Thursday, June 18, 2015

What is Labour for?

Once upon a time, the answer to this question was pretty obvious: Labour was the party of the working class - 'labour'. It was the political arm of the trade union movement. But somewhere along the line this original rationale disappeared, to be replaced by a party that had to pitch its appeal beyond the manual working class to the emerging middle classes. So far so good, this is all well understood and reflected in the history of the party from Harold Wilson to Tony Blair. But since Tony Blair something has changed, if the tone of the current leadership debate is anything to go by. Even Tony Blair, for all the abuse hurled at him by people on the left, did have a broad plan of how he wanted society to look. And of course Ed Miliband was groping towards one too. But the current leadership contenders do not have any kind of vision at all. Indeed, to listen to Liz Kendall you get the impression that she is making a pitch to manage a village hall. There is no sense of social transformation - instead politics is about efficient management of the existing system, ironing out the most obvious and visible problems with obvious and inoffensive solutions.

Yet there was never a greater need for vision. Inequality is eating away at the fabric of our society, as the appalling tone of the debate about our already measly welfare budget shows. And the main reason for this is that the broad set of arrangements we currently live under allow holders of capital to do pretty much whatever they like with minimal responsibility to society as a whole. As a result, people feel uncertain and vulnerable, because they are. Yet Labour's answer is to deal with some of the symptoms of this malaise in ways which for the most part will make no difference.

It is easy to understand the current vogue for managerialism because it is the safest and least costly way of trying to make a political pitch these days. Yesterday I attended an interesting meeting of Policy Network about participatory democracy as a response to growing populism. The whole tone of the discussion was localist and focused on specific, discrete problems - managing council estates, giving local people the chance to offer feedback on health services, and so on. All very laudable and valuable. But none of this comes close to addressing the fundamental problems in people's lives: job insecurity, low incomes for many, unaffordable housing, expensive and polluting transport arrangements. These problems - as indeed with immigration, if you think that is a problem (I don't) - actually require Labour to take on the vested interests of a relatively small number of very rich people. But because taking on rich and powerful people is really hard and politically fraught with risk, we don't even try. Instead we leave things much as they are and tinker around the edges with 'citizens assemblies' which may be a good idea but will do almost nothing to address the basic inequalities of power and economic opportunity that wreck people's lives.

In short, Labour is now a cut-price, low quality, political party. An Argos party. It's cheap, and you will probably have to throw it out not long after you bought it. Can we really not do better than this?

PS. Sorry for the plaintive, depressing tone, but if you're on the left, how can you sound upbeat right now?