Friday, October 22, 2010

Labour and the CSR - tactics and strategy

Over at Labour Uncut, Dan Hodges has a fairly pessimistic account of Labour's failure to set their stall out properly over the months since the election in preparation for the CSR. As far as it goes, there's not much to disagree with there - Labour got into a muddle and the response was weak.

But where I'd part company with Dan is on the question of how important this actually is. For me, that Labour MPs articulate this - “We haven’t got a line or a message” - as the problem is a large part of the problem itself.

Dan's post outlines what tactical response Labour should have deployed but quite often, he's referring to it as a missing strategy. There's a difference between tactics and strategy and he may be right that Labour have failed to agree on a tactics over the months since May, but the real problem is one that has existed since the early 1990s: That short-term tactical considerations have eclipsed - not trumped strategic ones.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I'd be happy to admit that Labour figures like Roy Hattersley, Robin Cook and John Smith may have allowed the pendulum to swing too far the other way - where Labour's soul was right but it didn't have the ruthless day-to-day response on headline issues.

New Labour was fantastic at understanding how the media worked and what people understood as their options. They were brilliant at maneuvering the Tories into a corner where they had the choice of either endorsing Labour's populist position or owning up to an option that they'd never be able to sell.

At times, it was like shooting fish in a barrel, they were so good at it. And John Major, Hague, Howard and IDS were the perfect for this kind of sucker-punching. But the Tories - both in opposition and now in government - agree with one of the only articles of faith that I ever heard from post-1994 Labour spokesmen: That elections are fought on the centre ground. They also have demonstrated that they know something that seems to have barely occurred to most senior Labour Party figures: That when you're in government, your first priority must be to drag the centre ground to where you want it to be.

Hattersley, Cook and Smith all, in their own way, had a politically literate understanding of what democratic socialism was. They had positions on the kind of arcana that sends even the chattering classes to sleep: Party democracy, electoral reform, what constitutes legitimate democratic deliberation, why Parliament matters, why the press need to be challenged and regulated more effectively.

The Tories have also grasped the importance of these issues - perhaps in a more atavistic and instinctive way than the way Labour's liberal left does it's thinking. The Tories have asked themselves: What are those objective allies that the left relies upon? Parliament has generally been more socially progressive that the public's reflexes have allowed it to be. We don't hang people, we allow immigrants in sometimes and we're in the EU, for starters.

The wider conservative milieu conducted an incredibly successful assault on the legitimacy of representative democracy in the closing years of the last government. One that Labour were unable to resist because it didn't occur to many of them that it was happening. And the results have been stunning.

As a twenty-year old ultra-Thatcherite Bullingdon Club member, Osborne could never in his wildest dreams have believed that he would achieve everything he went into politics for within six months of taking office. And he would have thought you were mad if you told him he wouldn't even need to win an election to do it!

Yet for Labour to focus on what their long-term strategic interests were - it would have been regarded as a distraction by most New Labour 'strategists'. They would undoubtedly have made the day-to-day work of top-down government a bit harder, but then a grasp of how party democracy could have been made to work would have brought many more hands to the pump. Labour's need to avoid 'embarrassment' during the party conference season trumped all other considerations.

The kind of responses that we may have got from some of Labour's older heads - had they still been around - wouldn't have been folksy and populist, and at times they would have jarred. This week, the Guardian newspaper was jeered at (by News Corporation journalists in particular) for leading on the BBC cuts on the day that half-a-million public sector jobs were going to be butchered. Middle class wankers, I hear you say, and I suppose it's a point of sorts. But New Labour (unlike Labour) spent no time understanding who the objective allies were that democratic socialism could count upon.

The Tories' outriders have, for years, pedaled the line that the BBC is some kind of Trotskyist enclave. It's a position that's easy to disprove, but it's not the important one: Public service broadcasting is the objective ally of those who want the spirit of liberal democracy to be strengthened. There are people on the left and right who fit into this camp (ffs, even Henry Porter grasps this one!). And those people, in turn, are the objective allies of democratic socialism.

Labour could - and should have made it impossible for the Tories' well times assault on public service broadcasting - an assault that will perhaps do the centre-left for more long-term political damage than anything else that's happened this week.

Listening to Alison Garnham of the Child Poverty Action Group on the recent Moral Maze Radio 4 programme (11.40mins in on the 20/10/2010), you can hear a fairly good position on what progressive taxation should look like (along with a defence of universal benefits). It's one that - if it had been articulated by New Labour and it's successors, it would have given Labour a methodical basis on which they should oppose the Child Benefit cuts. No-one in the Labour Party seemed capable of making Alison's simple points.

One of the reasons that the Lib-Dems were able to enter into a coalition with the Tories was that Labour's clumsy approach to questions of individual liberty legitimised a good deal of the informal coalition building between liberals and conservatives before the election. At the time I was moaning about how daft the wider left was in participating in it, but it's a flank that older Labour heads would never have left exposed in the first place.

The paucity of The Third Way as a construct was very illustrative here: It sort of implied that co-ops / mutualism or something was the Labour answer to the unpalatable poles of wholesale nationalisation or privatisaton. But in failing to deal - strategically - with the lack of legitimacy or good practice that new forms of collective action offered, they not only squandered the kind of opportunity that the centre-left will only ever have again if it gets 13 years of uninterrupted power - it also ceded it's best idea to the Tories, who have picked it up (after a fashion) with the Big Society idea.

Dan is right about the tactical failings. But the biggest problem is that the left has no organisation, no widely-articulated philosophical underpinning. We have no idea what we should be arguing for. That's why we bicker about how we argue against a very coherent government.


James said...

"We have no idea what we should be arguing for." Well, exactly: no idea of what the problems are that the left exists to solve.

That's what's worrying me most at the moment, but I'd add two further things.

(1) The Labour movement might be enjoying opposition a little too much. It's all suddenly a lot easier - we're no longer to blame for anything (in our own eyes) and now we can get on with saying things like "Where's the anger?", "Where's the outrage?" and screaming about things being assaulted, slashed, attacked, dismantled etc and, in general, projecting blame for the state of society outwards as if it's all the other guy's fault. This is all super placard-waving fun, but it gives the coalition more time in office.

(2) In connection with (1), the enjoyable caricaturization of Conservatives might be fun, and keep us onside with our left-wing mates, but holding a cartoon image of the enemy dangerously weakens our attack. If we're going to behave as if we weren't going to have to make deep cuts had we won, if we're going to behave as if Cameron and Osbourne are either Geddes or a Steve Bell version of Thatcher, then we'll pretty much get what we deserve.

I hope I'm wrong to worry along these lines.

Keith said...

Surely Labour did have a stratergy

a) Manage Capitalism better than the Tories;
B) Spend more on the deserving by doing a) well and so collecting more revenue to do the spending.

This is Reformist Labour since 1922!

As AJP Taylor pointed out when Capitalism has a crisis reformism falls apart. The great weakness is what do you do when the Spivs fuck up? You depend on them for giving some crumbs to the poor but when they fail they call in their friends to run the show :2010 is the new 1931.

Paulie said...


We're both worried about the same things. I hope you're wrong to worry but suspect you're right.


What you're outlining there - redistribution from growth - was Crossland's solution in 'The Future of Socialism' - I don't have a problem with that either as long as you can make the case for genuinely progressive taxation and collective action in the provision of non-consumer services.

My worry is that the Tories are very good at disrupting 'the forward march' and they've done is spectacularly well over the last few years. Labour was unable to answer it because it had forgotten everything apart from the short-term tactical imperatives.