10 questions for the Labour Party

Labour's problems cannot be fixed by minor tweaks. They need to address the big questions.

David Held
22 May 2015


Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper. Flickr/labour_party_uk

The UK general election was tumultuous and the results, particularly for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, disastrous. Of course, the position of Labour is better than that of the Liberal Democrats, but the combined fate of their decline is disheartening and disorienting for anyone on the centre- left. The surprise and shock of the outcome to many was, of course, fuelled by the false trail of expectations led by the polls. But when all is said and done the results were seismic.

Into the chasm of failure have stepped would-be leaders with manifestos and numerous commentators, nearly all offering instant solutions that would push the party further to the left, centre or right. I have read countless attempts to tell the Labour party where they went wrong. The enemies of the party bask in the glow of these fragilities while everyone else seems to rush in with ready-made solutions.

The rush to provide instant solutions to tomorrow’s problems is mistaken and will not help rebuild the crumbled edifice of Labour. Instead, I think the failure of Labour raises some very important questions, which need to be thought through carefully. This is a moment for deliberation about the key questions ahead; not a moment for false closure which will produce the semblance of a new direction without the foundations of one. The questions have to be right before answers sought.

The economy: getting the economic argument right is the typical difference between success and failure in electoral politics. Labour produced two unconvincing narratives. First, it failed to give a convincing account of what went wrong leading up to the global financial crisis. The Newsnight incident made this painfully apparent. But there was a further question about projecting a compelling account about what should be done next for the British economy. The latter issue is extremely difficult to think through, given the increasingly prominent role of financial capital in the British economy, its weak industrial base, the pull of London and the heavy internationalisation of the UK economy, involving Europe and the wider international community. Where does Labour want to take the British economy? And, moreover, how? These are difficult questions, but without a convincing response, the Tories will often seem the safer bet.

Green politics: Labour was almost silent in the election campaign on green issues and climate change; they became the preserve of the Green Party. Britain has, in many ways, become a global leader on these issues; yet, it is unclear now whether Labour can remain the torch-bearer for environmental stewardship. How did this sorrowful state of affairs arise? But there is an even more significant point. Thinking about what is next for the British economy is intimately tied to thinking about green energy, the tax structure, and a host of related issues. One of the biggest challenges facing any attempt to mitigate climate change is the question: how can one incentivise a shift from a high to low carbon economy? If the world as we know it is to survive till the end of this century, finding an answer to this question is not optional. Moreover, there can be no convincing account of what is next for the British economy without a compelling account of how to green it.

Tax and spending: the Labour party policies throughout the election appeared to squeeze the middle class. The combination of the mansion tax and the restoration of the 50% tax band allowed the media to have a field day. Irrespective of the media, the combination of these two taxes created a swathe of uncertainty among middle class voters. Uncertainty about how to vote in a general election is typically resolved in favour of the incumbent. This raises the bigger question of: who was the Labour party appealing to? Leaving out the middle classes in the UK voting system risks being something of a suicide note. The policies failed to speak to the job creators and those who make substantial contributions to a productive economy. It has long been said that Labour cannot win by just appealing to its traditional core. The election confirmed the question of how the Labour party can win unless it is a coalition of progressive voters across class boundaries.

Nationalism: caught between Scottish and English nationalism, the Labour party appeared to flounder. For years the signals of growing Scottish nationalism were misunderstood; and the rise of the English anxiety about the Union was left unaddressed. The Labour party was caught like a deer in headlights. Labour’s traditional internationalism, and its uncritical attachment to Europe, has remained unchanged despite the evident uncertainties that national communities face in the context of decades of neoliberal globalisation. Reactions to the latter have been intense and growing, with domestic political communities seeking to rearticulate the meaning of self-determination free of domination by outside forces. The question for Labour is: how can Labour balance a commitment to cosmopolitan values and aspirations, with a reappraisal of the concerns of nationalism in a global age? The doctrine of cosmopolitanism helps here. The principles of cosmopolitanism underpin both a claim to universality and a celebration of locality and difference; to treat each person as free and equal, and to recognise equal rights to self-determination means recognising both the universality of these principles and their necessary particular instantiation. How to combine cosmopolitanism with national self-determination remains an abiding issue.

Migration: the Labour party always seem to be in a slip stream in the debate about migration. Here too there is a paradox. On the one hand, the demographics of Europe mean that as economies grow, the labour supply is insufficient in a number of categories. On the other hand, prevailing anxieties about migration cause reaction and xenophobia. The categories of migration, however, need to be rethought at the national and wider levels. People fear that migrants might take away opportunities at a time of high unemployment and pressures on the standard of living. But there is a whole wealth of difference between, for example, the rights of permanent settlement and limited rights of economic settlement which may be restricted to a few years by visa specifications. Moreover, the serious plight of refugees should not be confused with those for whom migration is a choice. All these issues need rethinking and the nature and form of migration, and policy responses to it, need to be reconceptualised. How will Labour address the growing, and increasingly complex, issue of migration?

Inequality: breakneck neoliberal globalisation, linked to the financialisation of capitalism, has done little to alleviate inequality and poverty. The forces of globalisation and economic change have left millions marginalised and provided an opportunity for parties like UKIP to mobilise the disenfranchised. Global production chains and deindustrialisation have left many disheartened and feeling powerless. But the link between globalisation and inequality is not the same across the world. State policies can mediate this link in significant ways as is abundantly clear from the managed entry to the global economy of many successful developing countries. Robust state institutions can shape the impact of the market in ways that produce more progressive outcomes. Attacking aspiration and a rising middle class (see point 3 above), often yields little income and does not touch the deep roots of economic inequality and poverty. These roots lie, in significant part, in the mobility of capital while the state and labour remain relatively immobile. The question is, can the Labour party rethink these links and provide a credible way of taxing and constraining mobile wealth, in coalition with other states and regional blocks?

Power: the decisions that affect people’s everyday lives are often made by people and companies in far off territories. The connection between capital and labour, that was once defined by a common space in a city or a region, is now broken. As such, how will Labour respond to the dynamic nature of power in an increasingly globalised world, whilst also guaranteeing the kind of domestic protections it has always championed? Large companies dwarf many small countries and can put states on a defensive when it comes to attracting jobs. But it is not just simply the power of large companies that has this effect. Futile decisions in Brussels or elsewhere on what constitutes a sausage or a chocolate, inevitably spark incredulity as much as hostility. Political regionalisation and economic globalisation raise acute issues about the reach of state-based accountability and the responsiveness of supranational entities. The former, without entrenchment in wider systems of democracy and accountability, create pressing questions about the nature and meaning of political community today.

Democracy and constitutionalism: right from the beginning the universal principles of equality, freedom and solidarity were spliced together with state formation. Yet there is only a contingent relationship between these principles and the state itself. The principles can be embedded at many different levels, as is already apparent today: citizens can be active members of their cities, regions, national states, and supranational regions. And if that is not enough, these principles can be entrenched in social movements putting pressure on international organisations, and in these organisations themselves. Over the last several decades the clash between state sovereignty and individual sovereignty (sovereignty linked to human rights and democratic standards) has tended to be resolved in international law in favour of the latter. Constitutional principles and democratic public spheres can, accordingly, be entrenched at diverse levels. In the context of the question how the UK might survive with the flourishing of nationalisms, these ideas provide tentative responses. Just as cosmopolitanism is an intersection of universality and diversity, contemporary political communities can only flourish as multilevel and multilayered polities – cities, regions, states, and international communities – woven together by principles of democracy and justice. This is a project to be developed in response to the question: how can politics be rearticulated to ensure both domestic (inward) and international (outward) democratic authority?

Defence: the Labour party seems to be boxed into a corner on defence and security. These issues matter but delivering them within the current structure of the British military and the deployment of weapons of mass destruction is another question. Trident no longer deters enemies and is a grotesquely expensive weapon system. If nuclear weapons have to be defended, there are cheaper ways of deploying them. But, why does Labour need to become the party of nuclear weapons? Britain has become a small/medium-sized power that still feeds too uncritically on its imperial past. In the unstable world of today, where fragile and failed states throw up new patterns of insecurity, the challenge is to develop an appropriate defence and security capacity for a very different set of security challenges than that which characterised the Cold War. The SNP were too often depicted as wild and delusional for challenging Trident. Yet, they raise a fundamental question about whether Trident is the right and the most appropriate military solution. Being boxed in by the Conservatives on this is a failure of imagination, strategy and tactics.

Technology: there is a profound dislocation between the growing immediacy of digital connectivity in everybody’s life and a political process that still functions in, and depends on, the institutions established with the rise of the modern state. Communicating through digital technology in terms of delivering a core message, will alone hardly convince most young voters. These technologies create the capacity for new kinds of politics, with interactivity and reciprocity at their core. Selling core ideas through digital technology will not fire the imagination of young people: encouraging them to contribute to the shaping of policy through these technologies may. Digital technologies have the capacity now to reshape the meaning of democratic practice. How can digital technologies be deployed to advance the quality and interactivity of the democratic public sphere? This is a question now well-worth exploring.

The Labour party needs to think through these issues and produce a convincing account of the changing nature of society, appropriate policies, and of what a Labour leadership can deliver that is distinctive and compelling. But even having “right policies”, while central to some constituencies, may not touch core concerns of the average voter. No amount of intellectual examination of the policy questions should neglect this question. It matters greatly where the voters’ concerns lie, and accessing these depends on more than talking to the proverbial taxi driver. At the end of the day, most people go to the ballot box worrying about job security, community, family, and services that they need. Unless the elaboration of policies connect to these fundamental concerns they might as well stay in think tanks and university seminars.

A politics that fails to become part of a wider social conversation with all those whom it seeks to encompass, will be a politics that in the end shrivels up. A renewed Labour project must conjoin with public debate and democratic politics at all levels; without this a proposed set of policies, or new interpretation of the nature and form of contemporary politics and economics, will not become an actual understanding or agreement among others, let alone a basis for action.

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