progress is not the elimination of struggle, but rather a change in its terms’ - Aneurin Bevan

who's interested?

or, Another blogpost on the never-ending Labour leadership contest
or even, What's wrong with "Why the Right is Wrong"?

The Fabian Society has asked each of the five Labour leadership candidates to write a short essay on ideology, published in alphabetical order. In this post, I criticise the emphasis on ideas rather than material interests, offering my own answer to the main question:
How important is it that Labour has a distinctive ideological approach? All five of the leadership candidates have talked about the importance of Labour being a political movement that is rooted in values, and of Labour’s core belief in a fairer and more equal society. Yet much of the conventional wisdom of the last two decades has been that ideological commitments can weigh political parties down. Tony Blair and David Cameron’s political success is often attributed to their desire to ‘travel light’ in ideological terms, giving them the flexibility to reach out beyond their party’s natural support. As leader of the Labour Party how would you combine your values and beliefs with the party’s need for electoral success?
What unites Labour as a party and a movement is not simply that people aspire to social justice as an idea, but that they recognise their interests are served through collective action. Our membership cards proudly proclaim "By the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more together than we do alone.". Yes, this is an idea - but it is one that emerges from the shared interest of working people in democratic change.

The Tories cannot profess conservatism as a set of values - their party exists to conserve wealth and power in the hands of the few. But because that's not an easy product to sell to voters, conservatism is presented as a common-sense approach rather than a philosophical tradition with roots in established elites of wealth and power. The Tories do not have an intrinsic need for organisation and debate: electoral politics is much easier when a few men Lord Ashcroft can raise millions. Governing feels natural for the Tories: their obstacles, like that of the ruling class, are those movements which organise from below.

Labour, because it is a democratic socialist party, does not have a difficulty being honest about its aims - it has always been a party seeking to represent the interests of the many. It was established by trade unionists seeking to give working people political representation at a time when ordinary people lacked many of the democratic rights and public services that we now benefit from.

Labour has not been a natural party of government - it has been in office, but not truly in power. The constraints of capitalist rule limit the adoption and implementation of policies which would meet the aspirations of ordinary people. This barrier can be overcome - and has been in the past - through strength of organisation and unity of purpose on the part of our movement.

The use of spatial metaphors like left and right, and talk of competing ideologies, does not help our understanding of politics. And we must not fall into the trap of believing the interests of people on modest and middle incomes can be divided - both in terms of policy and electoral strategy.

Happy talk
Modernisation of the Labour Party in recent decades involved equiping the organisation with the capacity to get its message across through what were centralised broadcast media such as newspapers and television. This eventually led to what I would call "trickle-down politics": such as abandoning a constitutional commitment (to tackle inequalities in ownership) in the hope of getting a fair hearing in certain sections of the press. Thankfully, technological advances have led to decentralised social media in which those accessing content are able to interact more immediately than before with content-creators and with each other. This has allowed the party to organise and mobilise support against adverse conditions, such as during the 2010 elections.

Labour then, is in a difficult position. It was tolerated by the ruling class, which did not treat the New Labour project in the same manner as "old" Labour governments, and whose members at one time contributed a large ammount of the party's funds - but they would be threatened by any turn towards again becoming a movement rather than a machine. And so there is a difficulty in describing the content of democratic socialism. Perhaps it was always like this, I don't know. At present, it stems partly from the ideology of non-ideology that pervaded the New Labour project - but also the misunderstanding of what this project was about by its critics within the party.

An unlikely Mili-bandit
Diane Abbott, in the first essay, starts with a quote from Ralph Miliband, the late father of David and Ed. She writes that "ideology invariably sets Labour on course for collision with the most powerful vested interests in society. So the cry for an ideology-free Labour Party is also a plea for a quiet life." She describes the change to Clause Four in the mid-nineties in terms of Labour becoming enthralled by the ideology of free markets. But this puts the cart before the horse - Labour could have won the 1997 general election without changing this, but would probably have faced the same hostility from those with economic power as previous Labour governments.

Similarly with the two-to-one vote in favour of rail renationalisation at the 2004 conference, Abbott mistakes the rejection of this policy by the Labour leadership as an example of ideological commitment to deregulation and privatisation in the face of public support for public ownership. Rather, it was a response based on a lack of political will to challenge vested interests, especially since an alternative ownership structure was not readily apparent to policymakers at the time.

Abbott notes the importance of co-operativism, declaring that the "mutual model is also a framework for collective action which is worth re-discovering." And since 2004, the People's Rail campaign has called for Network Rail to have open membership, a move that would allow passengers and staff to push for change. It is only by building a movement in favour of democratic change that reforms to improve public transport can be implemented.

Balls of steel
Ed Balls comes remarkably close to Abbott's critique, and that perhaps explains the character attacks by the Tory press. He attributes this years general election defeat to a failure to "persuade people we were on their side". Putting decisions into context, Balls concedes that "in the face of business lobbying, the failure to respond to concerns from trade unions and implement the agency workers directive or properly apply the posted workers directive [...] left lower paid workers vulnerable to unfair competition." As the only Co-operative Party MP in the leadership race, he talks of "our Labour and cooperative roots" and learning from Labour councils that are promoting co-operative and mutual enterprises as a way of saving jobs and services from Tory cuts.

Balls' strength is his ability to combine passionate opposition to the Tories with reasoned economic analysis, both of past global recessions and current priorities: "Outside the Eurozone and with low long-term interest rates, Britain faces no difficulty servicing its debts, and the main worry in financial markets is not in bonds but equities, as fears of a double-dip recession grow."

Where Balls fails is on the source of Tory enmity towards collective action and public service, and on from who it is that Labour must gain credibility from. Savage spending cuts to those on modest and middle incomes have not been viewed as dangerous economic policies by corporate and financial elites - precisely because it is obvious they will not be paying the price.

Balls' has campaigned against the Tories, and put forward a credible alternative to their Age of Austerity. Crucially, he has also developed a critique of the neo-liberal model of economic development (this tends to be mediated as "cuts vs. investment") that should serve him well when he campaigns to become Shadow Chancellor.

Aspirational Andy
Having gone from styling himself as a "continuity candidate" to being a plain-speaking underdog, Andy Burnham's essay makes the link between experience and ideas without getting abstract. Turning up at party meetings before he was old enough to join, Burnham says he was driven by his experience: "Around me I could see the effect of Thatcher’s Britain: from the fathers of classmates standing on the picket line at the local colliery to my own father having to travel to Germany and Ireland for work. Even in my early teens, I knew this wasn’t right."

Though he is passionate about the positive changes that achieved in office, he concedes that "Labour didn’t do enough to differentiate itself, to show that we were on the side of ordinary people. Instead we seemed dazzled by power, glamour and big business." This is a similar criticism made by both Abbott and Balls, but exactly why this happened is not made clear.

In place of a pragmatism about bowing to the interests and ideas of elites, Burnham has an -ism of his own: aspirational socialism. "It’s about levelling up." This concept should be reflected in policy, he says, with the National Care Service he championed as health minister, and National Credit Union that works via the Post Office and with local credit unions to widen access to banking services.

Burnham is an outsider in this race, and some of the less charitable commentators under-estimated the depth of thought he would bring to the campaign. Though not likely to be the next leader of the Party, he has the emotional intelligence and theoretical understanding to play a leading role in Labour's future.

Miliband the radical moderate
David Miliband has been the front-runner from the start; he needs no introduction. In his essay, he asks us to remember "the essentially ethical basis of our Labour politics" yet also references an essay by R. H. Tawney on the 1931 election defeat which reflects on the absence of a Labour creed. Could it be that our values are not coherent - and if not, why not?

What is interesting is the conclusion which Tawney himself reached: it was not merely the lack of a cause which led to Labour's defeat, says Tawney, but the failure of Labour's leaders to challenge capitalist control:

"In the sphere of international, as of domestic, policy, the attempt to give a social bias to capitalism, while leaving it master of the house, appears to have failed. If capitalism is to be our future, then capitalists, who believe in it, are most likely to make it work, though at the moment they seem to have some difficulty in doing so. The Labour Party would serve the world best, not by doing half-heartedly what they do with conviction, but by clarifying its own principles, and acting in accordance with them." (Tawney, "The Choice Before Labour")

David Miliband expresses regret that "New Labour changed the direction of travel from the Conservative years but did not change the motor, which remained the financial services sector." To do this, however, would have been to directly challenge the power and wealth of the capitalist class. Miliband appears ignorant of this fact - and what's worse he seems to ignore the basis on which investment decisions are made by capitalists: "The truth is that outside the south east and the London magnet, there was not enough capitalism. The banks received our money in the bail out but have not re-invested it in our country." And the reason for this is undoubtedly because in their view, it is more profitable to invest overseas - perhaps in countries with lower wages and fewer employment protections to impede profit-maximisation.

If David understands all of this, he is certainly not saying it out loud. Which is understandable.

Miliband the moderate radical
Ed Miliband used the online publication of his essay to issue an electoral analysis of Labour's loss of support since 1997. This has proved controversial, with claim and counter-claim about Labour's electoral strategy in future. The backing from a number of Labour's trade union affiliates and the moderately radical critique of New Labour have led to claims that Ed is a Bennite, something he denies. His electoral analysis is worth quoting at length:
Between 1997 and 2010, for every one voter that Labour lost from the professional classes (so called ‘ABs’), we lost three voters among the poorest, those on benefits and the low paid (DEs). You really don’t need to be a Bennite to believe that this represents a crisis of working-class representation for Labour – and our electability.

Add in skilled manual workers, and the differential goes to six to one. Almost all the new Tory voters came from these social groups. Put it at its starkest, if we had enjoyed a 1997 result in 2010 just among DEs, then on a uniform swing we would have won at least 40 more seats and would still be the largest party in parliament. Seats like Stroud, Hastings & Rye, and Corby would have stayed Labour. The core Labour vote that some thought could be taken for granted became the swing vote that went Conservative.
We also need to understand that the danger of people switching from our party to others has been joined by the danger of people simply drifting out of voting – and disproportionately among our supporters. The gap between turnout among ABs and DEs grew from 13 to 19 points between 1997 and 2010.
The policy prescriptions Ed Miliband details include developing an active industrial policy, campaigning for a living wage, and advocating a graduate tax in place of university tuition fees. His argument is against the New Labour tradition, but there's no grasp of the forces outside of the party which he would be up against as leader.

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