Last night at a local Labour Party meeting I was challenged about some of the views I expressed last year about the leadership of the Party, and divides within it. We had an interesting debate, and this post is a response. At its simplest, I have not changed my view of what we want, but I have changed my mind about what might be possible.
Firstly, I joined the Labour Party because I believe that we live in a profoundly unequal society. This is not merely immoral, it is bad for both winners and losers. A divided society is an unhappy society, and people lose sight of what matters in life and lose the ability to change things. I believe that the Labour Party is the party most likely to do something serious about this inequality, and as someone privileged by the accident of birth I have a duty to try to help. I have been fortunate to spend my working life doing things which I believed were making the world a better place, but which were also intellectually stimulating and personally rewarding. Many people don’t have that opportunity, and working for the Party is one way in which I hope to repay some of the debt.
Secondly, I believe that most members of the Labour Party share a set of beliefs: above all that resources and opportunities should be more fairly divided, and that the state should provide the core services which people need to provide security and opportunity, and a safety net for those who fall out of the mainstream, for whatever reason. Everyone should have the right to a safe secure place to live, decent rewarding work which makes a positive contribution to society, prompt and appropriate support when they are ill or need caring. In the fifth richest country in the world it is scandalous that we do not secure those things.
I don’t believe that Tony Blair or Jeremy Corbyn differ greatly in this: where they have differed is in how to achieve it, and what is politically possible in a given environment. This is not a matter of morality or principle, but of political judgement and context. The gap between Blair and Corbyn is far smaller than their distance from our “conservative” opponents, who believe (wrongly, but often in good faith) that removing the state and allowing free play to the market will produce better outcomes for everyone. Blair may have misjudged the potential of markets to produce a fairer society, but I don’t believe that he intended that markets should make things less equal. In retrospect he was clearly wrong, but he made those judgements in a very different time.
We interpret the Labour mission in differing ways and in different contexts. In the 1970s, when I was first involved, we had lived with a set of (broadly Keynesian) economic and social models which had dominated Western countries since 1945, and which were shared broadly by Labour and Conservative governments (look at the Conservative record of council house building, or creating comprehensive education). However, after 1970, those models began to weaken, and many people began to feel that the model was broken, though they differed in how they explained that. This opened the door to ideologues on right and left who proposed radical solutions. The ideology which won, was an extreme right wing one of free markets, which bore little connection to the traditional “one nation” conservatism, let alone traditional Labour values. Since 1980, that neo-liberal consensus has dominated politics and economics. When the Conservative Party collapsed in 1997, a Labour Party inherited that consensus, and when it tried to implement its historic mission, it did so from that base. New Labour believed that after 17 years of being told that there is only one way of thinking, people would resist radical change, even if they sought it. The result was a regime of “doing good by stealth”. Whatever one thinks of Tony Blair as a person, he led a government of many major achievements , from the minimum wage to abolishing pensioner poverty, and the creation of Sure Start. Schools and hospitals were renovated and new ones built on a large scale (even if the financial juggling required has pushed problems down the road to a future generation). Britain’s standing in the world increased, and a very long economic boom did benefit many ordinary people. When the global economic crash came, Gordon Brown played a major part in avoiding global economic collapse (for which he rarely receives any credit). We boasted too little about the achievements, and sometimes it seems that people on the left have forgotten them.
However, the fruits of the boom years were not evenly distributed, and there were some major misjudgements, of which the Iraq adventure was the most indefensible. Like many people of my generation, I marched against the Iraq war and resigned from the Party when they did not listen. As a result, the Blair governments are wrongly remembered (especially perhaps by those do not remember where we were in 1997) as a disaster.
In 2008, capitalism, as we had understood it since the 1980s (and perhaps much longer), failed. Predictably, most people, not very interested in politics or economics, looked for personal scapegoats – a conspiracy by bankers, elites, “experts” to serve their own (usually financial) interests – rather than a systemic failure of an ideology. But it was the machine that failed, not the drivers.
The collapse broke the credibility of the neoliberal model, and people across the developed world became more frightened, but also more open to the idea of radical change. For those of us on the left in the UK, this opens an opportunity. At the point where most people are willing to consider radical solutions, the right is destroying itself over Brexit. UKIP, which never had any serious intellectual roots and was a single cause campaign, seems to have worn itself out, while the Conservative Party is hopelessly divided over Brexit, the biggest issue of the decade, between free market ideologues who would willingly risk the whole economy on a political principle, and “one nation Tories” who are horrified by the risks, but unable to see an escape route.
By contrast, the Labour Party is presenting a coherent alternative. The 2017 Manifesto offered a positive vision of a different kind of society, based on the core values which Labour members share with a majority of the population (including many Tory voters, when they get a chance to hear). The Party’s relative success in the 2017 General Election reflected the charisma of an authentic leader, but also a platform which had massive appeal to people seeking solutions to deep social problems. This bound us together. There will continue to be disagreements and divides, but we are united in a way which we have not seen for a decade or more. Despite the press coverage, the Corbyn revolution is not a matter of teenage groupies chanting for their hero, nor is it a defeat for traitorous “Blairite” neoliberal MPs. Here in rural Norfolk, most of the flood of new members are aged 50+, seeing an opportunity at last to achieve some of the things we hoped for in the heady days of the 1960s. The tide which has been against us for nearly 40 years is turning, and we can unite in imagining, and building, a better world.
I am neither a Blairite nor a Coybynista. Leadership matters enormously, but we need more than the leader: Clement Attlee (one of the least charismatic of leaders) presided over one of the most revolutionary governments ever. The leader needs a united team, of Ministers, MPs and members.
I believe that we now have that. We always shared the underlying vision. When we doubted the leadership a year ago, it was not hostility to the ideas, it was a judgement about tactics, and concern about problems in management of the party, which now look like the teething problems of a team with very little experience of leadership or management.
Our fears have been allayed, but our aspirations are massive. Once we are in government we will have to work hard not to disappoint many who have bought the vision. I have seen enough of government to know that once in power, making change is long, slow, frustrating and difficult. There will be uncomfortable compromises along the way, and Brexit promises to be a huge wasteful diversion, and a limitation on our resources. Here in Broadland, our first challenge is to turn 700 members into a serious campaigning force, but the second will be to hold the vision, and to keep everyone on board while we recreate a national consensus on what is normal and right. A decent society deserves that.