At one level all looks fine for Labour and Ed Miliband as the party kicks off conference in Manchester this week. The party is 10 points ahead in the polls, is facing an unpopular and weak government. Roll on 2015.
But I am not so sure, and I am not the only one. See Neal Lawson’s polemic for The New Statesman for example. The problem is that while Labour’s current position may make everyday tactical sense, I am far from sure if it is actually good politics – in the wider sense of the word.
If the party is defined by anything it is by what it is not, not by what it is. It would protect workers (but cannot articulate how). It would protect the NHS (but it has no plan of how to do so, except repeal what the Tories are doing). It would end austerity (but it cannot say how it would, or where the cash to do so would come from).
At the same time the GMB’s Paul Kenny berates Labour’s front bench for being members of a political class that is not representative of the population. Kenny essentially means there are not enough ‘working people’ in there. But while he is partly correct, his claim also misses the mark because membership of the unions has mirrored the decline in party political membership in the UK. Neither the unions nor the parties have a wide base any more, something that it is best for the protagonists on both sides to ignore, always talking about renewal and rebuilding but never being able to actually achieve it.
All of that means that conference this week will feature a series of proto-skirmishes within the ranks of the left. Things like being closer to the unions or not. Speaking to the Lib Dems or not. Rejecting any private enterprise in the NHS or not. Having more working class representation in parliament or not.
But all of this misses the point. For me the only question worth asking is what – on its own terms – is Labour about?
For me that boils down to where you place your trust – in the state and collective action, or in the laissez faire of the market. And do you believe the state should do what it can to ensure equal life chances and more equal economic outcomes for everyone, or leave every individual to fight for themselves?
However I currently see no hope that there is going to be any sort of meaningful return to the ethical basis of modern social democracy in the UK any time soon. I mean the sort of thing encompassed in Michael Sandel “What money can’t buy” or Richard Layard “Happiness”, because who is possibly going to advocate that? Those that have worked for years to get into the narrow cadre of the political class no longer have the wide perspective or the incentive to do so – getting or holding power is naturally enough the main obsession. Labour as a whole need take no risks as its banking on winning anyway. And the journalists reporting on the whole tired charade this week in Manchester will berate the party for anything that is not simple, narrow and on message (where the boundaries of the possible are defined by the individuals who own the private firms behind the newspapers). You need look no further that Simon Hoggart’s acid piece about Sandel to see what I mean. No, Sandel would not fill stadiums in the UK because we are all too jaundiced by politics to possibly believe anything he would say could ever even be put into practice.
There are two responses to this predicament. Those present in Manchester this week will almost all fall into the ‘Labour is better than all the alternatives’ camp. Labour must do whatever it needs to do in order to win, because – whatever its faults – Labour is less bad than the others. These will be the people writing the euphoric tweets from the conference hall this week.
The alternative response is rejection, apathy or disgust, the feeling that noble social democratic aims are better pursued through NGO campaigns and pressure groups, or that the very processes intrinsic to party politics are sufficiently off putting to want to opt out. Yet of course the more people behaving this way (and I count myself among them) the more the predicament in the parties worsens.
Labour of course thinks it has a recipe for people even more disengaged than me (I am a Labour member still) – it wants to reach out to supporters of the party as well as members when it comes to its internal processes. But the process of reaching out is not the issue, it is about the organisation that is doing the outreach. Why would anyone who is not already within the party want a relationship with it just now? The party cannot answer that, because it does not want to have to answer the wider problem, namely the progressive disengagement from political parties in the UK that has been going on since the 1960s. To put it another way, party politics is the problem, not the way in which people engage with party politics.
Who were the last people to break this cycle? In part it was a generation of leaders in the late 1990s across Europe that realised that a new vision for the left was needed. Those leaders were Blair and Schröder, and the Third Way / die Neue Mitte was their answer. While we know what happened to the practical prescriptions of that idea, it nevertheless defined the parties on the left in their own terms, and gave an optimistic, unifying theme around which to rally. Until we have an equivalent idea that can hold the left together, a broader vision for society, then Labour politics is destined to disappoint. That may of course not stop Labour winning an election though, but until a positive vision can be forged Labour is destined to disappoint.