Centre-left policy as a Labour-saving device?

MaydayIn the wake of the most recent exit by Labour’s serial resignationista Dan Hodges, the question of where next for those on the moderate centre-left has again been given an airing. Toby Young helpfully responded to Hodges’ departure by suggesting he join the Tories. Nick Tyrone provides a clear statement of why that strategy isn’t very plausible for many on the centre-left. He also notes that there are members of almost all the main parties who might more comfortably co-exist in a clearly centre/centre-left party, if only such a thing both existed and had some chance of being elected.

There is plenty of speculation as to whether the Labour party can hold together. Will those on what is rather inadequately referred to as the “Blairite” wing exit stage right, as JC shapes the party more clearly to his own taste? Or will the Corbynistas be forced to exit stage left in the face of a resurgence of the more moderate wing of the party? The former seems more plausible than the latter. But I am inclined to agree with Mark that under our present voting system neither scenario is very likely. It represents electoral suicide for all concerned. And such instrumental arguments don’t even account for those of a more Kendallish inclination who have stated as a matter of principle that they aren’t going anywhere for the moment: the aim is to tough it out, however unwelcome the liberated Left makes them feel.

In today’s Observer there is an fascinating post-mortem on New Labour by Peter Hyman, Blair’s former chief speechwriter and strategist, which further fuels the debate.One line of argument Hyman offers is that the centre-left needs to reassert itself against the resurgent and unelectable Left. It will no doubt result in a few more lost subscriptions for the Guardian as disgruntled readers perceive it as further evidence of the newspaper’s continuing anti-Corbyn crusade.

The more interesting point is that Hyman argues that there is “a gaping hole in the centre and centre-left of British politics that has been left unfilled for several years”. He then sketches out the type of thing he has in mind:

Today, there is a need more than ever before for a modern, progressive, values-driven party: a new “project” that does not try to recreate New Labour, because the world has moved on, but learns from it. It would have those three ingredients for success.

At its heart would be a renewed sense of moral purpose – a commitment to social mobility – breaking down all barriers to people getting on in life. It would believe in a leaner, more agile, empowering state that supports social entrepreneurs in the building of strong, diverse and democratic communities. This would be in sharp relief to the cuts of the Tories and the big state solutions of the traditional left.

This project would tap into the urgent needs of the country and the new aspirations of the public. This project would need to come up with fresh thinking about how to shape a growing, creative, greener economy and schools that prepare young people properly with the knowledge, skills and character to thrive in this economy.

Instead of just attacking the current reforms to welfare, the project would need to champion the overhaul of the welfare state to provide a more modern contributory system and new institutions such as a National Care Service for the elderly to run alongside the NHS. It would be seen as grappling seriously with the big questions of the day: migration, globalisation, terrorism, the environment, welfare, housing, our place in the world.

This “project” would not only have a fighting chance of winning an election but could motivate and mobilise people; become a movement once again. It would be a project that faced up to hard choices rather than pretending they don’t exist. But it would be a project that people could support not just with their head but with their heart too.

Hyman is not seeking a New Labour renaissance. His vision is for something else:

New Labour may be dead. Few in politics will mourn its passing. But millions of British people have been left stranded, without a political home. They crave a party that genuinely believes in social justice and economic prosperity. This is a time for urgent action, serious leadership and deep thinking. Who will answer the call? Without it, we will live for many years with only the Tories capable of winning an election; in short, a one-party state.

I couldn’t agree more with the analysis. It is a perspective that I find both cheering and rather dispiriting.

It is cheering because – and you are probably guessing where I am going with this – when I read Hyman’s description of the “project” he think British politics needs my immediate reaction was “hang on a minute, has he been reading Liberal Democrat policy papers?”. The platform he sets out is pretty closely aligned to current Liberal Democrat positions and discussions (see, for example, the initial consultation paper on Agenda 2020 presented to the 2015 Autumn Conference).

But it is rather dispiriting because we sort of know that few people are listening at the moment. The party are still being castigated for its role in coalition with the Conservatives, even though with every passing day it becomes clearer how much of a civilising influence upon the Conservatives the party must have been. We’ll have to get over that before there will be a ready audience for the substance of Liberal Democrat policy. And we face another significant challenge, which Hyman doesn’t really address in his piece. When politics is increasingly painted in the primary colours of bold assertion the message that the world is complex and that, in fact, politics is about making challenging compromises and difficult trade-offs is ever harder to convey.

We know that for many the move from supporting Labour to voting Liberal Democrat would feel like a major step, if not a significant betrayal of principle and tradition. Perhaps the Labour party has to continue its journey to the Left a while longer before voters – if not MPs – start shearing off on the right. Perhaps the party has to get itself into even more of a tangle before a chunk of voters decide it’s time to look elsewhere. Who knows, perhaps we’re about to discover that the Labour party as a serious electoral force was primarily a twentieth century phenomenon umbilically tied to an organised working class. Maybe we’re heading back towards British politics doing it old school: a world in which the Whigs going head-to-head with the Tories was the main event. But that is perhaps a little, ahem, speculative.

There is one thing about which Hyman is absolutely right. Our current trajectory most likely leads to a one-party state, and that will be bad news for many thousands – millions – of British people. So we need some more meaningful opposition to emerge sooner rather than later.

Image: Mayday © christophe BOISSON via fotolia.com

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  1. I find this post fascinating, because it highlights how uncharitable I can be (and indeed was) when reading Hyman and also toward the LibDem policy consultation exercise. (In my defence, I think when you look at the condensed “key issues” presented by Nick Tyrone, my concerns become more understandable – but maybe I’ll come back to that in another comment if I have time.)

    So, given a more charitable reading of the links in question, I’d say I’m in quite a bit of agreement with you, but I think there is a question hovering over Hyman’s vision (or your alternative of a regrouping of the centre around the LibDems.) This is – how many votes can the “new centre” actually take from the Tory party?

    Because Scotland is not coming back to this new centre party and in the process of a split some good people, good campaigners and likely some regional votes (parts of the North?) will stick with the Corbyn-style old left.

    Thus, irrespective of my concerns, I fear the “new centre” isn’t very viable as an opposition in England…

  2. I don’t want to bore on about all my typical concerns, so I think I’ll highlight just a couple of key phrases:

    1) “Hard Choices” – this always worries me when it comes from people like Hyman. It seems to inevitably mean that we need to get comfortable with policies like this:

    and ignore evidence like this:

    I’m tempted to say the number 1 hard choice for people like Hyman is learning to go against the Daily Mail.

    It also seems to inevitably go along with “reform” which seems still (and I worry about this with the LibDems too) to be stuck on policies which the last 30 years should have discredited. The vast majority of both Thatcher and Blair public sector reforms have turned out to either be failures on their own terms or involve massive “unforeseen” side-effects, or frequently both. Yet every proposal for a “leaner, more agile, empowering state” seems to bottom out to more of the same old “reforms,” with Hyman preferring New Public Management style and Orange Bookers preferring Keith Joseph style solutions.

    2) There is next to no realism about the role risk pooling has played in the history of dealing with complexity, let alone it’s necessary role in the future. It’s nice to think about the individual, but resilience involves groups.

    3) The real hard choice out there is building an economy that works. That involves rebalancing away from finance. There’s no sign that any of that is on the Hyman/Tyrone radar when they whine about the deficit. Rather they want to balance the books asap as Osborne does on the back of another financialised boom…