Monday 3 January 2011

Can Labour do moral outrage?

In today’s Guardian, Douglas Alexander has an article entitled ‘Moral outrage is not enough’. Labour, he argues, must not simply express moral outrage about the cuts but have a credible alternative (which, to be credible, will involve accepting some cuts).

This is in part just old-fashioned triangulation. As public opinion moves against the government, perhaps helped along by the emerging anti-cuts movement, Labour sees political opportunity. But in an effort to maximize appeal, Alexander mixes an anti-cuts message with judicious fiscal conservatism. Message: ‘We’re not the nasty party, but we’re not the anti-cuts headbangers either. Come home, dear median voter, to the non-nasty but also fiscally sensible party.’

This is predictable stuff, but there is one issue which Alexander's article neglects which I think is worth more scrutiny.

Yes, ‘moral outrage is not enough’. (As Dave Osler points out, nobody thinks it is 'enough'.) But articulating, focusing and spreading non-violent moral outrage is almost certainly necessary to defeat the Coalition. How far is Labour doing this? How far is it able to do so?

Take the issue of higher education. Was it Labour who made the running in giving voice to, and spreading, moral outrage over fee increases and drastic cuts to higher education? Obviously not. It was the student movement.

Has Labour managed to express effective, moving moral outrage over cuts to benefits? Jon Cruddas has had a very good go, but arguably the running here is being made by people in the affected groups. The most articulate critics of the Coalition’s reforms to disability benefits, for example, include disabled bloggers like BendyGirl, Sue Marsh and Martyn Sibley. BendyGirl helped initiate a new network, The Broken of Britain, which supports these and many other disabled critics of the Coalition.

Who has made the running on tax avoidance? Labour? No, if anyone has managed to raise the salience of this issue in the public’s mind, it has been UKuncut with its protests in Vodafone, Top Shop and other high street outlets. Aaron Peters, of the UCL Occupation, managed to convey more about the injustice of tax avoidance and the unaccountable power of the rich in a few seconds in the video here than any Labour politician I've heard in a very long time ('It's your money, it's that copper's money....We are being fleeced by these oligarchs...')

Or take the issue of universalism in the welfare system. At a recent Fabian Society seminar in London, at which I spoke, some of the participants – Labour participants – argued that Labour had for too long taken the moral case for universalism as given. When the Conservatives challenged the principle of universalism with their plan to withdraw Child Benefit for high earners, Labour consequently did not know how to respond. The party needs to go back and do some basic groundwork – both with itself and with the public – on why universalism matters.

Other Labour participants argued that ‘realism’ requires the party to be flexible and willing to make some tactical retreats on universalism. One side of the debate had the beginnings of moral outrage but did not know how to get the message across. The other side seemed to think moral outrage was impractical, perhaps self-indulgent.

The key fact, which Alexander's op-ed piece tactfully avoids, is that Labour just isn’t really very good right now at moral outrage.

New Labour was a reaction against the idealism of the party’s left. But I think the ferocity of the reaction has left the party confused both about what its underlying ideals are and about how to communicate them.

Labour supports universalism in principle but is also supremely flexible about the issue. Labour opposes inhumane benefit cuts but agrees we should crack down on scroungers. Labour thinks the rich should bear a fair share of the burden of deficit reduction but also doesn’t want tax rates that punish aspiration. Of course, the underlying realities are complex. But Labour’s messages these days are so mixed they self-negate. (I think it was the philosopher J.L. Austin who said: ‘There’s the bit where you say it and the bit where you take it back.’) This is not a basis for voicing or focusing anybody’s moral outrage.

In a different world, the Lib Dems would, of course, scoop up a lot of the moral disaffection about the cuts. But that’s not the world they chose. In a different world, the Greens might channel this disaffection. But that’s a world with a different electoral system, a world we will not get even if the reform party wins the referendum on AV in May.

This is why a non-party/cross-party anti-cuts movement is so important. It gives clear and, at times, eloquent, voice to moral beliefs that don’t find a firm place in ordinary party politics. The movement is complex and fluid and it is anyone’s guess where it will be in a year’s or six month’s time. But the reason I think it – or something like it - is here to stay is that it addresses this problem of the missing moral voice. In the process, it does articulate and spread justified moral indignation at the Coalition’s cuts.

So while senior Labour figures use the political space (arguably) opened up by the anti-cuts movement to triangulate their way forward, Labour's members might also stop and consider why their own party is so bad at expressing and focusing moral outrage - and what they might have to learn from the anti-cuts movement if - if - they want it to do better.


Unknown said...

An excellent piece Stuart. I'd also add that 'yes the issues are complex' is true, but it is strange that New Labourites always express their conclusion about the complexities of world by saying 'well we're half right and the Tories are half right on X issue'. This formula could be applied to any of the examples that Stuart cites above of Labour positions.

But why should not a complex world full of complex problems, at least sometimes, throw up positions that are clear and simple? Even positions that are diametrically opposed to those of the silly party? For example what is wrong with abhoring tax avoidance and evasion clearly and without caveat? The only reason I can see for continuous Labour twisting on a pin on this and other issues is that they never want to challenge power.

In many instances their 'nuances' in fact reflect this assumption that otherwise their positions will get them in trouble with the right wing press oligarchs, or corporations who might bugger off. This indeed was I think the whole base philosophy of New Labour. If so, OK, but I'd prefer a party to try and fail to challenge power than not try at all. Especially when these so called sophisticates then lord it over the rest of us simpletons for taking the most coarse and un-nuanced positions. (Like, err cheating on tax is just bad). But please don't pretend your so called sophistication is not this cravenness in disguise.

Alan Finlayson said...

Stuart, excellent. I agree of course. There is an enormous opportunity for Labour to catch a mood and open up a new kind of politics (one that isn't in fact wildly to the left but actually motivated by some very traditional and popular sentiments).

But your second italicised 'if' is a well=placed kick.

Is Douglas' line just a tactical oversight? Or is it indicative of what he and his colleagues truly believe?

I am sure that they are threatened by the politics of UkUncut and the students. They fear that it will enable a tabloid attack on Labour as unfit to govern because allied with trouble makers.

But don't you begin to feel - since they continue with all this dross even though there is no Blair, Brown or Mandelson - that they don't actually feel any moral outrage? And that they really don't know very much about the intellectual, ethical and socially minded tradition of which their party was once a part?

Stuart White said...

Jim, Alan: many thanks for these comments.

My view on New Labour - and I think Labour at the moment is still running on New Labour gas, as it were - is that it was/is all tactics and no strategy. By this I mean that New Labour was ruthless about how to position/market/message in relation to existing public opinion, but had little sense of how it might shift underlying public opinion. And related to this, I think, was (is) a lack of ideas about how to stand up to certain kinds of powerful interest. In some parts of the party, I do think this has led to a profound reconciliation to these powerful interests so that there is no longer even a desire to challenge them. This is an obstacle to Labour's renewal.

That said, the interest in Labour in things like community organizing can be seen as an acknowledgment that 'something needs to be done' to change this. But real community organizing and the like is going to be squawky and noisy and unpredictable. It might look a bit like ukuncut and some of the local anti-cuts groups. If Labour is to move on, its going to have to develop a way of working with such groups/networks. This needn't, and probably shouldn't, mean giving them uncritical support. But if Labour just allows its relationship to them to be dictated by fears of negative stories in the right-wing press, as Alan worries, it will be right back in New Labour territory with lots of day-to-day tactics and no real strategy.

Unknown said...

Important post this, Stuart, New Labour did do a bit of outrage before 1997, which was 'anti-sleaze' and having a clean government you could trust! You could add the campaign End Child Detention Now
to the list of those who made a policy difference through moral outrage brilliantly communicated, see Clare Sambrooke's award winning coverage in OurKingdom

Jon Ivens said...

Hi Stuart, just came across this but even two months later, your analysis still rings true.

I hadn't really recognised it before, but was the reliance on tactics over strategy to out-manoeuvre a dying Tory government an approach which continued in office after May 1997? If so, it is a desperate indictment of the whole New Labour project that a Labour government which had a solid parliamentary majority managed to achieve so little lasting, profound change in 13 years in office.

It seems to me that while the Labour leadership can still be accused by the Tories of being responsible for the “mess” they inherited, any moral outrage will be seen (quite rightly) by the public as merely political opportunism. Until the party and its leadership can admit to the mistakes made in government, or to the lack of courage shown in not tackling the clear problems that prevent ordinary people from enjoying the sort of life that the middle classes take for granted, then I fear a whole swathe of Labour supporters will simply choose not to vote Labour, whatever promises are made at the next election (this is essentially ditching the last vestiges of New Labour I suppose). And since when did manifesto policies become promises?

I think the party also has to be brave enough to allow all CLPs to select candidates who they believe will represent them best, rather than hindering selection of those that don't fit the mould. Perhaps that could be a strategy which would re-invigorate the party and encourage ordinary members to really have a say in its future. I am confident that most CLPs would act responsibly in the selection process, as you would expect if members are informed and are keen to challenge at not only the next election, but for decades to come.

Was there ever a time when a Labour government pursued a policy because it was right, rather than being popular? That is surely what the party must do, if it is to turn moral outrage into appealing moral policies.

On a slightly off-topic point, I noticed that Douglas Alexander said in his article “We'll need policies that ensure Britain earns its living and pays its way”. Is this yet another example of politicians using the language of household budgeting to support economic policy, even though they have very little in common?