The Labour Party's real challenge is finding a radical voice

Will the UK Labour Party ever really, vocally resist Conservative policies? They should be engaging young voters on global social inequality.

Mary Evans
26 March 2014
Ed Miliband and One Nation Labour

The UK Labour Party has been challenged to a radical new vision. Credit: Demotix

On 24 March The Guardian published a letter from a number of people from political groups and think tanks, including the Fabian Society, Compass and openDemocracy.

Headlined 'Labour Must Adopt New Principles', the letter set out a number of ways in which the UK Labour Party should 'reframe the debate to make a good society both feasible and desirable'.

Among the various suggestions for change were the 'devolution of state institutions', the 'empowerment of everybody', greater accountability and the 'prevention of the causes of our social, environmental, physical and mental health problems'.

But the real issue is not whether the Labour Party will adopt these policies. The question is whether it will find a voice to connect its policies - which are likely to be similar to those suggested - with two vital constituencies: young voters and those who recognise that many of the central issues of British politics involve a recognition of social inequality and global politics.

The 'new principles' advocated in the letter may be appealing to some, but to the unemployed and poorly paid, the inadequately housed and the millions dependent on fragile structures of care, they might appear more like institutional re-organisation rather than anything more radical. 

In 2010 the Labour Party promised to reflect on its thinking. So far no comprehensive statement has emerged, other than invocations of 'One Nation', a deeply dubious idea since it too closely reflects the Tory invocation of 'all in this together'.

The gamble of winning the next election simply through discontent with the Coalition is surely hazardous, given that the public pronouncements of David Cameron never fail to communicate both agency and certainty.

Recognising that the tone of authority is more easily possessed by those in power should be any opposition's starting point. In order to attract and retain support the case that they have to make should be as publicly certain as that of their opponents. This means the ability to state the Labour Party's own case and not endlessly engage in what seems to be a discussion – or even a form of collusion – with their opponents. In debates about immigration, for instance, the Labour Party's comments have often seemed like fine tuning of Conservative policies.

At least as important is the absence, from Labour, of real, vocal resistance to Conservative ideas and policies, vital not just because it challenges particular policies but because it builds, in public, the transformative possibility of opposition and real political difference. 

Where, for example, was the Labour Party's challenge to Michael Gove's statement about making the state schools as 'good as the public schools?' Where did the Labour Party dismiss this idea, or raise the fact that only 7% of children are educated at public schools? Equally, where is the clear public voice pointing out that Coalition policies on welfare have plunged millions into greater need?

These are the kind of facts that are incontrovertible and form the basis of a wider argument about our general reliance on state funded, public institutions. This is exactly the information about the world that can be used to make a wider point, in this case the fundamental case that Labour has to make – about the centrality of tax financed public institutions to the general quality of life. 

This is the point – about the relationship of progressive taxation to universal well being - that Labour has to get across to the public if it is to win not just the next election but also challenge the tsunami of neo-liberal ideology that we daily encounter.

To do so, Labour should think about the implications of three things. First, that many young people are much less likely to vote than older people.

Second, that the Coalition has clearly realised how effectively voters are kettled; many of those most disadvantaged by Coalition policies live in parliamentary constituencies with considerable Labour majorities. 

Third, although Mrs Thatcher has often been accused of thinking that there 'is no such thing as society', George Osborne also appears to think that there is no such thing as the economy – only two groups of people, the good rich, and the poor who are on the whole a nuisance. 

To counter the Labour Party's paralysis, here are some possibilities. Recognising that young voters – who are much better educated than any previous generation - communicate largely through social media. Their daily lives involve immediate communication. This is often very sophisticated: those who read the young as not engaging with complex issues are confusing the medium with its content. Many young voters know that politics are complicated and that political issues are no longer about the small details of making British capitalism work a bit better.

The real questions, out there in the world, are about the relations of politics, not least between the global north and the global south, questions about consumption and 'cheap' labour, dependence on oil and slavish endorsement of the foreign policies of the United States.

Next, to overcome 'political kettling' the Labour Party needs to address, over and over again, the question of the 'smug': thinking that you, your family and your relations live on a little island of comfort and security in which we do not need help from others. 

Finally, thinking dramatically. The modern world, however much we may dislike it, lives through sensation. 

It is clear that Ed Miliband does not like – and does not engage with – this aspect of politics. But politics is a dramatic world, full of opportunities for winning and losing, for attack and counter-attack.

The private world of politics can, and should, be about careful thought and planning, but any politician who wishes to win not just arguments but also elections needs to find a rhetorical space for him or herself. The idea of real social fairness might go some way toward this, but so far it remains unsaid.

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