The Vacuity of ‘Hope’

Should Labour give up on Hope and Optimism? Of course not. Unfortunately, these are states of mind, not strategies for government.

Dan Corry, former Head of the Number Ten policy unit under Gordon Brown, has written an excellent article calling for the Labour party to embrace the Conservative Party’s spending plans for the early years of the next parliament:

“I would be surprised if Labour did not have to more or less embrace the government’s spending plans for at least the first year or two of a new Parliament”

Within those spending limits, Dan proposes that the next Labour government either cuts spending on public services or increase personal in order to finance investment subsidies and tax cuts for business.

“the route to growth must be about investment, industrial and labour market policy, competition policy…”1

Yet Dan doesn’t think he’s written an article about these bold policy choices, and nor do those who have, (rightly) enthused about the article’s thoughtfulness. Instead, Dan believes he’s written an article about the importance of hope and optimism.

For the record, Dan is in favour of both hope and optimism, and against fatalism.2

I agree. I think we should be hopeful too. I am generally a pretty optimistic person. I think our current troubles are surmountable, can be beaten and, thanks to the wonders of democracy, the power of markets, the talents of the British people and the security and balance provided by the social-democratic state, eventually will be overcome.

It’s just I don’t think it’ll be painless, easy, or quick. I also believe that fixing our problems will involve annoying a great many people.  Finally, I think that any government that wishes to fix these problems will need to demonstrate how it will achieve its ambitions, not merely assert a positive mental attitude. It is in the ‘how’ that we find our real challenges, and in setting out answers clearly that we demonstrate our hope and optimism.

Since this is the case, I favour a politics that addresses our national issues directly and proposes clear, credible solutions to them to a politics that, to borrow Dan’s opening paragraph, looks at the scale of our national needs and thinks that discussion of how to make cuts, what must go, what must be switchedin order to meet those needs “must not be taken too far‘.

I submit that this is not optimism and hope, but timorous fearfulness wearing a mask of optimism.

Basing your plans for the future on the undeniable truth that the state of the economy in a few years time is unknown, and may be better than currently expected, is itself a type of fatalism. Dan appears to argue that by 2015, whatever will be, will be, and so we better not address the problems we expect to face, just in case a solution to them appears in the meantime.

(Mind you, I suspect that if the economy booms and the deficit reduces sharply between now and 2015, we on the left will have some  more searching questions to ask ourselves than why we stated that unsustainable deficits were unsustainable)

Dan adds that “If the only choice is cuts, some people will shrug and say better the devil we know.” Yet later, he argues that we should match Tory spending plans in the early years of the next Parliament. I think if we say there is a choice other than cuts, then proceed to cut, people will do much more than shrug.

Perhaps the argument is that Labour would tax more and cut less, as I hope we would. Yet is this different from “telling people that if they vote for us things will be a bit less bad“?

In addition, as examples of hope and optimism we should embody, the article proposes a whole set of worthy vaguenesses. So, for example, we need “better”, “sensible” regulation to “change the way people experience markets”, to “reclaim civil society” at a local level while avoiding postcode lotteries, all of which we will need to “widen the conversation.” to achieve.) Now, usually,  vagueness in technically precise areas means that the actual proposals behind them are rather limited, if worthwhile.3. I’m all for limited, worthwhile proposals, but again, how is this different from “a little less bad” other than in rhetoric?

So I’m not accused of mere pessimism, let me be clear.

I think you show optimism and hope best by demonstrating your confidence to address the hardest choices and overcome the most difficult obstacles.

There are many, many positive, ambitious things Labour could, and should, do when we form the next government.

But we will not have the authority to do them unless we address their consequences. Nor can we make the argument these choices are needed if we are simultaneously trying to minimise how hard the current situation is, making it seem that our real hope is simply that something will turn up, sooner or later.

So what could we do?

We could move spending to support industrial policy to encourage growth,.

We could offer to support the living wage by offering tax breaks to employers to help them increase wages.

We could extend co-payment into social care and childcare so we can have a truly universal cradle to grave welfare state.

We could improve our regional policy to support businesses in our Town and Cities.

None of these are a million miles away from Dan’s agenda.

It’s just that by being clear that all of these things would cost money, and that money will have to come from somewhere if we are to do this while meeting our commitments to reduce the deficit, (and eventually, debt) in a sustainable way, we have to demonstrate the consequences of these choices.

The obvious locations for finding this money are:

1) Greater public sector productivity4, which will likely mean lower recruitment, wage restraint and tighter management (not marketisation necessarily, but a relentless focus on squeezing out costs)

2) Welfare, particularly benefits paid to those at median incomes and above

3) Taxing people5, a bit more, mostly the better off.

So we’d have to cut some things, and make life harder for quite a lot of people.

Nor would it be much use pretending we wouldn’t cut anything, because to achieve our hope and ambitions, we would. To govern is to choose, and we can’t just choose ‘More, please”.

I think the unpleasant consequences of the choices he would like to make explains why Dan’s initial call for a retention of hope and optimism becomes slightly schizophrenic as he approaches issues that require resolutions.

So Dan says “tough decisions” cannot be avoided on Tax and Public spending, which itself will “play a smaller role in the next period than it has in the last decade or two6. What’s more, Dan argues that changing our low wage, low skills economy is “tough indeed “, while his sensible approach to Europe is “a battle to be won” because the “British public are not keen“.

To me, this sounds more fearful than optimistic, and it seems fearful because the article constantly edges away from addressing the consequences of it’s apparently needed solutions, instead leaving them marooned as rather empty hopes that will be hard, in an undefined sort of way, to address.

This might be hopeful, but surely not in the sense intended.

I’d argue this attitude to ‘Hope” is the result of a false dichotomy which is regularly damaging to the left.

This false dichotomy associates a modesty of achievable goals in the face of great difficulties with a lack of optimism and a deficit of hope, when in fact, a modest, clear, practical set of aims with consequences clearly set out represents real confidence about what can be achieved by government even in the midst of great pressures.

Dan argues that “Telling people that if they vote for us things will be a bit less bad than under the other lot will never do for social democrats; even when we are forced to be modest in our claims and offers in the short term, we must hold up a better Britain for the future.”

This tells us that in hard times hope can only be big, vague and baggy, not precise, targeted and realistic. This makes little sense to me.

Further, it suggests that we are only ever modest in our aims because we are forced to be, not because a becoming modesty of immediate ambition for the role of government in creating a better society is exactly the right approach for a social-democratic government in a social market state.

Better, surely, to say to the electorate that our problems can be overcome, by will, hard work and good choices, but that this will not be easy or without cost or pain.

That to do what is needed will require sacrifices and patience.

That we have a plan for doing this, and we will have the determination, grit and firmness of purpose to implement it, because we are not afraid.

When I raised my objections to Dan’s article, his former Number 10 Colleague, Stewart Wood suggested I read the Tories 1979 Manifesto, saying:

As always, I took Stewart’s advice. That Manifesto concludes:

“Too much has gone wrong in Britain for us to hope to put it all right in a year or so. Many things will simply have to wait until the economy has been revived and we are once again creating the wealth on which so much else depends.

Most people, in their hearts, know that Britain has to come to terms with reality. They no longer have any time for politicians who try to gloss over the harsh facts of life. Most people want to be told the truth, and to be given a clear lead towards the action needed for recovery.

The years of make-believe and false optimism are over. It is time for a new beginning.”

I agree with Stewart. Such a clarion call for honestly addressing our national problems is precisely what is required.

Unfortunately, some – perhaps too much- of the politics in the Labour party avoids addressing the most pressing long-term issues facing the nation, whether out of hope that they will not, in the end, need to be addressed, or from fear that the consequences of addressing these issues will cause division and discord among ourselves, or will create discontent among our electorate.

What’s more, this avoidance of unpleasantness often comes dressed as a desire for hope and optimism, when it is nothing of the sort.

I want us to be hopeful, and optimistic.

That surely first requires the courage to address that which most frightens, divides and dismays us.



  1. I am assuming that an industrial and investment policy would cost something, and that if a future Labour government we sought to stay within Government spending limits, that this something would need to be balanced by tax increases or spending cuts elsewhere.

    So, for example, proposals for a British Industrial Bank using NS&I as proposed in the Tott report, and which I support, might be expected to cost the Treasury the £800 million NS&I currently saves the exchequer annually in interest payments. []

  2. He believes that “fatalism is the wrong approach, and the search for realism and credibility can easily tip into it”. This is rather fatalistic about realism and credibility. []
  3. Dan links his discussion here with the Big Society, and he’s right, But the similarity is as much in how there was an enormous political mismatch between the grandiose political rhetoric and the worthy, yet very limited policy agenda that underpinned it. The Big Society was not a failure because it was a mask for Tory selfishness, though it was, it was a failure because it never had the resources or scale to match its grandly announced ambitions. Neither, I fear would a return to the tradition of Socialist Cycling clubs []
  4. Interestingly, Dan mentions the need for greater  productivity in healthcare, but does not mention how this will be achieved without reforms that some will find deeply uncomfortable. Maybe there will be a Deus Ex Machina, or more likely a Deus Ex Technia []
  5. though probably not companies or employment -viz President Hollande []
  6. though Dan argues that “centre-left can draw on its history of self-help, mutualism and voluntary action to make sure communities are cohesive, support each other, and do so in fair ways that avoid post-code lotteries”. Sadly, I can’t help the sneaking suspicion that this is more aspiration than pledge, to use the old Press Officers get out. []

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