The Blog

Picking Through the Wreckage - The Future of Progressive Politics

My friends in Scotland, many of whom used to be Labour supporters, have now left Labour to join the SNP or the Greens. There is no mystery to this. This is not about 'nationalism' it is about values; it is about justice. Scots are saying that they have more faith in themselves than they do in London.

A lie told with conviction is more effective than a truth told with none; and we have just elected a Government on the back of three distinct lies:

Lie 1 - Our economic crisis was caused by over-spending by the Labour government.

In truth, it was caused by over-borrowing, fuelled in large part by financial deregulation and massive house price increases. The previous Labour Government had some faults, but it did not significantly increase public spending.

Lie 2 - The only solution to the economic crisis is to cut public spending.

In truth, the severe cuts to public spending have damaged the UK economy and slowed its natural return to growth. Growing inequality means that fewer people are gaining from that minimal growth.

Lie 3 - Public spending cuts are necessary, but will be made fairly, protecting those in most need.

In truth, the spending cuts have savagely targeted disabled people and people in poverty. It is the voiceless and those who benefited least from the phoney boom who have paid its price.

Now, think about how these lies have played out in political debate over the past five years and in the General Election. Of course the parties of government deployed these lies, for it served their interests. However the Labour Party did not challenge those lies; it largely accepted them. The Labour Party offered the British people Austerity-Lite: another lie, but a lie without conviction. And unfortunately Austerity-Lite only served to legitimise Austerity.

For those of us who want to live in a fair and progressive society we must pick through the wreckage of this election and try to learn its lessons. The dominant thesis, on the BBC at least, seems to be that Ed Milliband was too 'left-wing'. But I think that the only sense in which this is true is that Ed Milliband was held hostage by the image that he created for himself during his campaign for the Party leadership, where he persuaded the Labour Party that he was the left-wing alternative to his brother. I can see little that was left-wing about his actual policy positions and in the debates he focused on being 'responsible' - reinforcing lies 1 and 2 - rather than attacking the irrationality and injustice of current policies. He never seemed to attack lie 3 and so never truly exploited the injustice of Coalition policies.

In fact the electorate, to a modest degree, rewarded parties that were Anti-Austerity. Bizarre as it may seem, even Ukip's policies were - in many areas - much more progressive than Labour's. Just over a third voted for Austerity, less than a third voted for Labour's Austerity-Lite and perhaps 20% voted for some kind of Anti-Austerity. The battle, which will now take place, for the soul of the Labour Party will be of the utmost importance.

In my experience there are some very good people inside the Labour Party, but the party as a whole feels like it's lost its way. It seems to be fighting ancient battles. There is no fresh thinking and the party does not seem to be in touch with ordinary people. They cannot ignite the passion necessary to encourage people to vote for them.

Take, for instance, one of the central mantras of the Labour Party campaign - trust us to look after the NHS. Now I am a big fan of the NHS - in particular its commitment to the principle of free healthcare for all. However it is worth observing the underlying assumptions of the 'trust us' mantra:

  1. First, it implies that a core principle of a decent society is safeguarded by being entrusted to a small professional elite - it's a bit like saying, "Trust me, I'm a lawyer." It is paternalistic, and it doesn't set the heart racing.
  2. Second, it implies that what really matters is the institution of the NHS - the enormous bureaucratic organisation controlled by Whitehall. We have lost sight of the underlying principles of fairness, democratic control and the wider context of the welfare state.

This cannot be the way forward for progressive politics. If we believe in justice then we need to think again about what it means today and in our emerging world. We need to ask some different questions:

  • Citizenship - How we can we ensure that we each have the rights and responsibilities necessary to enable us to play a full part in our communities?
  • Family - How can we protect the rights of women and children, and support stronger families to bring up our children and support each other in our old age?
  • Community - How can we can we build places that are inclusive, creative and supportive? How do we shift power back to local government and to our neighbourhoods?
  • World - How do we take care of the natural world, our climate? How do we best respect our responsibilities in the global community?

We can answer these questions and develop an attractive future without having to play the vapid left-wing-right-wing game. This one dimensional way of thinking restricts our vision and stops us from seeing where true justice lies. It reduces everything to a matter of how big and powerful the state should be. But that's not the right way to conceive of fairness and it's not the basis of an appealing campaign.

My friends in Scotland, many of whom used to be Labour supporters, have now left Labour to join the SNP or the Greens. There is no mystery to this. This is not about 'nationalism' it is about values; it is about justice. Scots are saying that they have more faith in themselves than they do in London. They want to live in a decent society where people care about fairness. They are ashamed of living in the most unequal society in Europe.

Those of us in England, outside the Labour Party, who care about justice will have some hard thinking to do also. Some will say that we should be inside the Labour Party, fighting for its soul - perhaps. However many of us will want to explore other avenues:

  • Can grass-roots groups, civil society, charities or the Church play a bigger role in defending the welfare state and promoting better forms of social justice?
  • Can we build an alliance, outside the confines of party politics, for new thinking and for the kind of constitutional reform the UK needs?
  • Can we make better use of the media - old and new - to help people see the positive possibilities that we can create?

These are not pipe-dreams. The welfare state was created - not by the Labour Party on its own - but by an array of different organisations, leaders and thinkers - from different backgrounds. Defending and modernising the welfare state will, likewise, take a combination of action outside and inside party politics.