The future of the left since 1884

Labour must be more ideological to win the next election

The Fabian Society's new project ‘Labour’s Next Majority’ - introduced in the recent Fabian Review - is to be applauded.  The importance of a Labour Government being returned soon is beyond dispute as the current government looks and is divided, incompetent...



The Fabian Society’s new project ‘Labour’s Next Majority’ – introduced in the recent Fabian Review – is to be applauded.  The importance of a Labour Government being returned soon is beyond dispute as the current government looks and is divided, incompetent and in error in its economic and social policy programme.  Therefore, to debate the future of the Labour Party is a necessity.

This is why Roy Hattersley and Kevin Hickson, one of the current authors, chose to write an article ‘In Praise of Social Democracy’ last year, an article which has certainly generated much controversy.  There have been two broad responses to the article from its critics.

The first – the Blue Labour response – is to argue that the case for social democracy (or democratic socialism) is neither ‘social’ nor ‘democratic’.  The point was first made by Lord (Maurice) Glasman and was repeated by Marc Stears in direct response to the article in The Political Quarterly.  They argue that such an approach neglects the importance of community and, of relevance to this piece, that it neglects the role of democracy.  They argue that democracy is best understood as individuals engaged in their local communities in which they have a direct say in how those communities are run.

Although civic engagement at the local level is to be encouraged, Blue Labour was strangely silent on macro politics – on the role of the democratic state.  It failed to comprehend that it is at the national and international level where power is concentrated.  In order to fulfil the traditional socialist objective of taking on vested interests and concentrated power in the private sector and redistributing it to the majority it is necessary to harness the power of the democratic state.  It is because democratic socialists recognise the importance of democratising macro politics that our view is still of relevance and why Blue Labour appears as a novel but temporary phenomena in the political thought of the Labour Party.

What is therefore a more significant obstacle to the achievement of democratic socialism is the remaining influence of New Labour, through Progress and its publication The Purple Book.  Those who subscribe to this view hold that New Labour triumphed in 1997 because it had scientifically worked out where the median voter is located (what has variously been described as Middle England, Mondeo Man and Worcester woman) through focus groups and extensive opinion polling and formulating policies in response to their findings.  Any deviation from New Labour’s successful strategy of 1997 is electoral suicide.  This was the thrust of David Miliband’s response to Hattersley and Hickson in the New Statesman and was also the motivation for Tessa Jowell’s contribution to the recent Fabian Review when she says:

“the first lesson we can learn from that work pre-1997 is that the policies we peg on the washing line must be the result of detailed and dedicated research and analysis; using focus groups, consulting with external organisations, and a process of constant testing and refining of the offer.”

Such a stance is deeply fatalistic.  It assumes that there is a trade-off between power and principles.  We should not be overtly ideological because we cannot win on our principles.  The centre-ground is static and conservative, unlikely to be won over by such ideological argument.

Not only is it fatalistic, it is also wrong.  The best, if not the only way for Labour to win the next election is by being ideological.  This struck us again when we read the ‘In the black Labour’ Policy Network discussion paper by Graeme Cooke, Adam Lent, Anthony Painter and Hopi Sen in which they argue that the current Labour leadership needs to embrace the cuts agenda if it is to make itself credible with the electorate.  Nobody is in favour of irresponsible public spending but what is quite clear is that the savage cuts being carried out by the coalition government are not only socially unjust but also economically catastrophic.  The double dip recession means lower tax revenue and wasteful spending on unemployment benefits.  Growth is a prerequisite for deficit reduction.  The failure to offer an alternative to the cuts agenda is not only wrong policy but wrong electorally.

This exposes a deeper flaw in the New Labour electoral strategy.  The centre ground is not a fixed ideological position.  It can be, and indeed has, moved.  Four in every five voters think that the coalition fails to understand what it is like for ordinary families.  Voters are angry, rightly, at the excesses at the top, the feeling that those who caused the recession are not the same as those who are suffering because of it.  There is a clear need for an alternative.  New Labour lost five million votes between 1997 and 2010, four million under Blair and most of those between 1997 and 2001, hence pre-Iraq.

If voters do not feel that Labour will be significantly different from the coalition why would they vote for it at the next election?  Labour needs to set out with confidence a radical alternative, not only to the coalition but also to New Labour in the belief that the voters will be attracted to the newfound radicalism in the Labour Party.

This is the historic objective of democratic socialists.  Lacking in the historical certainties of Marxist laws of history, which confidently predicted the inevitable triumph of communism; democratic socialists must seek to persuade people that their ideology offers a brighter future than capitalism.  Modern day social democrats must seek to persuade the electorate that it offers something better than neo-liberalism.  In order to do so it must have the confidence in its own ideology.

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