Friday 20 February 2009

The debates which Labour needs to have

I am afraid I have become dizzily confused about whether I should back Ed Balls as a stop Yvette Cooper candidate, or rather Yvette Cooper as a stop Ed Balls candidate, and which Miliband might be better placed to block the chances of the other, in the current pretty pointless frenzy in a Westminster bubble about what might happen when the Labour party next elects a party leader at some future point in political circumstances as yet unknown. And, whatever happens at the next election, nobody knows when this would be either.

Firstly, the current assumption of Labour defeat can (and will) change again (more than once) in the next twelve months, though the obligatory goldfish-style amnesia of the political and media classes (further exaggerated by the new internet politics) means that the political herd never remembers once the conventional wisdom has stood on its head since the day before yesterday, and so is equally certain that whatever it thinks today will hold good.

Secondly, any political party which loses any election in future should recognise the wisdom of what Michael Howard after defeat in 2005 and swear never to elect a new leader within the first six months, even should a leader want to go. That is why David Davis is not Leader of the Opposition. The Conservatives might have saved themselves from the William Hague or Iain Duncan Smith experience had either Major or Hague done likewise. Parties which saw the enlightened self-interest in that approach would have plenty of time to debate and scrutinise ideas, policies and personalities out in the political daylight, once a choice is needed. (Steve Richards is right that there has been no real scrutiny or debate of anything or anyone yet).

However, come back to the more immediate political needs of 2009 and there is a different political danger to that identified by Hazel Blears (in a 'calm down' intervention that may have catapulted the speculation up the news agenda).

That would be if Labour ministers - for fear of being thought to be 'positioning' - were to only stick to their departmental briefs and "get on with the job", while the rest of us wonder what the Labour government's political argument for another term in office is going to be. Getting the political choices across is their job too. It is important we hear more from government ministers, speaking in different ways to party, progressive and general public audiences. This can not all be left to any Prime Minister: some political interventions are better made not from No 10 Downing Street. It is the task of at least half a dozen political voices, not just one or two - including those like Alan Johnson, John Denham, Peter Mandelson and David Miliband as well as the four or five names being suggested as possible leadership frontrunners in the last few weeks.

That is not to deny that Peter Mandelson made some very sensible comments this week about the dangers of clamours and calls for instant solutions to the recession and magic wands. And, sometimes, as when twenty governments meet at the G20, it will be vital to have a great deal of sharp policy focus to get a useful result. But the political argument and narrative needs to be a broader one. Ministers have tried to get the message out about the domestic response to the recession, and it is inevitably difficult to do so. But (and perhaps it has been a little too soon, but this becomes urgent this Spring) Labour has not yet articulated a public argument which addresses some important political areas - including the new relationship with progressive America, how Britain works in Europe, and the politics of other key themes. That story and political argument this Spring needs to be different and broader one than the necessity of the intergovernmental policy action plan which may come out of the summit.

Finally, of course the media can and should speculate ahead about Labour politics after 2010 and beyond, especially now that the staple snap election column has been put on ice. My frustration here (with some notable exceptions) is why can this not dig a bit deeper? If the commentariat, deprived of their staple snap election column, do want to delve into specualtion about future possible Labour leaders, could we not at least learn something new and substantive about the emerging contours of the party's debate.

This will be a debate about ideas as well as personalities. There is too much stock discussion of whether there might be pandering to the "base" or the left (understood to be the same thing) when the bubbling under discussions in the party are more interesting, and more nuanced, than that.

David Miliband notes the "gotcha" culture in Jason Cowley's interesting (super-long) profile-interview in this week's New Statesman. If shares in the Foreign Secretary were perhaps excessively ramped up last August, they have been over-sold since. Yet, in all the frenzy about process and positioning, how many attempts were there to interrogate what the potential content of a future Labour argument could be. (My own perhaps excessively pointy-headed attempt to interrogate the substance of Milibandism was rather swimming against the tide). There are several hints in the New Statesman profile suggests Miliband thinks it wise in the aftermath not to stray outside of foreign policy: that is a key political area too, but that depends on connecting the foreign and domestic arguments.

We learn nothing from the blanket assumption or claim that any speech or action must be motivated by positioning. Politicians are politicians: it is surely always the case in politics that there is a cocktail of values, ideals, strategy, tactics, interests and instincts. The interesting question is how the direction of travel of party debates might shift in future and why. (John Rentoul's long GQ profile of Ed Balls (part one and part two may have caught some of that, perhaps by having the advantage of analysing the prospects of a candidate who may not be the commentator's own preferred choice).

Take, for example, the Heathrow debates within government. This was the most interesting piece of intra-Labour politics for several years. And it was new. But I am not sure it has been properly unpacked, and whisperings about political motivations on any side do not scratch the surface.

After all, a discussion which (according to public reports) seemed to see Brown, Balls, Mandelson (and Hoon) on one side and two Milibands, a Benn, an Alexander, Harman and Denham on the other is interesting. That obviously isn't a Blairite/Brownite argument (with two Eds on opposite sides) and nor is it entirely a generational split. There were some policy issues at issue, and a range of strategic and tactical decisions. It was partly about the priority and trade-offs between the economy and the environment. But it also, I think, signalled a new issue about the nature of progressive politics in future - about how far emerging if inchaote ideas about 'movement politics' would see Labour to revisit or overturn the political strategy of the 1997 New Labour model.

The leadership speculation remains a red herring, especially the more exotic scenarios: the heat of last summer and Autumn will not return. But these short and long-term party debates need more content, and so more discussion, and not less. That means breaking through the fear of media misrepresentation as a bar to having any debate at all. It is rather welcome that it has now become obligatory to say that New Labour is ending the era of the top-down politics of control. That remains work in progress, to say the least. It would be a shame to call off the effort before it has barely begun.

1 comment:

Oldrightie said...

My but your boring as well as obsolete.