The Labour party appears to be going through one of our occasional periods of worried introspection.
A smaller poll lead produces nerves like a frog produces spawn. Naturally, this somewhat irritates loyalists to the Labour leader.
I take a very simple approach. If you’re not prepared to (politically speaking) blow someone’s head off, then stick to the deeply coded critique that only gets noticed by the six or seven people who might actually influence your leader’s choices. Whispering discontent to journalists is worse than useless, and reflects worse on the whisperer than the whispered about.
However, if you are going to worry, it’s important to worry about the right things. One worry of mine is that Labour advisers are worrying about the wrong things.
So here’s a list of things Labour should definitely not be worried about:
1. Ed Miliband’s political operation.
Jenni Russell’s column surprised me yesterday because it had a fair bit of a briefing assault on Ed Miliband’s internal political operation. Various insiders were quoted as being unhappy that they were excluded from debates and discussions.
A cynic might mention that when things are going a bit wrong, there is always an outbreak of people claiming to journalists that one problem is that their brilliant advice has not been listened to. Can’t think why that might be. I wonder if these same people were eager to point out how excluded they were from decisions when the lead was ten or twelve points?
Actually, Ed MiIiband’s political operation has a pretty impressive record. He did far better in the PLP section of the leadership election than he had any right to expect, has since promoted a pretty broad range of people. Loyalty has been rewarded, but those who were initially sceptical were allowed to convert and prosper. Most people, me included, expected Union reforms to produce much more controversy than it did, and the fact that it didn’t can be put down to pretty intensive party management.
You can agree or disagree with this inclusive, unity-first, approach. The rows the party has carefully avoided might be needed and important. I tend to think they are. But by any standard, Ed’s party managers and political operation have been damn successful when judged by the results demanded of them.
As for the attack on the policy process, well, one might point out that proposing controversial, or hard to cost measures into a party machine which has been told to value unity and careful budgeting is unlikely to produce delighted responses. Sometimes not getting a reply means, ‘We don’t want to have to tell you this is utterly mad, so we’re hoping you’ll forget this utter madness‘.
Heck, I’m a bleeding edge right winger. I’d like us to be waking up in the morning with headlines about Labour fiscal rectitude and the challenges of making cuts fairly. But I’m not quite deluded enough to think that a political strategy predicated on such a position wouldn’t have certain political consequences.
2. Big versus Small, or local versus central
Who controls resources, who is going to make cuts, where decisions are made about service provision. These are important debates. They really matter in policy terms. The policy debate here, service by service, locality by locality is crucial to any successful Government. But it’s not something Labour should be worried about, politically, even when it comes to letters from think-tanks and speeches about radical decentralisation.
The reason for this is simple – these arguments are universal. Every government of every sort has to wrestle with the question of how much to control, and how much to set free. The hunger for localism is in no way new. After all devolution was one of the four principles of New Labour public services reform. Every government has to wrestle with the challenges of postcode lotteries. Target Culture, rather than being intended as centralising control-freakery was initially proposed as a way for the centre to remove itself from the micromanagement of how publics services were managed while still having the power to intervene if things went awry.
Labour shouldn’t worry about Localism versus Centralism, not because it’s insignificant, but because it’s important in the wrong way.
Getting the balance of powers right can improve services, but the answer won’t be the same in every service, and there’s no political message that will make sense of what the right balance should be: “Much more central control over planning and house building, but much less central control over Care budgets” is not, and will never be, a coherent political argument, even if it’s both right and important.
3. The size of the offer, or boldness.
If there’s one thing the Labour movement loves, it is boldness. You can never be too rich, too thin, or too bold.
Sometimes, this love of boldness gets people into trouble, as when David Clark writes that he signed a recent think-tank letter thinking it was critical of forces in the Labour party restraining his leader’s boldness, only to be horrified to find out that it was interpreted as an attack on the lack of boldness of the leader himself 1. Now, I’m biassed, because I hate boldness. I loathe and despise and wish to exterminate it from the lexicon of reform. I hate it with a passion, not because it is wrong to be radical, but because to call for boldness suggests that you regard it as a good in and of itself, separated entirely from the good either boldness or timidity might do. If we are to worship at the altar of Boldness, then Benn and Powell should be our heroes. That their boldness is utterly contradictory and exclusive should matter not.
Naturally, no-one means that. What they mean is “We should be Bold in the direction I favour”. This is meaninglessness of the second order. We all want to boldly pursue the objectives we ourselves favour. Who would timidly seek the already accepted as good and worthy? ‘I favour this proposal, but weakly, and without conviction.‘ says no-one. The funny thing is that the current demanders of boldness only need to look back at the Labour leader they are most uneasy with to see how this works. Who said ‘At our best when at our boldest‘?
Boldness was then, and is now a term that anyone can use, for any purpose to make their audience feel radical.
What matters is not whether you are bold, but whether people want whatever it is you are being bold about.
So, there you go. Three things the Labour party should stop worrying about.
Honestly, with a one or two point lead in the polls and more than a year to go, there are real issues to address. I can even provide a list, with datapoints. Clue: none of them are mentioned here.
But unwelcome advice is so pointless, isn’t it?
- I sometimes think the Neal Lawson and others on the soft Left of the Labour party struggle to come to terms with the fact that their allies are running things now, so attacks on the party strategy for not being soft left enough will be interpreted as attacks on their own people.
In other words, if Alan Milburn wrote a letter in 1995 accusing Labour of being insufficiently new, it would have been read as a criticism of Tony Blair, even if the target had been Michael Meacher.
It’s worth pausing a little to examine David’s column, as it is intriguing in this light. At one point David writes: “As far as I’m concerned the intervention was aimed at those pressing for the kind of minimalist retail offer Miliband is arguing against. Somehow a letter intended to strengthen his hand in the battles that lie ahead over the shape of Labour’s manifesto ended up being reported as an attack on the Labour leader himself“. This is pretty revealing, no?
The intent of the letter, for David, was aimed at unspecified forces that the Labour leader is battling, and who he needs buttressing against in battles that lie ahead. David then goes on to say that “Miliband is without question the most radical member of his own Shadow Cabinet. Whereas most colleagues would gladly avoid the really difficult issues raised by the economic crisis in the hope of winning the next election by default..” which, if I were Jon Trickett, I’d sue over.
However there is something marvellous about saying that the leader hasn’t secured his policy agenda and has appointed a shadow cabinet you think are cowardly milksops but saying that this must not in any way be interpreted as a critique of said leader, who is practically perfect in every way.
In a way, this is a progression of the If onlyism we saw in the Labour party when various people who had been calling for Gordon to be Prime Minister were terribly let down when he got into number 10, and went round saying ‘If only he’d meant what he said when he was Chancellor’. Now, the If onlyist line is “if only unspecified forces weren’t stopping Ed from doing what means…” In both cases, the problem is perhaps not with the perceived roadblock, but with the underlying strategy. But hush [↩]