The Battle at the Heart of the Labour Party
The Labour Party has always been divided between pragmatism and principle. To foment real change, the party must find a way of combining the two by rooting its politics in a radical but realistic response to the current crisis.
The Labour Party has always been split between pragmatists and idealists. The idealists argue that there is no point in having a Labour Party unless it remains true to its values and the pragmatists don’t see the point in principle unless it can be put into practice.
The idealists are old-school Bennites and new-school Corbynites. They don’t see a conflict between their insistence on ideological purity and the quest for power. For them, the reason the progressive left don’t win power is because the establishment ensure that this is the case. They point to the unfair treatment of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, with even sympathetic newspapers such as The Guardian dismissing him from the outset as ‘unelectable’. They argue that the deck is stacked unfairly against the left, which is another argument for radicalism. If the left do win power, the establishment will do whatever it takes to remove them from power, so any spell in office is likely to be a brief opportunity for radical change —a vital opportunity to create the structural conditions necessary for future success.
By contrast, the pragmatists look back to Wilson and Blair for inspiration. They parody the idealists as wanting the Labour Party to be a party of protest — a permanent opposition, shouting into the void. They view the hostile media as an institutional constraint that needs to be managed and therefore argue that the Labour Party must change perception to become electable, even if this means ideological change. Elections are won, they argue, on the centre ground. So, the task of the opposition is to find and contest this centre ground rather than attempting to shift it. They point to the journey Labour went on under Kinnock, Smith and Blair — arguing that Labour needed to change to become electable. A point that is galvanised by Blair’s three successive election victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005 — an unprecedented achievement. True, New Labour didn’t radically alter the ideological hegemony of the post-Thatcherite consensus, but it introduced the minimum wage, invested in public services and dramatically reduced poverty. It couldn't have done this in opposition.
My own view is that its possible to hold both views at the same time without incoherence. You can think that Labour needed to change in order to win in 1997, whilst also thinking that it changed too much and that its spell in office was a huge wasted opportunity. You can think that Corbynism faced huge structural constraints imposed by a hostile media, whilst also celebrating the fact that his leadership of the party helped drag the centre ground of British politics decisively to the left. It is true that there is precious little point in winning if you’ve abandoned your values, but it’s also true that principles without power can’t change people’s lives. A Labour Party that recognised both of these things simultaneously would be in a better position to change people’s lives for the better.
The present moment is an important one, because the conflict between pragmatism and principle is more apparent than real. This is because the average voter in the UK is on the left economically, meaning that Keir Starmer doesn’t need to move to the right in order to be seen as credible to the public.
In fact, what is remarkable about both the 2017 and 2019 election is the extent to which the public liked Labour Party policies when they were presented to them individually:
- 85 % of voters supported a right to free personal care for over-65s who are most in need of it.
- 73 % of voters supported increasing the minimum wage to £10.
- 70 % of voters supported a target to reduce net carbon emissions to zero by 2030.
- 66 % supported tax rises for those earning more than £80,000.
- 59 % supported the idea of a Green Industrial Revolution.
- 57 % supported free education for life.
- 52 % supported nationalising energy, water and railways.
The problem for Labour was that support for each of these policies went down when the policies were attached to the Labour Party, and voters didn’t believe that the package presented in the 2019 manifesto could be delivered in one parliament. In other words, there were fundamental issues for the party in relation to trust and competence. Political scientists call these issues ‘valence issues’.
The good news is that there are signs of progress, both for the leadership and for the party, on these issues. Whilst Labour remain behind the Conservative Party on the issue voters currently regard as being the most important (the economy) the perception of the party in other areas is gradually improving.
For the time being those of us desperate for a Labour government should be quietly confident. Not only are the key indicators of competence moving in the right direction, but there is reason to believe that the government is heading towards an economic disaster that will fatally damage its own reputation and hence restore Labour’s standing as the natural alternative. Placing the economy on life support by introducing a furlough scheme was the right thing to do, but it has created an artificial situation that masks the fundamental vulnerability of the economy. When the scheme is unwound, and absent other radical policy measures, we are headed for a period of mass unemployment unseen since the Thatcher years. Just as Black Wednesday and the Great Recession wrecked the public’s perception of the governments of Major and Brown, the current crisis will do the same to Johnson and to the modern Conservative Party.
Given the above, Starmer needs to resist calls from the pragmatists to move the party to the right (the polling simply doesn’t support this). Instead, he needs to work on a policy platform that meets the needs of the time, whilst remaining within the new centre ground of British politics, which is firmly on the left of the political spectrum. His programme shouldn’t be a simple rehash of the 2017 or 2019 manifestos. Instead it needs to be a programme rooted in the post-COVID political landscape. Crucially, it should be a manifesto that creates lasting structural change, not piecemeal reform. But, it must be a manifesto that sets out priorities rather than being a wish list of everything the party wants to achieve. A truly transformational government will need to implement its programme over several parliaments, so the manifesto should be seen as the first five years of a long period in office.
In my view, this means a first term Labour government should focus on the priorities to emerge from the current crisis. First, Labour must tackle the crisis of jobs. Labour should pledge to restructure the economy to make it greener and fairer, with a national education service, a green jobs revolution and a properly funded welfare state that exists to ensure people are able to live with dignity. It should pledge to build hundreds of thousands of new homes and it should invest in infrastructure, setting up a sovereign wealth fund to ensure that this new approach is embedded in the architecture of the state. Second, Labour must deal with the crisis in our public sector. The pandemic exposed the folly of austerity, which left the NHS and care homes totally unequipped to cope with the crisis. Solving this will require the nationalisation of social care, with care workers given a wage commensurate to their huge contribution to our society. It will also mean a renewed focus on public health, with the government investing in programmes to make it easier for people to live healthy and fulfilling lives. Most of all it will mean investing in our schools, our hospitals and in our oft-forgotten local councils, whose budgets have been cut to the bone over the last decade of Tory rule.
A limited but radical programme rooted in the problems that emerged from the current crisis is where Labour need to be. It is the only programme that has a chance of uniting the party by bridging the divide between the pragmatists and the idealists. And, crucially, it is what the country needs to start a journey towards creating a permanently fairer, more prosperous, happier and healthier society.