• The Labour Leadership

    After thirteen years in government, it is not perhaps surprising that Labour’s response to election defeat has been somewhat uncertain. Almost all of those who now seek to lead the party have spent most of their political lives persuading both themselves and the electorate of the great virtues of New Labour. Their forward political horizons were bounded, until a few months ago, by New Labour. Now, with the voters’ rejection of New Labour, their lodestar has been shot out of the sky.

    It is true that the candidates have, to varying degrees, recognised that change is now the order of the day. They have understood that a line must be drawn beneath election defeat. As professional politicians, they have quickly learned to speak the language of new beginnings. But the suspicion must be that the need for change is something they know, but do not yet understand.

    So, while each of the candidates is clear that a readiness to embrace change is required to win the leadership and, more importantly, lead Labour back to power, there is a marked lack of any precision about what that change might comprise. There is confusion not only about where change might take the party, but even about what it is in the party’s present and immediate past that needs changing.

    Some say that a change of direction is needed; others that going further in the same direction will bring success. Some urge a return to basics; others argue that the party must recognise and adapt to the new political imperatives created by a right-wing coalition government. Those at the back cry “forward” and those at the front say “go back”.

    Underpinning this confusion is a great mystery. We have lived through the most serious economic crisis of most lifetimes, a crisis brought about by the individual greed and irresponsibility of those exploiting an unregulated market for their own ends, a crisis averted only by government which alone had the will, legitimacy and resource to undertake the task – and the election result seems to mean that the correct response is to diminish the role of government so that it is smaller and weaker and less able or willing to restrain the greedy and selfish.

    Here, surely, is the change that is needed for Labour. Instead of New Labour’s acceptance of the supposedly inevitable triumph of the “free” market, why not say in terms that the whole point of democracy is to use the political power of the people, as exercised by their government, to offset and restrain the overwhelming economic power that an unregulated market otherwise delivers to a tiny and selfish minority? If market outcomes cannot be challenged, what is the point of democracy?

    Why not say that a strong and successful society depends on a real sense of community – not the meaningless slogan of “we’re all in this together” which is manifestly contradicted by the purpose and impact of government policy – but a genuine community of interest in which the gap between rich and poor is reduced, the old and the sick and the poor – not forgetting those who might become so some day – are supported, everyone gets a fair share of the benefits of economic and social cooperation, and the potential of every individual skill and talent is realised for the common good?

    Why not say that, despite the bad press that government has received – something largely engineered by media barons and exacerbated by the self-inflicted wounds of the expenses scandal – it is government that, by setting the ground rules to take account of the interests of everyone and not just a minority, remains the best hope for building a society in which everyone feels they will get a fair deal.

    The loss of faith in government over recent years, even by those who have most to gain from effective government and most to lose from its enfeeblement, is one of the most serious indictments of New Labour. Nothing better serves the interests of the selfish and privileged than the acceptance that government is just another part of a power structure that ordinary people have no ability to change.

    The conviction that progress is possible, that a better society can be built by giving people more control over their own lives, and that the task is best undertaken by harnessing the power and legitimacy of democratic government, is central to Labour politics.

    Votes in the Labour leadership contest should be given to the candidate (Ed Miliband?) who most convincingly and clearly re-states the case for government and spells out the intention to use the power of government to build a fair, strong and united country. This is not “going back to basics” or re-inventing “old” Labour. It is the re-affirmation of a bedrock of vision and principle from which to face the sharp and changing challenges of the modern world.

    Bryan Gould

    12 September 2010