• A False Dichotomy

    Nothing better illustrates Labour’s current malaise than the reported difficulty the leadership group is having in agreeing on a strategy for an election that is now only a few months away.

    Some, we are told, including most of the “New” Labour veterans, favour a direct pitch for middle-class support, with plentiful assurances that the Party’s leaders come themselves from “comfortable” backgrounds. Others recommend a focus on Labour’s “core vote” in a belated attempt to re-assert the Party’s traditional values and priorities.

    Neither group seems to doubt that this is an unavoidable dichotomy. Just as the Blair/Brown schism is seen as essentially unbridgeable, so this dispute seems to reveal a deep fault-line in the Party’s thinking. After thirteen years in government, and nearer sixteen years with the current leadership group, it is surprising that this is the best that can be done.

    It is hard, after all, to see that either strategy offers much prospect of electoral success. First, the notion that “we are all middle-class now” is hardly new. It has been the leit-motiv of New Labour since its inception. If the aim is to re-enthuse the voters, the strategy seems to lack a certain sense of excitement or breath of fresh air. “Vote for us and we’ll go on doing what is perceived to have failed” is not much of a rallying cry.

    It also commits the cardinal sin in political strategising of allowing one’s opponents to frame the debate. The American specialist in cognitive science and linguistics, George Lakoff, is clear that to adopt the opponent’s language is to concede the debate. In a contest as to which party is more likely to put middle-class lifestyles, privileges, and values ahead of anything else, especially off the back of recession, there will only be one winner.

    There is not much better to be said for the rival strategy. Labour’s “core vote” is now a sadly wasted asset – one of the consequences of ignoring it for the past sixteen years. It is unlikely to be revived by a quick and short-lived about-face by Labour’s spin doctors. And it is in any case a defensive strategy designed only to limit losses – a strategy that, by abandoning a large part of the battlefield to the enemy, necessarily concedes defeat in advance.

    If Labour cannot do better than this, they deserve to lose. The inevitable burden of cumulative disappointments after thirteen year of government, to say nothing of egregious errors like the Iraq War and a recession engendered by a sustained obeisance to the City, will not be overcome if Labour’s much-touted strategists do not come up with something more intelligent and imaginative – and more optimistic.

    The perceived dichotomy in electoral strategy must be rejected as a chimera. There is no success for Labour in either restricting itself to the “core vote” or in ignoring it by manifestly adopting other priorities. Labour strategy has always required a successful effort to persuade a sizeable slice of the more affluent that they will be better off, both materially and in other ways, under a government that accepts as one of its priorities that it should look after the less advantaged.

    The argument should be that both the economy and society will function better if everyone has a chance to make a positive contribution. Excellent public services will produce a better educated, better housed and healthier workforce, better able to take the jobs that full employment will make available. Running the economy in the interests of the whole workforce, and not just City fat cats, will boost output and productivity and increase the resources that can be invested in our economic future. Investing in new skills and technology, and in the development of new products and markets, will in turn lay the foundations for an inclusive prosperity in which all can share.

    An economy run like this would produce a stronger and better integrated society, no longer riven by division, no longer weakened by a disadvantaged underclass that increasingly sees the only way out being achieved through crime, drugs, gambling and prostitution. Even the most purblind defender of middle-class privilege might be persuaded to recognise the benefits of living in a healthier and more inclusive society.

    A message like this might sound impossibly idealistic, but would this necessarily be a bad thing? To set a course that at least aims at something better is more constructive, more likely to enthuse, than constantly triangulating for supposed electoral advantage. Labour should not, in other words, allow itself to be forced to choose between its “core vote” and middle-class support. The two are perfectly compatible, and to act with that conviction offers Labour’s best hope for the forthcoming election.

    Bryan Gould

    19 January 2010

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 20 January.