Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Faced with two options, Labour should look for a third

A great debate is getting under way inside the Labour Party, over what went wrong in the British General Election. It is boldly, unflinchingly and resolutely facing up to entirely the wrong question.

Which path to the light?
The high road? The low road? Left? Right?
Or should Labour turn around and look for something else entirely?
That question is posed in terms of whether Labour needs to go back to its winning ways under Tony Blair, as New Labour, or take a more Left-wing stance, as favoured, some suggest, by his successor Gordon Brown. The Blairite view is that Labour turned its back on people with aspirations, focusing exclusively on the poor and vulnerable.

Staunch Blairite Peter Mandelson, popularly nicknamed “the Prince of Darkness”, has bemoaned the fact that under the doomed leadership of Ed Miliband, the party was instructed to get out there with the message that “we are for the poor, we hate the rich – ignoring completely the vast swathes of the population who exist in between…”

Expressing essentially the same objection, he said that “we were sent out and told to wave our fists angrily at the nasty Tories and wait for the public to realise how much they had missed us. They weren’t missing us. They didn’t miss us.”

Mandelson isn’t entirely wrong: those fundamentally negative messages would damage Labour. But as someone who also went door to door a little for Labour, I can assure you no one told me to present that view. There will come a time when Ed Miliband, gallant loser and therefore a figure much loved by the English, will start to see the sympathy flow back towards him and I’m sure, when that happens, no one will pretend he was against aspiration.

Equally, I’m convinced that neither he nor Ed Balls who, as Shadow Chancellor (Finance spokesman), was with Miliband the main architect of Labour’s defeat and even lost his parliamentary seat as a result, were opposed to wealth creation. They wouldn’t deny the entrepreneurs responsible for it the right to become rich in the process. On the contrary, I think they saw themselves as committed to wealth creation, as the only way out of the difficulties the nation faces, and merely felt that there had to be some better regulation of just what was permitted in its name – and that the rewards people took should reflect real contribution. Huge bonuses for bankers operating their institutions at a loss ought, for instance, to be curtailed.

The Blairites are at least nominally committed to the same thing. At most, there’s probably a difference in degree between the two sides: should the top rate of tax be at 45%, 50% or 55%? Nobody’s proposing the rate of the sixties, 97.5%.

Sadly, however, the debate is going to be about backing “modernisers” (read Blairites) or “old Labour” (read those closer to Miliband). Whereas it should, in fact, be about entirely other matters.

It’s true that Tory economic policy is inequitable: the richest have doubled their wealth over the the last ten years, despite the crash, while those least able to bear it are suffering devastating hardship. But the real issue is that it doesn’t even work. Growth is stuttering. The debt is up, not down. The pain of constant cuts in government spending isn’t being rewarded by gain in economic recovery.

The answer isn’t simply to call the Tories nasty or hate the rich. It’s to offer an alternative to the constant cuts. We’ve known since Keynes that austerity doesn’t work. And yet Labour’s answer has been simply to offer the same with some mitigation of its worst effects.

We should be arguing for an alternative to austerity. We need to communicate the message that there’s no better time to borrow that when interest rates are just about zero. If the funds go into stimulating the economy, more people will find real jobs. They’ll pay more taxes, and they’ll buy more goods. A virtuous cycle will be kicked off, where the economy starts to fix itself, and the need for further government borrowing goes down as tax revenues go up. Without soaking the rich – simply by the sheer organic effect of relaunching the economy.

But what that means is denying the premisses of the Tory argument. It means saying “the problem isn’t about how much austerity we should have, or where it should be targeted, it’s about dropping the policy altogether.”

Sadly, it’s the SNP in Scotland, the true victors of the General Election, who pursued that line, and not Labour, who lost.

If you haven’t already seen the election night exchange between famously aggressive presenter Jeremy Paxman, and the former SNP leader Alex Salmond, then you should watch it now. It’s a master class in refusing to accept the premises of a hostile argument. Without being evasive, you just answer “no” and keep saying it as long as you need to. Which makes the clip also a great illustration of how to deal with hostile media, about which Labour also constantly complains – though with a predominantly right-wing press, Labour ought to be used to it by now, and have learned to see it off as Salmond did.

When Salmond ran rings round Paxman
A master class in handling hostile media and fighting the right battle
Paxman asked what lay behind the SNP success and, when Salmond answered that it was Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership, tried to needle him.

“You’re a very modest man, aren’t you?” 

Salmond, unfazed, replied “modesty becomes me, yeah.”

Later, Paxman tried to get Salmond to deny the SNP’s earlier refusal ever to work with the Tories.

“Is there any possibility of any sort of deal between you and David Cameron if the Tories are just a little bit short of an overall majority?” he asked.


“None whatsoever?”


“If David Cameron offered you full fiscal autonomy, in other words control over taxes in Scotland, you’d still say no?”

“He won’t.”

“You’re guessing.”

“No, I’m not.”

Perhaps the most telling exchange came in the middle of the interview.

“I suppose you could take some of the credit for the Tory triumph in England, couldn’t you?” asked Paxman.

The reference was to the campaign whipped up by the Tories and their friends in the press about the possible election of a minority Labour government, dependent on SNP support. The SNP was presented as a bogey man, and Miliband only contributed to the damage by constantly denying he’d ever work with the SNP – in other words, he played into the lie that the SNP was dangerous.

Salmond stayed calm and told Paxman:

“No, I think Ed Miliband should take the credit for the Tory triumph in England. I think he should have fought a totally different sort of campaign. If he’d fought the sort of campaign that Nicola Sturgeon fought in Scotland, then he’d be in a much better position this morning.”

Now there’s the key issue for Labour. Not should we be more like Blair, or more like Brown. Instead, can we find a leader who doesn’t fall into the other side’s trap but fights the campaign we need and gets us elected?

In other words, can we find our own Nicola Sturgeon?

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