Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 6 August 2010
Whoopee! It’s the holidays. School’s out, parliament’s risen, the interminable Labour leadership hustings are over – and it’s raining. Just what you need to wash away the blues …
And, boy, do I need cheering up. A sense of gloom about British politics has been gnawing at me for rather a long time now. I’m not sure exactly when it started, fitfully at first – some time around the 2005 general election, I guess – but it has been pretty much relentless for nearly three years. I had a brief surge of optimism about Labour’s prospects after Gordon Brown became PM. Perhaps, just perhaps, he could rescue a government that had squandered the potential of 1997 in caution, bickering, kow-towing to big business and ill-thought-out military adventures? Well, he couldn’t, though he did a good job of handling the 2008 banking crisis. The polls dipped again, the bickering resumed, the MPs’ expenses scandal broke, and from then on it was a matter of clutching at straws as election day approached.
The election itself was bad enough – a comically incompetent national campaign followed by a near-wipeout for Labour in the south and east of England outside London. But since then it’s just got more and more depressing for anyone on the left. Despite the coalition’s kamikaze economics and breakneck-pace schemes for “reforming” the welfare state while cutting it to the bone, it has enjoyed a remarkably good honeymoon press. And so far Labour has done little to sketch out an alternative. The leadership election has involved an immense expenditure of effort to generate a minimum of light.
All right, that’s pretty much what I expected, it’s early days yet, everyone needs a break, and the battle against the coalition resumes on 25 September when the Labour leadership election result is announced. Looking on the bright side, at least there’s little sign of Labour descending into a self-destructive ideological battle as it did between 1979 and 1983. And the coalition does look vulnerable: there are an awful of lot of on-diary banana-skins coming up in autumn, not least the Lib Dems and Tories’ separate party conferences, that could make for some good political slapstick.
If we assume, however, that the coalition is not all over by Xmas, Labour has got a problem. It can of course continue relentlessly to oppose the cuts – and indeed it should – but that will not be enough to regain the credibility it has lost as a governing party over the past decade unless it also manages to popularise the practices of Keynesian demand management in the short term and redistributive taxation and a big state in the longer term.
Lest we forget, this was something it failed to achieve either in government in 2008-10, when it was actually doing big-state redistributive demand management, or in opposition in the 1980s, when a Keynesianism of sorts was still the orthodoxy among most economists and Labour still thought it could sell tax increases to the electorate. Perhaps an explicit “invest, borrow and tax for security and jobs” line would fare better in 2015 than the watered-down versions did in 2010 or 1992 if it were closely argued and costed. I’d certainly like to think so. But it’s a big risk, and I’m not convinced that Labour has the intellectual confidence or coherence to take it.
Beyond that, what? There’s certainly room for Labour to unlearn some of its more idiotic mangerialist and authoritarian-populist traits of the 1990s and 2000s. Everyone has their own bugbears – my own are the pub smoking ban and the ever-more-intrusive (but utterly useless) “quality assurance” regimes imposed on education and other public services; others care much more about ID cards or ASBOs or detention of terrorism suspects without trial or ringfencing of local authority budgets in key areas. But reining-in the over-centralised nanny state and embracing civil liberties are what the coalition says it wants to do, and it will be difficult for Labour to seize the initiative even though many coalition plans are fraudulent – most importantly GP commissioning and school “independence” – simply because of its enthusiasm in office for stultifying bureaucracy.
In foreign and defence policy, there is similarly limited space for manoeuvre: getting out of Afghanistan ASAP is coalition policy (and not a good one, though popular); and even the Trident replacement programme looks vulnerable to the squeeze on military spending. Worse, there doesn’t yet appear to be a great deal of wriggle room on constitutional reform – unless Labour comes out straight for proportional representation, which would be a real act of daring – or on the environment or on benefits reform. (The last of these is also a potential minefield for any Labour leader, but that’s another story.)
Oh well, at least it has stopped raining. Time to get out the rucksack and the walking boots and the pile of books I’ve not read in the past six months, and do some serious thinking. See you in September.