Saturday, 17 July 2010

The state of the race - and some missing questions

In a piece for the summer Fabian Review, I assess what we have learned from the opening rounds of Labour's leadership contest, and pick some issues which might loom larger during the final weeks of the contest and to which the next leader will need a response:

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It was important for Labour to hold an extended leadership contest. A snap contest would suggest the party had learnt nothing from the 2007 coronation of Gordon Brown. The early stages have engaged party members (including 25000 new members) but have inevitably received less attention beyond the party in a World Cup summer where the media classes remain fascinated by the new politics of coalition.

The contest has shown there are no great ideological fissures in the party. Jack Straw – on the right of the party – was among those to nominate Diane Abbott to ensure the Campaign Group candidate made the ballot. The absurdly exhaustive series of 59 hustings debates (and counting) have been good humoured, and demonstrated much common ground.

On these points, the candidates agree: Labour is a party defined by its values – and its core commitment to narrowing inequalities in opportunity, income, wealth and power. Labour should be proud of much of its record, but it lost touch over time by becoming too managerial in office. The Iraq war would not have happened if the Government had known Saddam did not have WMD. It should have done more, earlier to challenge unearned rewards at the top of society, and was too timid in pursuing an elected Lords and having more faith in local democracy. The party should pursue equality in representation, and must shift its internal culture to become a movement campaigning in communities for change.

If every candidate can agree on all of that, the question remains what they distinctively offer, beyond differing in their personal approaches to leadership.

Party members have thought it important to debate what New Labour got right and wrong, though some have found the debate too retrospective. David Miliband told the Fabian hustings and several later events that “we have spent a lot of time debating a better yesterday, and I want to debate a better tomorrow”. But the record matters – and the point of interrogating it should be to inform the future. The question is less how far 13 years in power left the glass half-full or half-empty but how Labour now ‘defines the break’ with its recent past.

The failure of Labour’s attempts at 'renewal' in office was to talk about 'change' yet to fail to define it clearly.

The candidates – and next leader – will also need a response to several questions which have yet to figure significantly in the campaign:

(1) What is Labour's response to economic insecurity? The main point of contention in the contest has been over immigration. It is unconvincing to say this is the primary cause of Labour's electoral defeat, and more so if the suggestion is that the failure was simply to communicate a good policy effectively. Social democrats should believe in managing immigration, with concern for how the impacts of gains and losses are distributed across society. This is part of a broader gap in Labour's agenda, which did too little to speak to lower and middle-earners for whom the age of affluence brought increased economic insecurity.

(2) How do we pay for our social goals? The UK is currently taxing at 37 per cent of GDP and spending at 47 per cent. Cyclical factors are unlikely to close more than half of this gap but the rest remains. So how does Labour think we should pay for public services – and how should this be reflected in challenges to spending cuts? Which is a credible strategy to win public support for defending universal provision given tight fiscal pressures? Do we need to think more about hypothecated taxes, as on social care? When is charging users a legitimate option for some services, and where should that line be drawn?

(3) Where do environmental choices place limits? A credible red-green social democracy would needs a stronger environmental agenda than New Labour had. Assuming that this rejects the proposition of zero growth, the credibility of an agenda for green growth depends on being clear about where there are real trade-offs. Where does this place limits on particular types of consumption or sources of growth? And how would Labour mobilise effective political coalitions to defend those choices from affected interests?

(4) What does ‘movement politics‘ mean for party democracy? Every candidate wants Labour to be a political movement. But there is a lack of clarity about what this means for the future model of democracy within the party, with some tendency to see that as a navel-gazing alternative to reaching out. If there is both frustration at the limits of traditional models of resolutionary democracy, but an acknowledgement that new structures lack transparency or credibility as ways in which members' voices can count, how does a party empower its own members as part of a broader advocacy movement?

(5) The future of the unions. The candidates have tended to stick to platitudes while seeking the votes of trade unionists. But taking movement politics seriously should mean turning the link with unions into a source of political strength, rather than of potential vulnerability, sometimes on both sides. How can industrial and political leadership reinvent the public face, and perceived legitimacy, of unions to make the relationship a source of political strength for the left?

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