Yesterday, Andrew Harrop, General Secretary of the Fabians, defended his recent “No right turn” pamphlet in a guest post here. (For which willingness to debate, many thanks). His post led me to think a little more about where we are in politics at the moment, as did David Clark’s post over at Shifting Grounds on the similar general topic of where the electorate is and where the Labour party might most usefully be as a consequence.
What follows is a musing on the consequences of being on the left in a sceptical age.
I confess to feeling a little embattled among my comrades, compatriots and friends on the centre-left, not least because I sense that various of the arguments being deployed about the future of the left are an explicit critique of the attitudes and values I hold.
This article is an attempt to both defend those views and to move us on to a more productive ground. So I apologise in advance if my defensiveness expresses itself as snippiness, or tetchiness, or sarcasm. This is especially true because in both cases, while I suspect the target is me, or those like me, I’m not entirely sure. For example, I’m always slightly confused about what a neo-liberal actually is, and if I am one, because I don’t think I am, but suspect others think I am, and their very thinking I am such makes me want not to be ashamed of being one if I am, because I’m not at all embarrassed by what I do think.
Case in point: I am told New Labour was neo-liberal, but it expanded the state significantly and I was glad it did so. I hear that the US is neo-liberal, but also that we should embrace their industrial policy, which I agree with. Is Barack Obama a neo-liberal because he rules out single-payer healthcare? Am I one, because I believe in a substantially publicly owned and operated Health service? I’m torn between denying being the neo-liberal I’m accused of being, and embracing being the sort of neo-liberal that actually exists.
Similarly, I don’t think I want to pursue an anti-core vote strategy, not least because those who stuck around the Labour party until 2010 included me and, more importantly, large swathes of people I believe Labour exists to benefit. However, I think David thinks I do seek such a strategy, which is sort of unsettling. It’s worrisome to suspect someone sees a hint of a moustache twirling capitalist lackey in your politics.
So perhaps we should try to agree. Forward, not back and all that.
First of all, I agree with Andrew that testing values statements, as he has done for the Fabians, is useful in helping politicians design the language of choices they employ. I also agree with him that his polling is an accurate reflection of the public mood on the statements presented to them. People do, overwhelmingly, support the things the Fabians have found they support.
However the lopsidedness of the responses to some of the “pro-state” values statements that were tested should give us some pause for thought. What exactly do we learn from such huge majorities?
The Fabians report that 83% of the population find the statement that “At different stages of our lives we all need decent public services like health and education. Each of us personally benefits from these services” convincing and only 4% do not.
Yet the same sample split fairly evenly on the statement “We should only fund basic services to try keep tax as low as possible. People know how to spend their money better than the government”.
Now, what exactly is this telling us? That the vast majority of those who feel the statement the state should provide only “basic services” feel the statement that “we all need decent public services” is equally convincing?
Further, I suspect that if we left out the mention of “basic services”? we might get a similar sort of result to these statements of support for right-wing policies:
But hold on, we know the reverse is true, too. You can get huge assent for very left of centre policies too. (Don’t be fooled by the scales of these graphs, by the way)
I can’t help but feel what holds for policies also holds for values statements. People will assent to a lot of apparently contradictory things. The danger is that we conclude from this that when they assent to “our” statements, they won’t ever be tempted to stray.
Unfortunately moving from statements of values to concrete choices makes things only a little easier.
A couple of weeks ago, YouGov found “28% of people think the government’s economic policy is basically right (including almost three-quarters of Tory supporters), 56% think it is basically wrong.”
Hooray! Right? We are clearly winning. But look a little deeper:
People unhappy with the current strategy… are divided over what changes they would make – 24% of them would like bigger spending cuts to fund tax cuts, 21% would like the opposite – tax increases to reduce spending cuts. 17% would like more short-term borrowing to reduce spending cuts, 4% would like more short-term borrowing to fund tax cuts. 35% say they would like something else or that they don’t know’”
You can look at this as straightforward unhappiness with the government, or as a public reaction that fractures in many ways on the issue of tax and spend. Should we tot up together the 28% who are happy with the government with those of the discontented who want more spending cuts? What about the nearly a fifth of voters who don’t want what the government wants, but can’t say for certain what they want instead: where do they fit?
I can’t help feeling that David Clark’s statement that “Even right-leaning, middle-income voters are now inclined to see the laissez-faire economy New Labour helped to build as a racket that worked against them“? conceals as much as it reveals. I have no doubt many voters think economy of the last decade was a racket. I’m just not sure some of them don’t see the problem as the “Labour” part, not the “laissez-faire” part, and perhaps others yet believe it would be a racket even if David Clark, Andrew Harrop and Hopi Sen were in charge of things, running everything with our combination of sagacity, fairness and good humour.
This split picture about the size of the state fits with what the Fabians found in their research too- their “forced choice” question on tax and spend found that if you press the question, a majority of respondents backed lower tax and spend levels. (However, I expect quite a lot of those pressed just don’t know, really.)
In addition, as Andrew has pointed out, you can read the 2012 British Social Attitudes Survey as showing growing support for a bigger state through more tax and spend. I suspect that a similar identification of public opinion trends lies behind David’s point about “The impact of the economic crisis on the mood of progressive Britain”.
It’s just I’m not sure that’s the whole story and I fear that what we miss is very important.
Remember, even though the social attitudes survey finds that those who want to see more spending/tax is up to 36% in the last year- that’s still below the level of 1983. On top of this, that the political consequences of this are not straightforward – the Tories managed to win an election in 92 when over 60% of the British people were saying we needed to tax and spend more! The ground has shifted, perhaps, but does that mean it is firm territory for the left to build on?
(see table a.i , page xi of 2012 BSAS -)
I think the question of state or not state, left confidence or market acquiescence obscures a more challenging public debate for politicians of both left and right – which is “effective state, doing the things I want done”, vs “protecting aspects of the state I dislike“.
I think that all of the action lies in being on the right side of the debate about what people really value and don’t value from the state.
In a way, the values statements the Fabians tested began with recognise this dilemma. I suggest it’s no co-incidence Health and Education are mentioned in the questions, and not say, speed cameras, unemployment benefits or town planning regulations. (There’s an interesting Adam Smith paper on this – which basically says that people want a state that does the things they like, not the state that does things other people might like)
As Andrew’s pamphlet argues, welfare is a big part of this : both the Fabians and British Social Attitudes survey find real scepticism about current welfare spending. The welfare chapter in the BSA shows a major decline in many areas of support for welfare spending, among all party supporters
This can be exaggerated; there is still, thankfully support for the core principle of Welfare, but the trend is unmistakeable.
But I’d argue the challenge for the left goes further and deeper than just welfare vs lovely public services.
Here, I think David makes a valuable contribution. People are currently unenthusiastic about redistribution, even about politics as a whole.
A third of people “almost never” trust governments of any party at all. That’s almost three times the level of 1987. In that context, how likely are they to believe a politician who claims to use their money wisely, even to support nurses and build the schools they want?
So, we need to try something different. This is, I think, where David Clark is going towards the end of his article, with his call for a politics that emphasises:
“responsible capitalism, credibility on deficit reduction ..(addressing the) fear of immigration. …a high priority to wealth creation, not just distribution ..make the market economy work differently (and) better …to convince disengaged working class voters in particular that politics matters and that government can make a difference to their lives.”
To me, this goes to the heart of the challenge for the left – if people are sceptical of politics, of redistribution, of welfare, even in a recession, then how do we create a politics that builds on the aspects of the state they do like and value, while not exposing ourselves the criticism that we would leave untouched the policies people perceive as being wrong?
Yet it raises another challenge too: If people think that services are beneficial, but do not trust government one bit, how can we on the left, traditionally champions of the efficacy of government, convince them to allow us to run their services effectively? If we are trying to sell ambition, confidence in the state, and ultimately in the power of politics itself, aren’t we badly mistaking the mood of the electorate?
To think about this more practically, I’m pretty sure, from the polling evidence, that public services themselves are extremely popular. These are, as Andrew has argued, politically unproblematic. Good politicians recognise this, as do cynical ones (“I’ll cut the deficit, not the NHS”, comes to mind.)
Unfortunately, while public services are politically unproblematic, the same can’t be said for the mechanisms that fund, manage, and direct them – in other words, the “state as Clarkson caricature“: the world of bureaucrats, health and safety managers, tax assessors and yes, politicians and their lackeys. I mention these, not sarcastically, but because they are also vital for society, and the operation of the state, even the lackeys.
Worse still, while public services are politically unproblematic, politicians changing public services is deeply problematic and contested. Want a more effective NHS? Well, you might need to close down smaller hospital units. Want to close down free schools? Prepare for demonstrations.
The danger than, is that in making statements like “the state is politically unproblematic“: we mistake the broad support for some aspects of what the state does for a wider faith in government, in politics, in redistribution, in the active social state, in welfare- that is actually in decline, and worse, and even shackles our ability to convince people of the value of schemes for improvement in the areas David Clark outlines.
Further, we might, through a sort of mental slippage, persuade ourselves that being politically unproblematic is the end of the electoral journey as the left- that once we have found public support for a service, support for strengthening that service in a cost-effective way will follow easily.
I very much doubt this is true, which is why I am sceptical of all but the most gradualist reform of public services at the moment. We just don’t have the money to limit the pain of change (This may not be good news for the left. Who knows what structural abominations we shall inherit – though some won’t be bad at all).
So what should we do?
One argument might be that we need to be the evangelicals. It is we who need to explain that the public have been misled, that they have not heard the real story – and once they hear the truth once more, things will change. I’m deeply unconvinced by this, first because of the scepticism of politics and politicians I outlined above, but also because I feel it ignores and underestimates our opponents. While we evangelise, they will be telling voters a story in line with what they already believe.
Some say this is cynical and short-sighted of me – that rather we should embrace the long march of the hard right in American politics, whose passion was ultimately successful. Here, perhaps, my old doubtfulness about neo-liberalism pops up again – because to me, the big truth about the Goldwater Republicans was that they lost big, kept losing, and are still losing now. The only time they won really, was under Reagan, and there the myth of small government and low taxes was sustained mostly by a ballooning debt under a big state. It took the grown-up presidencies of the elder Bush and Clinton to get things back on an even keel, and the Republicans have never quite recovered from the fantasy*.
What’s more, because politics is about the immediate choice, if you’re willing to lose in your cause, you might find the world changes around you (Abolish Medicare, or social security, or civil rights legislation? Hmm)
Instead, I’d argue we should go with the grain of this public scepticism about politics and the state, and focus on the small steps that we can be convincing on, not the grand sweep we are hopeful of one day achieving.
So I’d agree, immigration aside, with the policy areas David identifies as important, and with the warning on welfare that Andrew offers. Here, there are valuable changes we can make, even under strict constraints and harsh limits. Do this, and there’s perhaps a chance we can begin to restore faith in politics, and yes, even the apparatus of the democratic state. Show, don’t tell.
However, we don’t seem in the mood for keeping or eyes fixed on the muddy earth just one step ahead.
We seem to prefer gazing off at the grand horizons at a transformed society built where the ground shall shortly shift to. My worry is that if the distrust of the state and politics I identify is real, then brandishing our architects drawings will be less enthusiastically received than we hope.
If the centre-left is to succeed in a sceptical age we should perhaps keep our steps small, no matter how great our ambitions?
* Ah, but what about W? W was an odd fish, domestically. He was willing to do NCLB after all, and while he liked cutting taxes on the rich, he liked spending too. Aside from the War on Terror, I suspect we’d think of him as a supply-side populist, not a small state ideologue.