After the massive TUC rally at the end of March Luke Bozier wrote a very provocative piece for LabourList about his view, from the right of the party, of how Labour was positioning itself vis-a-vis the cuts. There were some really interesting comments on the blog which seemed in the main to have two polarised views. On the one hand decrying Labour involvement with the anti-cuts movement as gross high hypocrisy, and on the other saying defending jobs and services should be the sole position on which Labour should campaign.
As I write this, stories are filtering through my Twitter and RSS feeds about a new “Purple Book” to be published this autumn by the Blairite right, hoping (like the Liberal Democrat “Orange Book”) to reposition Labour’s public policy agenda. This will presumably in a large part focus on economic competence, and changes to how Labour ought to view its “Statism”.
This led me to think back to the events and debates from earlier in the month about what Labour needs to be doing in opposition in policy terms. Specifically around the economy, around the anti cuts movement and how – if at all – we can reconcile these two positions.
It absolutely goes without saying that unless Labour can establish a credible view of the economy at the next election, our entire “other” policy platform won’t matter. Whatever else we take from the 1992 defeat we must surely realise that it is crucial for us find a narrative around the economy that will chime with non-traditional voters. It might be unpalatable for those of us on the left, but the facts of the matter are beyond dispute. We need some swing voters in the South to vote Labour or we will have a long, long time to argue ideological purity tests whilst in opposition.
But that doesn’t mean that the Labour Party shouldn’t be active within the broad anti-cuts movement. I have some serious concerns about this conclusion. Economic competence is very important for us to regain power, but it is far from the only ingredient. To make a cooking analogy – being a successful opposition culminating in winning an election is more of a complicated and nuanced curry with a huge number of different ingredients than a simple meat and two veg.
When we won such a massive landslide in 97 it wasn’t just because the public had come to trust that Labour could steward the economy, it was also because our message of hope about better public services chimed with the public. It was also because we had an enthusiastic, motivated and large activist base with a huge number of people believing (from a diverse range of political positions) that the Labour Party stood for them and their beliefs. I remember as a teenager being full of hope and optimism about what a Labour government would achieve in office and like thousands of other idealistic youngsters I busted a gut to make that happen.
Whilst it is easy to be on the side of the angels in opposition, it is rather harder in government. Between 1997 and 2010 Labour were all too often on the wrong side of the argument on the epoch defining moments for young people entering politics, finding their feet and deciding on party affiliation.
Whatever the actual rights and wrongs of the arguments on the issues, a whole generation of new progressive activists will have largely defined their politics against what Labour was doing in office. Be it university tuition fees, ID cards and civil liberties or the absolute big one, Iraq, vast numbers of young people who should have been Labour supporters were put off by our positions on what they saw as the defining issues.
Labour can’t afford to be on the wrong side of history for what will be the defining issue in politics for young people over the next five years. And the truth is this will be anti-cuts, not economic competence. We need to engage, and chime with the vast number of young people being politicised for the first time as a result of anti-cuts campaigning. It will cause irreparable damage to the future of the party – at a time when voting behaviour is fragmenting – if all these people come to see Labour as the enemy and no different to the Tories. We need to win the arguments on credibility, but we need to have an activist and supporter base capable of delivering that argument.
So how can we ride these two different and in some ways contradictory tigers? It is probably a massive cop out from me to say that I don’t have the answer. But what I shall point out is that for me the genius of the New Labour project was not in the narrow ideological faction it had become toward the end of our time in government. Its great success’s were not us limping back into government in 2005, or losing in 2010.
It was the pragmatic, optimistic grand coalition that captured the popular mood and won two landslides in a row. It was the ability of Tony Blair to be both radical and modernising but at the same time deliver things that made the lefties cheer and believe that this was also our government, like the minimum wage and signing the social chapter.
Perhaps the “Purple Book” will restate such a vision of New Labour, though I suspect not. Our path to victory is not one of factionalism, of “either/or” but of balancing the various difficult and sometimes contradictory things we need to do to win. Politics is always shades of gray and never black or white. The question before us isn’t do we go for economic credibility or anti-cuts? The question is how can we do both.