By Olly Deed
Criticism is part and parcel of being in government. Some of it is superficial, partisan and not worth the time of day. Some, on the other hand, is tactile, resonant and worthy of discussion.
As a party we should be willing to listen and learn from those on the other side. That’s why I spent some time with Douglas Carswell, the Tory MP, and Alex Smith has agreed to publish his thoughts on the future of the left.
This interview, then, is designed to cultivate discussion amongst those of us on the left. LabourList is the perfect platform upon which to have this debate. We may not agree with some of the analysis but we should certainly be willing to engage with it.
Douglas Carswell is an unusual Conservative Member of Parliament. Unusual in the sense that he seems to have given as much thought to the plight of the centre-left as he has to that of his own party. Thoughtful, engaging and ready to draw upon a range of intellectual work in his answers, he is like a right wing Jon Cruddas. His critique of leftist politics and the Labour Party in Britain is not artificial, unsubstantiated or puerile, like Cameron’s. It is actually worth listening to.
At the Fabian Society New Year conference, Carswell angered some members of the audience and intrigued others by delivering a considered and stinging polemic of the Labour Party. He was as forthcoming when I interviewed him as he was that day in January.
The problems for Labour are clear, pronounced and need to be addressed quickly, Carswell says:
“The party of the levellers and the chartists, for the ordinary individual against hierarchical concentrations of power, is now on the side of quangocrat, the big official, the unelected minister, the European institutions, the human rights lawyer making decisions over and above what politicians want to make.”
According to Carswell, the left:
“has retreated to Rosseau…with his idea of a group of technocrats working in the public good…I think if I was on the left, I would be disturbed by this”.
“The Labour party has with good intentions tried to empower local people. Whether it’s through foundation hospitals, whether it’s through giving people a greater say over certain agencies; the problem has been that the mechanisms for doing this have always been corporatist. I think any decent person on the left, if they sit down and think about it, would think corporatism doesn’t do anything for personal liberty or individual freedom.”
Central to Carswell’s analysis is the notion that the left hasn’t reacted to the huge and fundamental changes that have taken place in society over the past 15 years, particularly the emergence of the internet. The left needs to realise, he says, that:
“The internet will smash hierarchy and diffuse power in a way that nothing has been able to do since the printing press – and it will be the printing press times ten. And as someone on the centre-right I am bemused to see how the centre-left is missing out on this. If I was on the British left I would be saying, ‘how can we have got ourselves in this position?’ Then you’ve got something that no previous leftist has had to contend with, which is the internet. And that will do to the political process what Martin Luther did to religion; it will overturn the hierarchy of princely politicians and the priesthood of commentators and it has already started to do it. You see Guido Fawkes against Polly Toynbee and Michael White – who is more influential? Iain Dale, who is not even yet an elected member of the Commons, probably has as much if not more influence than people who have been paid up pundits of the Westminister establishment. So you’ve got a convergence of factors that I think would disturb me if I was on the left and make me want to rethink what being on the left should mean.”
This level of analysis cannot readily be swept under the carpet, no matter how tempting that may be. It should pose some food for thought for all of us as Labour Party members. We have to look deep down and question ourselves. Have we really reacted to the emergence of the internet in government? Are we articulating a vision of downward accountability, enhanced by the factors Carswell raises? Carswell clearly thinks we aren’t.
Carswell admits, though, that all is not ill on the British left. When I ask him about the Co-operative model of running public services, he is full of praise:
“I think the Co-operative model is fantastic. Why co-operatives and the friendly society movement are so successful is because they were non-state solutions; they were local and accountable.”
Alan Milburn and Julian Le Grand are two figures Carswell also broadly praises:
“I know what [Le Grand, a senior policy advisor to Tony Blair] is talking about and I have some empathy for it because I think he genuinely recognised in the last two years that you needed some system of downward accountability to the end user and the system, rather than officials, however competent, who lay in Whitehall.”
On Milburn, meanwhile, Carswell says:
“I am fascinated that given the journey that Blair and Le Grand have taken, the default setting of the Labour Party would be to be where Milburn is – but Milburn is almost treated as being a crank.”
Even with this brief sprinkling of praise, the picture that Carswell paints is not good. So in the final stages of our time together, I ask him for the one piece of advice for the left:
“Don’t do what the Tories did for a decade, don’t just go and talk to other people who think like you do. After you’ve lost three elections you’ll realise that what makes you feel good in politics isn’t what you necessarily need to be thinking about. We turned in on ourselves, we talked to ourselves, we regurgitated the Thatcher script without renewing it. What we should have done much, much faster than we did was go back and say what does it mean to be conservative and how is the world changing; what is it we like or dislike about the changes in the world? We have only started to do that since 2005. If the Labour Party goes into opposition they will remain in opposition if they don’t listen to people like Milburn and Le Grand. If they do listen, though, they will return to their real roots – and then politics will get really interesting.”
Over to you, Cruddas et al.
Douglas Carswell blogs every day at Talk Carswell.