Saturday, May 23, 2015

Dark Politics

What metaphor shall we use for the travails of the British Labour Party? As the drama of the General Election abates, the Labour Party hastens to elect a new "leader". Each candidate leader sets out a position, initially intended to attract the members (and possibly the financial backers) of the Labour Party, and subsequently to attract votes in a future General Election.

The word "attract" suggests a metaphor taken from school physics lessons. As if the electorate were pulled this way and that by a series of powerful magnets, and by the magnetic personality of the right person.

More advanced physics yields some more sophisticated metaphors. I recently had this exchange on Twitter.

The "dark matter" theory leads to the idea that the Labour Party needs to identify and attract people who didn't vote for it in this election. This becomes a marketing exercise, based on a segmentation of the population. The candidate leaders fall over one another to suggest that the party has neglected particular segments of the population - the "moderate" voter or the "aspirational" voter, the socially-conservative working-class voter or the more liberally-minded middle-class voter - and to demand repositioning the party to appeal to this segment in future.

The "dark energy" theory leads to the idea that parties of the Left are always frustrated by hidden forces - the baleful influence of the City or Media - which divert the opinions and votes of people who rightfully ought to vote Labour. When she was growing up in a working-class household, @suzanne_moore diagnosed her mother with 'false consciousness'.
"This is still how most of the left operates. We have the truth, we know what is best and we will enlighten you, awaken you from your slumbers and you will be grateful."

Meanwhile, Martin Kettle points out that the search for understanding requires us to look at what was attractive about the Tories, not just what was unattractive about Labour.
"On the left, Tory motives and values are often stereotyped (as Labour motives and values are, of course, caricatured on the right) in ways that make people on the left feel good about themselves. The Tories in this view are variously greedy, mean, destructive, selfish, uncaring, small-minded, racist, nationalistic and more. But what if the motives and values that Tory voters see are less extreme – things like competent, reliable, realistic, prudent, generous, tolerant, decent or patriotic? None of those qualities is in itself in any way objectionable. It would be reasonable to vote for a party that you thought had such qualities – and I suspect lots of people did on 7 May."

The "New Labour" project under Tony Blair simultaneously tackled both parts of the matter/energy equation - appeasing Rupert Murdoch and the City, distancing the party from its traditional working class base (especially the Trade Unions) and appealing to the middle classes. This strategy was highly effective in electoral terms, while it lasted, but it was a Faustian pact. Some traditional Labour supporters believe that the Blair-Brown government permitted itself to be influenced by dark forces of various kinds: it extended the promotion of market forces into public services (especially healthcare), it participated enthusiastically in the disastrous intervention in the Middle East, and failed to prevent the systematic trashing of traditional capitalism by a handful of merchant banks. It introduced tuition fees for university students, and created or extended business-friendly initiatives such as the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and Academy Schools programme, which were continued by the Cameron-Clegg coalition government. Between 2010 and 2015, the Labour Party was fairly constrained in its criticism of the coalition government, perhaps because it was easy to imagine a neo-Blairite government doing much the same kind of stuff. Indeed, that has been one of the main complaints of the right-wing of the Conservative Party, especially under threat from UKIP.

In the 1990s, Blair was regarded as a "modernizer"; the word is now used as a coded way of referring to Blairite candidates for the leadership, especially Liz Kendall, and implies a rejection of some out-dated notions of socialism and/or syndicalism (in other words, the baleful influence of the Trades Unions).

The trouble with modernization is that it is a management agenda, not a leadership one. All of the clean-cut and articulate Oxbridge graduates who are now competing for the Labour leadership would probably make a decent job of management, even though none of them appears to have much experience outside politics. But the debate is along familiar lines - Old Labour, New Labour, Borrowed Labour, Blue Labour. True leadership would entail creating a new narrative, not merely rehashing the familiar debate.

Not for the first time, the Labour Party now faces an existential crisis. Historian Selina Todd suggests that Labour could be reborn in a different guise and with a different purpose. Meanwhile radical Conservative thinkers (Steve Hilton) see an opportunity to seize the moral high-ground on social justice. Maybe there is some more drama still to unfold.

Update: Yes, plenty more drama. See Wikipedia: Labour Party (UK) leadership election, 2015

Daniel Boffey, Can David Cameron make Tories the new party of social justice? (Observer 24 May 2015)

Alain C. Enthoven, Introducing Market Forces into Health Care: A Tale of Two Countries (Nuffield Trust, June 2002)

Martin Kettle, It’s vital to know why Labour lost – yet more so to know why the Tories won (Guardian 14 May 2015)

Suzanne Moore, Working-class Tories are not just turkeys voting for Christmas (Guardian 14 May 2015)

Clive Peedell, The Politics of NHS Market Reforms (8 January 2012)

Allyson Pollock, A gauntlet for Brown (Guardian 11 April 2007)

Selina Todd, Has the Labour party outlived its usefulness? (Guardian 24 May 2015)

Wikipedia: Academy (English school), Private Finance Initiative (PFI), Tuition fees in the UK

Updated 25 November 2018

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