Saturday 13 September 2008

Don't call for a new narrative - provide one

A dozen Labour MPs in Progress magazine make the commonplace statement (of the bleeding obvious) that Labour needs a convincing new centre-left narrative.

So it’s a shame that the one thing their own article appears to be missing is any core narrative or coherent theme of its own. It reads as something of a laundry list of apparently disconnected observations - some good, some bad, some indifferent – about a range of different current political and policy challenges, topped with a couple of eye-catching soundbites.

To the extent that there is an argument, it appears to go something like this:

Be bold. Have new ideas. Champion change. People will call for things. Good policies should be part of an overall strategy.

Labour must urgently restore its reputation for economic competence. Using everyday language might do this.

Reform. Choice. Transparency. Accountability. We are definitely right about all of this. We shouldn’t give up. It would be great if we could make people care about it.

We should get back to the democracy agenda – but local elections are depressing and old hat.

Immigration is quite a difficult issue too. But if Labour could get rid of this unfair reputation for authoritarianism we would be able to get on with jolly sensible policies like introducing ID cards.

(Labour’s reputation for illiberalism didn’t arise from introducing an age limit on buying spraycans. It came from losing the public argument on detention powers, but pushing on anyway, and advocating ID cards without any clarity about what they are being proposed to achieve, or whether that would be worth the public cost).

No doubt, some of this reflects the perils of collective drafting. Several of the individual MPs may have had things to say about the various issues covered. Karen Buck, for example, might well have influenced the (left-leaning) argument for prioritising targeted support for the mission to end child poverty over general tax cuts, given her strong record on that issue.

The collective statement is rather less than the sum of its disparate parts because, while the central challenge was correctly identified as the political definition of the government, there are only a couple of hints as to what the authors believe the answer to that question should be.

This is almost an object lesson in how not to do the renewal debate. My sense was that the thinking began from a set of pre-defined policy preferences and ‘red lines’ (such as over public service reform), followed by an attempt to thread an argument around these. This becomes a call for ‘more of the same’ with some new language, wrapped in the call for ‘bold, radical, change’ and some interrogation of specific dilemmas of reform, without putting first and foremost the argument about what Labour's narrative should be, before grounding particular policy measures in that.

Opinons differ as to how far this article was intended to play into leadership speculation. Some of the soundbites read as though they could have been designed to be reported in that way.

But the now routine description in the media of Progress as the home of Blairite factionalism in the Labour Party is an over-simplication. A large part of that relates to Alan Milburn’s role as President of Progress; and substantively from the organisation's consistent defence of the argument for deepening public service reform. Progress has also suggested in a series of joint events that Labour faces a strategic choice between its agenda and that of Compass (an argument which leaves most mainstream Labour opinion out).

Yet Progress has been a broader group. The direction of most Progress publications – particularly its ‘progressive deficit’ series – has been social democratic, about Labour making an explicit case for the public realm, rather than endorsing a right-of-centre analysis of state failure. Vice-chair Chris Leslie remains a staunch Brown ally, who has set out a ‘fairness’ argument which does address the challenges of public narrative and the policies which it could give rise to in a way that this latest ‘boldness’ interventon does not. (And, declaration of interest, I am a member of its progressive internationalism policy group, which issued a green paper recently).

The Progress rally in Manchester could well be the focal point on the fringe for speculation about challenges to Brown from the party’s right.

So far, those seeking a challenge have focused on the problem of having insufficient support in Cabinet or Parliament to bring about a contest.

But a larger part of the argument is missing. A leadership change would achieve very little without a different, distinctively progressive and popular argument which Labour should put to the public. Calling for bold new narratives certainly isn’t enough without telling us clearly what the boldness is for.

1 comment:

Phil Woodford said...

I don't know how important a new narrative is, but we certainly need a new leader!