There’s a problem with Labour’s message. No one knows what it is. We ourselves aren’t too clear what we’re about or what our party stands for.
It used to be simple and clear: Labour was there to use the power of the state, the community in action, to advance the cause of the people, to improve their lot and to shape a better, fairer, more equal society. Our weapons for doing this were the old Labour basics: public service, public spending and the development of the public sector, effective regulation to check the abuses and failures of the private and Keynesian economic management to ensure full employment with growth and betterment. We advanced the people by public spending to redistribute and provide the benefits and services wealth provides for its holders and by progressive taxation to advance equality. We used the power of the state (the community in action) to protect the people from the excesses and failures of the free market and to build a powerful productive base to underpin the expenditures and full employment a fair society requires.
Such are Labour’s basic imperatives. Most of them were part of the instincts and outlook of our members and shared with our partners, the trade unions: society’s great, indeed only, countervailing force, checking the forces of wealth, business and capital on the other side. We advanced all of them in government.
Sadly we took all this for granted. We never bothered to educate ourselves, our members or the nation at large in the importance and interdependence of these basics. Indeed we grew silent, even became ashamed, about some and failed to assert and defend them against the daily deluge of free market, anti-state propaganda which poured out from the media. As a result New Labour in its efforts to prove respectable and win over the doubting middle-classes, consigned most Labour basics to the attic and disassociated itself from such nasty phenomena as socialism, high public spending and trade unions. Worse, it endorsed and maintained much of Thatcherism, such as lower taxation, privatisation, outsourcing and ‘incentives’.
New Labour did advance many fine developments, often covertly, but it forgot party basics and drove in the thin end of what later became big Tory wedges, which increased public bemusement. What did Labour stand for? How were we different from the Tories when we continued so many of their policies? People weren’t really clear until after 2010 as they began to feel the consequences of the change of government. As the Scots preacher told his congregation when an earthquake engulfed them with the pains of hell he’d long prophesised, “Ye Ken the noo”. Now we do and the whole nation is beginning to see Osborne’s free market follies and neo-liberal obsessions as vicious and economically disastrous. Labour’s basics are no longer sectional policies but the policies essential for one nation in the new class war of the people versus the plutocracy.
It’s time now not for untested new ideas but for a return to basics. That means pointing out that PFIs are more expensive and less efficient than public provision, that outsourcing may increase the number of new jobs created by transferring functions to the private sector but is really an opportunity for companies to make big profits out of work better done by the public sector and do so by firing people, paying lower wages, and reducing standards. Indeed as the experience of A4e, G4S and all the other companies created to leach on the state show, privatisation of public functions opens the way to abuses and failures. The railways require more subsidies than the unified service from British Rail. The recession hit hard because the banks were allowed to take irresponsible risks and gamble customers’ money with disastrous results because Britain had no effective framework of regulation. Capitalism remains nasty, brutish and short term, greedy for profits by any means available and ever ready to exploit the people and leach on the state given the opportunity. It’s neither accountable nor controllable.
The only defence is for Labour to return to basics. This time, however, we must assert and believe in them. That means devoting the same attention to educating and informing party members as the Scandinavian socialist parties do with their schools, camps and ideological briefings, where we only feed them on a diet of petty debating points. It means giving members, and the public, influence over party policy and ensuring that leaders and ministers (shadow or substantial) listen to members and to the people rather than fob them off with propaganda and a policy forum dominated by the leadership. It means staying close to real people rather than the focus groups.
Above all it means recognising that the free market can fail and always boosts inequality. It must be effectively regulated and a mixed economy, managed for growth, remains the best way of advancing the cause of the people and distributing wealth and power downwards where recession and deflation increase the power of wealth but crush the people. It’s not difficult. Those are now the policies of one nation rebuilding its national strength. Rather than clutching at every passing fashion or compromising our principles we should assert them with confidence in ourselves, our allies the unions, and in the nation which now needs them. It’s still a class war but the people versus the plutocracy is one we can win.