Labour need more signposts, not weathervanes

As the next general election looms, the slow drip-feed of policy promises from Ed Miliband and other senior Labour figures has started. We’ll build more houses each year, freeze energy bills and keep corporation tax rates down. That’s great, I’m sure. But it tells me, and everyone else, nothing at all about what a Labour government would stand for. And that both worries and infuriates me.

Clearly inspired by focus groups and designed to hoover up a few votes here and a demographic group there, this approach of bombarding us with what even party policy chief Jon Cruddas has termed ‘cynical nuggets of policy’ is insulting to voters and alienating to Labour supporters. It is wrong. And we need to do better.

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Tony Benn used to categorise politicians as either ‘signposts’ or ‘weathervanes’. Signposts indicate the way ahead, resolute and unchanging in the face of criticism or challenge. Weathervanes spin on their axis, responding swiftly and unthinkingly to changes in the prevailing wind.

In challenging political and economic times such as those that we now face, we need more signposts. We need leaders who have a vision for our society and for our place in the world. But all the party is able to offer is weathervanes, struggling desperately for a positive headline or a fleeting bump in the polls. We’re so afraid of saying something that will offend someone, that we’re not saying anything at all.

What we need is big ideas, not small ones. We need something that explains what makes us tick. Call it an ideology, if you will. Hell, write it all down in a little red book if you have to (although I suspect that may be unwise). All I ask, if that when people ask me ‘So, what’s the Labour party all about?’, I can offer them something more than a vacuous soundbite.

So what’s the problem here? Well, firstly, we seem to assume that voters are unable to think for themselves. It’s as if we think that the electorate need everything to be broken down into easily-digestible, bite-sized chunks. This view is both insulting and incorrect. As fans of the West Wing will already know, not every question has a ten word answer. We live in a complex world. And complex problems usually require complex solutions. People recognise this and respect those who are able to engage in a nuanced discussion of the issues involved. To pretend otherwise is just plain stupid.

Secondly, we’re terrified of being labelled as reformers or – even worse – as radicals. It’s as if the Labour leadership think that to try something new is to admit defeat and to stomp roughshod across the legacy of Labour governments past. But when we’re dealing with problems – whether it’s urban decay, the rising cost of healthcare or conflict in the Middle East – that have been simmering for decades with no resolution in sight, surely new ideas are exactly what we need?

And thirdly, we don’t seem happy any more even to admit to being on the ‘left’ of the political spectrum. It’s as if social justice, caring for others and putting people before profit have suddenly gone out of fashion. Well, they’ve not. But we fall time and time again into the trap of arguing about the details of the deficit, youth unemployment or the role of private providers in the NHS, when we should be lifting our gaze to the bigger picture.

If it continues on its present course, the Labour party risks becoming the Tory-lite, non-alternative to the coalition government. This does a grave disservice to all those who work tirelessly on behalf of the party, to all those who support its aims, and to all those who seek an alternative to the Conservatives – who are dismantling of the society that we have worked hard to build.

As a party, we need to be signposts, not weathervanes. We need to have the courage to stand up and announce, proudly, what we believe in and how we would like the world to be. Sure, some people will disagree with us. That’s fine. They can vote for someone else. But others will rally to the cause. And, at the very least, it will allow us to launch into this general election campaign with our heads held high, knowing that we offer a clear vision and a true alternative for the future.

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