John Denham has a fascinating article on the New Statesman website today, which is worth taking seriously. In part this is because John is Ed Miliband's PPS, and probably his most significant backer in the Labour leadership campaign. He thus has a pretty good claim to know what Ed Miliband believes is his mission. It's also because John is an thoughtful and interesting MP, who has been prepared to put his career at risk for things he believed in.
John's article is a response to a dryly sceptical piece by Neil O'Brien, of Tory-leaning Policy exchange, which argues that Ed Miliband is personally torn between radical instincts and pragmatic necessities.
This a debate that many in the Labour party will be familiar with, as it was a constant tension in Gordon Brown's leadership. (Under Tony Blair, it was simpler, because, as he told a colleague who hoped he'd dump New Labour and do what he believed: "It's worse than you think. I really do believe in it".) More than that though, it's a constant problem for reformers. Can you go as far as you'd like? If you can't are you selling out? If you can't go as far as you'd like, how do you know you're maximising what you can achieve?
This tension between instinct and pragmatism, or between principle and power, can lead to the odd situation where the default assumption of the Labour left about those closer to the centre ground is somehow that "they don't really mean it".
In this view, the choices made by centrists are merely ones of tactical necessity, or electoral hunger, or come from some other non-ideological basis (Usually these are unflattering: personal gain, ambition, moral deviancy. I rarely get accused of a noble sacrifice of my personal principles to serve the common weal!). At its worst, this evolves into the familiar "Betrayal myth" of the British left, where radical figures in opposition find that the closer they come to power, the more they are accused of turning on their own principles.
Now, the easy answer for progressive is to simply deny the premise of the question. So when I'm told, as I regularly am, that I can't really mean that I'm a fiscal conservative, I shrug, say that I mean just that, and try to move the argument onto the policy choices that entails. To appear radical or pragmatic is, in itself, of no consequence. I am what I am, call it what you like.
John Denham denies the premise of the question in a rather different way. He argues that in the new political and economic environment we are in, the pragmatic option is the radical option. Speaking of Ed Miliband he says:
"his genuine radicalism stems from a deep belief that it is only through far-reaching changes in the economy, society and politics of Britain that we can deliver for those who want practical answers to practical problems
He's confident that the economy can be reshaped by an active state enabling successful private business; an ambition that goes beyond the odd token grant and investment that passes for Osborne's "industrial strategy". The rules of the game can be set to favour long-term investment, innovation, competition and better jobs. If we don’t, we won’t be able to pay our way in the world. But as importantly, too much of Labour’s public spending was driven by problems of failing markets. The cost of tax credits rose in an economy producing too many poorly-paid jobs. Housing benefit paid the cost of a private sector of limited supply, poor quality and high rent.
There are some in Labour who assume that progressive change is measured by the level of public spending. But the emerging consensus among those Ed has promoted is that there is no foreseeable point where the public spending taps are turned back on. The cost of an ageing population, the need to invest, and the impossibility of increasing taxes for the squeezed middle will see to that."
As it happens, I agree with all of that. It is effectively what we argued for in "In the Black Labour", absent reference to departmental spending or deficit reduction targets (But as the Party has repeatedly said it will reduce the deficit over the course of the next parliament, we can, I think take the intention there as read).
The challenge therefore is to switch state funding from programme and welfare spend to investment and productivity support and supporting living standards of low and middle income families (while, we may add reducing deficits consistently over the medium/long term).
I agree that this is the radical option. To execute such a policy will require a major shift in public spending priorities.
We will need to spend significantly less on welfare and housing benefit. We will need to hold down, or reduce, public spending in departmental budgets, probably for the course of the entire next parliament. (we will also have to increase taxes, though we will try to only increase taxes on bad, unpopular things and the ultra-wealthy whom everyone hates).
We will need to do things like increase conditionality, increase co-payments, and cut benefits to the middle class and moderately wealthy. We will do all of this to find the space to increase infrastructure, small business and investment support to drive job creation and sustainable growth, while steadily reducing our debt/GDP ratio and borrowing requirements.
All of this is radical stuff indeed.
Yet there's a rub. John Denham argues, rightly, that this represents a synthesis of radicalism and pragmatism suited for the new times.
I'm not sure though, that as a party, that we have been quite as brave as we think we have.
If this is the agenda Labour is to follow in government do we understand the choices that flow from such an agenda, and how they will play out in government?
Have we fought for this agenda internally, or are we fudging it in order to avoid internal discontent among those who take a radically different view, those who reject – in toto – the argument that there cannot be increased spending, and who believe – with all their hearts – that if only Labour made the argument for higher taxes and less stringent deficit targets, the space would exist for spending increases on services in the next parliament?
To put it another way, if we need to find £5 billion of infrastructure, investment and small business support spend, and we'll find much of this from holding down departmental spending*, does this argument appeal to the Len McCluskeys and the Paul Kenneys of the party?
I'm not sure we have fought this battle yet, and so a certain ambiguity is allowed to creep into our thinking. We allow that there is no foreseeable point at which the spending taps will be turned on – but we simultaneously argue for keeping the taps open now, and that closing them off is wrong, even immoral. Yes, what we mean is "Wrong and immoral now, when demand is low and growth stalled – but essential later on" – but is that what is heard, either in the country, or in Unite, Unsion and GMB HQs?
As Neil O'Brien says "One option would be for Labour to set out how its spending priorities would differ from the Tories’ within a tight overall spending constraint – but that means proposing which areas of expenditure should be cut back.
Are we saying that the next Labour government will not be able to offer much in the way of comfort to workers in the public sector, or in the way of increases to departmental budgets, because other priorities are more vital to our national renewal and our resources are very limited? If we are not saying it, but think this is what we will have to do, when does that battle get joined?
This leads me to wonder: are we really being radical if we don't deal with the uncomfortable, challenging parts of our radicalism? Or are we simply praising our radicalism, while staying vague, and inchoate about what this radicalism implies in terms of concrete policy choices, and thus seeking to please as many people as we can – which is itself, a very political, and effective, type of pragmatism. Are we being radical – or are we being internally pragmatic?
Currently, we resolve this tension by recourse to morality. What is happening in government, and in the high places of power, is immoral, and must be put right. Only we, by virtue of our superior moral force and willingness to stand up to established interests, will confront this vice at the heart of our nation. We will clean the stables.
Given a government as incompetent and short sighted as our current Cabinet, I am convinced that such a position can deliver victory.
Yet the risk is that if we allow internal pragmatism to limit our external radicalism, we will, in government, be neither radical, nor pragmatic. For some, this would lead to another example of the betrayal of principle for the pursuit or power. For me, the greater risk is that we don't deliver the desperately needed national renewal John Denham outlines. That would be the biggest betrayal of all.
I suspect that over the next two years, the battle over this terrain will define the future of our party.
*We can probably find some of it from "popular taxes" like Bank Bonus taxes. But you soon get into tax increases that will have less popular support or are impractical to implement – even cracking down on tax avoidance runs into this issue – cf Charitable donations.