


Tim Pendry said...

Well said - in principle - but I am afraid it is rather like pointing out to the Captain of the Titanic that he should not steer blindly where icebergs are likely to appear after the ship has already started to sink. The only thing to do now is get the women and children into the lifeboats (I am one for old-fashioned values) and prepare to go down with the ship (fortunately, I left at the last port) - though I suspect that there will be many a Blairite eager to push aside the poor mites and their mothers, especially those from steerage, in order to save their own skins. Depressing and predictable. As the Lehman CEO in London said to his 'workers' yesterday, it's time to "move on".

alunephraim said...

Of course it isn't just *Labour* that has a tendency to over-react in that sort of way; it's a trait common to most social democratic parties.

The Plump said...

It was almost entirely shaped by an over-reaction to previous defeats.

Spot on. What is more amazing that they held on to this negativity despite an overwhelming victory!

Interesting post, I would also pick up on political economy. Policies are not made in isolation but within an intellectual framework and the failure to challenge neo-liberal assumptions were part of that over-reaction you talk of. It locked them into a limited way of thinking about what was possible and how economies worked.

will said...

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