The recent Modern Liberty Convention rightly brought questions about Labour’s relationship with liberalism under the microscope. But it’s been clear for some time that this is an issue which Labour has to get to grips with: the liberal agenda is the one where New Labour had some of its greatest successes but also most traumatic failures.
Shirley Williams is going to be talking to Michael Crick at a Fabian event tomorrow about these issues and I think this comes at an interesting moment.
The role of the state has been emphasised in the government’s actions following last year’s financial collapse and this question is going to be at the heart of political debate for some time to come. Labour has shown the state’s positive power and in-so-doing has opened up a clear dividing line with the Tories – although it has yet to articulate coherently any wider philosophy than economic fire-fighting at present. But now as Labour tries to either plot a meaningful fourth term or think how to rebuild following an election defeat, the question of ‘how liberal is Labour’ – and its corollary ‘how liberal should Labour be’ – needs to be front and centre for a number of reasons of varying importance.
Labour is looking for a way through dire polls that are getting direr, so often sees liberal issues as a sensible political positioning point. That Brown scored a huge own goal by not getting behind more liberal causes when assuming power – despite a promising start – is without doubt. By not following through on his ‘on liberty’ speech and constitutional reform paper, Brown missed a trick to renew and reframe the government and his own Stalinist caricature. But the more current political point is that there is still a great deal of hung parliament chatter. Now, this seems to be receding as a possibility and there is perhaps an element of wishful thinking about calls for a pre-emptive lib-lab merger or alliance. But, whether the appetite or political will is there or not, it holds great appeal for those in the Labour Party that want to see a more progressive agenda.
But Labour needs to see liberal issues as more than a piece of political positioning, and if they are approached in such a limited way it would do more harm than good. Too much water has probably flowed under the bridge for the government to convince of a serious recommitment to liberal causes by a couple of significant but in isolation tokenistic policy reversals. Perhaps the flirtations of the early Brown weeks/months made things worse not better: by being all come hither on ID cards etc it cemented a ‘more of the same’ view.
I think it's right that ID cards are being seen as the substantive and symbolic move the government needs to make to win back some ground on this; but I think the government really needs to focus on the substantive part to convince and then follow it up with an agenda that displays some coherent commitment to the cause. Because even if the government does scrap ID cards (and btw doing this under the cover of the recession would be cop out that made the government look both liberally and actually bankrupt), if this was swiftly followed by the other side of the Labour brain doing something pointlessly macho, then we are back in a worse position than before; every time you get marched up to the top of the hill only to be let down, then you start from an even lower level of goodwill.
I think all these issues are important ones when we talk about the new way of doing politics, of re-engaging voters, and particularly of doing politics on the internet and learning from the Obama campaign. We live in a world and a culture where everything has been done before and subsequently spoofed and mocked; consequently people – especially the young – can see through ploys with laser guided precision. Labour’s got to mean it.
Labour has to decide whether it can convincingly pursue a liberal agenda and then actually get on and do it in a wholehearted way that doesn’t balance every liberal progressive development with a sop to the party and media’s authoritarian tendency. But I can’t see a meaningful – and successful – new agenda for the left that doesn’t have a liberal core.