The left loves its abstract nouns. So, as Labour ponders what it needs to do to come back from its disastrous showing in last month’s general election, I have three more abstract nouns for its members to contemplate: radicalism, pluralism and competence.
Abstract nouns may be how many political activists like me think about things, but they can be dangerous. They are not good for communicating ideas to the public at large, and they are often used to paper over tricky choices. It is important when thinking through these ideas that we move onto more concrete territory about what actually needs to be done. We don’t want to just invent some more abstract phrases which over-promise and under-deliver: “progressive patriotism” anybody?
So let’s start with radicalism. Leftist politicians talk far too much about it as if it was self-evidently a good thing. We are interested in politics because we want to change things; we have a low opinion of most current public institutions; we see unfairness and injustice everywhere. So it seems natural to advocate radical change. But radicalism has a dark side: it means change and change means insecurity. It also invites scepticism. Many people are fed up with politicians promising to change everything, and then either not delivering, or delivering things that make things worse. And these attitudes prevail amongst the voters that Labour lost to the Conservatives (or so I believe). Telling them that you are going to shake everything up with transformative change for a fairer society cuts little ice. Labour politicians need to tone it down, and present a more reassuring face to the public.
A lot of this is purely about presentation. Brexit is a radical policy after all, but retains a strong appeal amongst conservative voters. That is because it is being presented as a step backwards, to undo the unwanted radicalism that has been inflicted over the last generation. It was a critical step in the Leave campaign in 2016 to include the word “back” in their slogan “Take back control”. A lot of Labour’s radical policies can be re-presented in this way. Nationalisation of the railways, and perhaps other utilities, can be seen as going back to a time before these services were messed up. Whether people will be convinced that a return to secondary picketing and collective wage bargaining as a positive is open to question, but they are certainly steps backwards. The abolition of student fees is easier, even though the scale of the fiscal cost is much greater than in the gold old days. Indeed it is a valid line of criticism of Labour’s policy platform that it owes more to nostalgia than genuinely radical thinking.
But a bit of slick re-presentation will fool nobody. Labour needs to reverse some of its radical promises as well as its rhetoric. This is a competency issue too (I’m coming to that). Some signature policies, like free broadband, are obvious choices. But to convince the public that they really have changed, Labour needs to roll back something that will create a bit of a stink within its own ranks: if it ain’t hurting, it ain’t working. Dropping free student tuition would do that job, but would probably hurt too much. A substantial roll-back of nationalisation plans might be better though it would have less impact. Funnily enough the first election manifesto under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, in 2017, was much better than its 2019 one on this front, though incomplete (no attention was paid as to how its abolition of tuition fees would work in practice, for example).
Pluralism means accepting that a variety of political viewpoints should be tolerated and allowed to be expressed within the political process. Most Labour people say that the party should be a “broad church” accommodating a wide range of views. Fewer accept that other political parties have any useful role to play on the left or “progressive” side of politics. (I put “progressive” in quotation marks in deference to the English language: many “progressives” are not progressive at all; not all progressives are “progressive”). And many seem to think that Conservatives and others on the political right have no moral legitimacy, and that people only support them because they have some evil purpose in mind, or have been duped by some or other conspiracy of misinformation. While pluralism within the party, within “progressive” politics and within politics at large might seem to be three separate issues, it is critical to understand that they are linked. If you think Tories are evil, and that Labour’s essential purpose is to oppose them, then it is a short step to thinking that other non-Tory parties are a distraction or worse. And it is a short step from this to viewing politics as a battle between good and evil, in which you should be on your guard against evil influences in your own party, and vigorously oppose them.
At best Labour has an image problem. Where the Conservatives successfully promoted their slogan of “Get Brexit Done”, the nearest Labour came to an equivalent signature phrase was “Why don’t you f**k off and join the Tories”, applied by their activists to anybody who dared oppose their views from other parties such as the Lib Dems (“Yellow Tories”) and within their own party. Far too many people followed that advice. The most visible sign of trouble is the party’s problems with antisemitism. A party that conducted its internal discussions in a more civilised way would not have allowed the sort of abuse that some Jewish members faced to get anything like as far, or to see some of the abusers get off so lightly. This intolerance is damaging the party’s image with the public, and it gives other parties, especially the Lib Dems, a reason for existing.
The funny thing is that Mr Corbyn is the model of politeness in person, and a keen advocate of a “kinder, gentler” politics in general. This shows how difficult it will be for Labour to change its culture. One way in which a new leader might show how things have changed is to work with rival “progressive” parties more readily. I think this needs to go as far as entering into limited electoral pacts. Others suggest that the way forward is to promote electoral reform and proportional representation. As a good liberal I should support this, but I am not sure that this is actually in Labour’s interests. It would be an attack on traditional British ways that might well upset the conservative voters it needs to attract. And anyway I am not sure Labour should give up on the idea of being a broad, pluralistic and democratic movement along the lines of the US Democrats. There is a paradox here: in order to show that there is no need for rival parties on the left it needs to embrace those parties rather than reject them. An electoral pact of some sort would be a powerful signal of that; and pushing such an idea through with a controversial conference motion would show that the new leader means business, rather than mouthing sweet nothings about a “pluralist Labour family”, as leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey has put it.
Which brings me to competence: even Ms Long-Bailey admits that Labour has a credibility problem. The problem is not just to embody competence, but to project it to the public at large. To do this the party needs to overcome some archetypes that many in the public have of liberals and leftists. One is the woolly liberal, who spends too much time listening to nonsense and avoiding hard choices. Another is the permanent whinger, who will never be satisfied, and never take responsibility. People come across these archetypes in their daily lives, and know that they make terrible leaders, even if they often like them or agree with them. Mr Corbyn seemed to alternate between both of these archetypes. He couldn’t make up his mind about Brexit. He protested about everything. And Labour’s election manifesto embodied the problem. The policies may have been individually popular but they were collectively incredible. Life is about choices, and Labour were promising everything now, with a team with little experience of government.
These three abstract nouns work together. A competent Labour shadow government is one where people are chosen on ability, not on loyalty to the leader or ideological soundness. A competent manifesto is one that balances its radicalism with leaving some ideas for later.
Labour’s next big decision is to elect its new leader. How do the candidates shape up on this agenda? It’s hard to tell because candidates tend to say what it takes to get elected, and so it is hard to know what they would actually do. It is also not clear who those candidates will be as the number will get thinned down by the obstacle course of the nomination process. I will comment when the field has been whittled down.