Tuesday, January 03, 2012

What's wrong with Labour?

I've been trying to come up with a catch-all summary of why non-Labour people don't like that party. 

Firstly, I'd say that Labour's USP is that it's the party of collective action. This is sometimes misrepresented as 'statism' but Labour people would be quick to point out that non-state actors (the voluntary sector, co-ops, mutuals, trades unions, 'social enterprises', commercial companies performing an 'outsourcing' service, the BBC, etc would all be just as acceptable as the state as agencies for collective action. 

Many Labour people even have a distinct preference for putting the state at the bottom of that list.

To Labour's opponents, it translates thus: Labour are comprised of the lumpen-intelligencia who think that the best way of doing things is to get committee of humanities graduates together.

But let's take this one step further. Today, in the absence of much else to talk about, lefties have been venting their anger at Liam Byrne for spearheading Labour's new year offensive on the workshy. Here's the offending lines: 

"[Beveridge] wanted a responsible government taking determined action to create work, but a responsible workforce too. He would have wanted reform that was tough-minded, and asked everyone to work hard to find a job. He would have worried about the ways that his system had skewed social behaviour because he intended benefits to help people who had their earning power interrupted because of illness, industrial injury or the capriciousness of the trade cycle. He never foresaw unearned support as desirable. 
.... But beyond this, "something for something" means reward for those who are desperately trying to do the right thing, saving for the future and trying to build a stable, secure home. Right now, these families are offered too little reward and incentive – in social housing and long-term savings – for the kind of behaviour that is the bedrock of a decent society."

To understand why Byrne is saying this (clearly with the blessing of the leadership) can be understood by reading Anthony Painter, writing for an audience mostly of Labour insiders:
"They [the voters] want to hear a clear voice of condemnation when people terrorise our streets and not hear it suffixed with ‘understanding’ and ‘complexity’. They can’t understand why those on out-of-work benefits – excluding the disabled and the retired – get a pay rise more than the average worker. When they turn to Labour, they want to hear a credible and clear line. Too often they experience a haze."
The thing is, at a point at which it's unclear whether we will ever again enjoy the economic conditions that make full employment possible, the arguments for stigmatising the poor and the unemployed are very weak, as Chris has pointed out here, here, here and here (and elsewhere, I'm sure).

So, here's what we know about Labour: They are transfixed by the need to establish a simple and popular legitimacy for collective action as a necessary pre-condition to practicing it. This may involve the resort to simple arguments that, on their own, don't stand up to serious argument. 

Personally, I think that they could put more effort into attacking the coalition and less into fashioning a pristine narrative of their own, but that's another argument for another day.

It's plain that all of this simplification is being done in the knowledge that the dominant social commentators prefer a simplistic stigmatisation of the poor than any of the sensible steps that would reflate the economy or place the burden of fixing it in the laps of the people who screwed it all up in the first place. 

It's a problem that could be reduced by tackling the lack of pluralism in the media and the monopolistic powers exercised by media owners.

The other day, I argued that technocrats - unsatisfactory though they are - can be acceptable if they can deal with a crisis that has been created by forces that politicians are unable to oppose successfully. But the other condition that we should apply to them is that they should also challenge and degrade the forces that dwarf elected politicians.

The same goes for simplification: If you think that you have to attack the workshy, then that's what you have to do. But when you do it, you also have to take steps to reduce the influence of the demagogic simplifiers of the media. One without the other is the political equivalent of paying a ransom.


Mil said...

It's curious. I'm already watching Rubalcaba - the Socialist candidate on the losing end of the recent Spanish general election - attacking the new regime; even though the government he was previously a member of was part of the problem the consequences of which the Spanish conservatives now face. Everything is done so much more softly softly over there in Britain. Here, politicians are generally quite shameless.

Perhaps what's really wrong with UK Labour is that it is far too easily ashamed of its mistakes. Politically speaking, I mean - not morally of course.

The Plump said...

What also depresses me about Byrne is that he is cherry picking Beveridge in order to make it seem as if his punish the poor proposals fit in with this sacred text. So he strips it of context, more or less ignores the advocacy of universality as the cornerstone of the contributory principle, and turns it into some moral discourse on the deserving and undeserving poor - the antithesis of Beveridge.

Of course Beveridge's report was intrinsically linked to the other cornerstone of social liberalism, Keynes' economics.

Some elementary reading into the concept of social justice wouldn't go amiss. If this is what passes as 'thinking' within the modern Labour Party, we are doomed.

john problem said...

Leave the beneficiaries alone! It's too complicated, Ed. Attack the bonus culture, the easy richer-than-rich, the bankers! The public will love it! And they'll forget all those stupid comments about your voice, your looks, your brother, Brown and Blair. Are your advisers thick that they can't see this?

Anonymous said...

He wants to 'stigmatise' people who terrorise the streets, NOT the 'poor'. And damn right too. And just why is 'simple' and ,popular' a bad thing, FFS?

danivon said...

The problem, Anon, is that Byrne is talking about both groups in the same breath, and saying that the rest of us think they are treated too softly.

There's nothing intrinsically right about 'popular' and 'simple' either - it's the merits of the idea itself that count. Communism is at it's basis quite simple and has from time to time been popular in many places. That didn't make it right, or wrong. But when bad ideas become popular, or when simple solutions are applied to complex problems, things rarely turn out for the better.