Before Christmas, I wrote about Labour’s ‘pretty bad year’. It argued that society has changed,the party had failed to respond to this and had become narrower, and the leadership has struggled to make an impact in 2011. In other words, it was fairly bleeding obvious stuff. Apparently not. A Labour insider took it upon himself to defend the party’s honour. It kind of proved my point about Labour valuing ‘loyalty’ above wisdom. But sometimes robust yet constructive criticism is the more ‘loyal’ course.
Despite my place in the vanguard of a new Militant-style entryist movement proselytising political realism and self-honesty, I’m going to stick with the analysis and plough on. I’m afraid a steady-as-she goes strategy as advocated by another commentator is in all probability inadequate to the task. The question is where should the party go next?
I propose three responses to the current predicament – re-emphasised by an ICM poll released, rather bizarrely, on Christmas day showing almost double trust Cameron/Osborne on the economy compared with Miliband/Balls. Labour needs to adopt a more humble posture; stop asking people to choose between their heads and their hearts; and fundamentally reform the party to show it is capable of embracing change.
The coalition has done some pretty darn stupid things on the economy: cutting short-term programmes such as the Future Jobs Fund or investment programmes such as Building Schools for the Future spring to mind. The VAT increase could have been delayed while the economic winds were tested a bit further. Some things were out of their control: oil price rises and the eurozone crisis which is beginning to feed through. Without higher growth, eliminating the deficit is hard.
Labour’s response to economic turbulence and the coalition’s economic difficulties has been: ‘we are right, they are wrong’. Quite apart from the grating and triumphalist nature of this narrative it is also open to some question. The simple fact is that there is no easy way out of this crisis. Labour’s approach would probably have done more to support growth and jobs in the short-term at least. That is not the same thing as eliminating the deficit as some pretend: it would have had to borrow more to fund it and the sustainability of that is limited.
Yet, we have started pretending that there is an alternative universe where the Darling plan was implemented and nothing else changed in the last eighteen months in economic terms. We know that’s not true – Labour would also have faced the same external factors. And it is probable that Labour’s plan would have exposed UK debt financing to greater risk and may have had to adjust as a consequence. Acknowledging all this is part of the necessary humility in 2012.
Short-term and time-limited stimulus, as investment-weighted as is possible, can still be pursued as a short-term option as this will not add to the current structural deficit over time. Beyond that, Labour now has to either accept the Coalition’s overall deficit reduction plan or outline in detail where it differs from it and how that is financed. The ‘in the black Labour’ approach would look to shift as many resources to productive investment as possible while closing the deficit. Whatever the direction, this is most important strategic shift that has to occur throughout the party in 2012.
Without this more humble approach, Labour is likely to be asking people to choose between their hearts and their heads. People want a different economic approach but their head says that continuing very high levels of borrowing is too risky. They want to hear a clear voice of condemnation when people terrorise our streets and not hear it suffixed with ‘understanding’ and ‘complexity’. They can’t understand why those on out-of-work benefits – excluding the disabled and the retired – get a pay rise more than the average worker. When they turn to Labour, they want to hear a credible and clear line. Too often they experience a haze. This is not just about communication; it’s also about the party getting its heart beating in sync with the expectations of the majority. We can not afford to even skip a beat – such is the short attention span that people have for Her Majesty’s Opposition.
Which leads nicely to the third critical response: the party has to change itself to demonstrate that it is capable of meeting the needs of the time. The nepotistic guild has to be cracked open. We should reward capability and contribution over blind loyalty. Refounding Labour was a failure; it was micro and bureaucratic. We have a party that was most recently updated almost two decades ago. We now live in a world of social media, audience participation, and online democracy. The centralised machine is the poorest possible fit for these times.
The most recent leadership election should be the last with a block vote for MP/MEPs and trade unions. Instead, those two blocks should be able to nominate up to three candidates each (with a threshold). The final vote will be split 50-50 between members and trade unionists/supporters. The latter will enlist through a simple but clear declaration of support (as trade unionists currently do to vote).
This new trade unionist/supporters section will also have a local constituency affiliation. Candidates would have to fulfil clear and objective criteria to enter a parliamentary selection process (a trot filter!). The local party general committee would nominate no more than six candidates for a short-list that would then be voted on by members and trade unionist/supporters. Selections would be published six months in advance, expenditure would be strictly limited, and sitting MPs would have to refight in this closed primary process after two terms served in Parliament.
Finally, the party would use new easy-to-use web consultation software to help it in policy development. Its policy documents would be placed online in an easy to comment format for a six month consultation period. Following this period, the responses would be summarised and responded to in a reflective manner by the relevant shadow minister. Where suggestions are adopted it would be signalled. This would open the party out to experts, members, NGOs and unions etc, and campaigns. It would generate new ideas, broaden the dialogue, and re-connect the party in key areas of particular interest.
So there it is for 2012: a more humble approach; desist from forcing people to choose between their head and their hearts; and demonstrate that Labour is capable of changing for these times. The result will be a more sophisticated, more open, and more rooted party.
It will form a basis of more credible leadership and start to shift the discussion onto the real battle in the next election: Labour’s vision for an economy, society, and democracy which offers long-term opportunity for all or the Conservatives vision of a market-society which wastes human potential ruthlessly and needlessly. And it will set Ed Miliband’s leadership on an upward path. Happy new year.