Labour’s bout of post-election hangover came heavy and hard. The outbreak of briefing was less a revolt than a nervous shudder, with different prescriptions and solutions competing for the ear of the leader, and offering a path forward to victory.
There are those around Ed Miliband and in the shadow cabinet who want more ‘boldness’, by which they mean radically new policies that will change the structure of British society and inspire voters.
Against this, there are those also close to the leader and in the shadow cabinet who hear the vague ambitions and worry that when these are brewed into actual policies the risks become explicit but the benefits remain cloudy.
These tensions are real, but not irreconcilable. The task of soothing Labour’s fragile nerves lies with Jon Cruddas, whose work heading the policy review is finally drawing to a close. It is his task to turn the ideas and energy of his own speeches and policy thinking into a programme that can gather support inside and outside the Labour movement.
Cruddas’ own preferences are clear, as he sits firmly on the boldness side of the argument. That said, as well as being a philosopher, the head of Labour’s policy review is a pragmatic and smart politician. He knows that grand dreams alone are not enough for victory. They have to be developed into a programme with electoral appeal.
So the policy review is emphasising a combination of fiscal responsibility and structural change to British society, especially on the devolution of power. This establishes a structure that gives something to both the pragmatists (there will be little more money, so credibility is key) and the dreamers (we can still change Britain, by changing the structures that drive inequality).
Emerging from the creative tension between the discipline of fiscal rectitude and the demand for major change are some genuinely exciting political shifts. Most significant is a commitment to localise and end control from the centre. This is a pledge often made in opposition, but rarely followed up in government. After all, you do not tend to go into politics in order to limit your own ability to make changes to society.
The next is early intervention. So many of the bills society is asked to bear are in fact the costs of social failure. Whether that is the housing benefit bill, the need to subsidise those on low pay, supporting families for whom the cost of childcare makes it unattractive to work, these are avoidable costs, if only we spent smarter and earlier.
This is big, meaty stuff. But not without its challenges. If you need to create the budget space to intervene early, that limits what you can spend now. In the short term, both bills are presented, which makes change very hard to push through.
For Labour, however, the absence of spending makes such structural radicalism a necessity. The question is how to devolve responsibility without also risking the very interventions you seek to make.
Here Cruddas’ instinct to trust the instincts of the British people plays a role. If Labour past centralised because it did not trust institutions of locality and community to be truly representative, and New Labour centralised in order to hand more power to individuals as the users of services, then the new approach is to develop institutions that cannot be captured by small interest groups, that are genuinely and essentially ‘popular’. This is what is meant by services done with, not to, those who use them.
Labour’s post-election blues will pass. They have to. There is an election to win. Over the summer, it is Cruddas who has the task of giving his party a nutritious diet of policy and philosophy. He might just have the recipe to soothe Labour’s fragile nerves.
Don’t write off the People’s Assembly
On the longest day of the year, 50,000 people gathered in central London to protest against austerity. While the tribunes of the left complained afterwards that they were ignored by the media, the most striking thing about the protest was its narrowness.
Aside from the odd comedian and folk singer, this was a parade of the traditional left, indistinguishable from a hundred other rallies and demonstrations. The spontaneity and passion that led Labour frontbenchers to associate themselves with Occupy and to speak to the massive ‘March for the Alternative’ was entirely absent, their absence filled only by the thudding clichés of oppositionalism.
But don’t write off the People’s Assembly. This platform gathering of left union leaders, journalists and fashionable celebrities contains the zygote of a movement of real organisational and political power. That potential exists, not in protesting against a Conservative government but as an opposition, internal or external, to a potential Labour government. The real strength of the anti-austerity movement will only be understood when a prime minister broadly sympathetic to their aims is elected, and wrestles with the challenges of power. At that point, the potential for a United Kingdom Independence party of the left, the nucleus of which was on display in the People’s Assembly, will become very politically relevant. Not until then, though.
A Damian drive-by
One of the many pleasures of Damian McBride’s exile is observing him pretending to offer helpful advice through his blog, while really settling some old scores. The most recent target are Miliband advisers more happy ‘attending a Thomas Piketty symposium’ than fighting in the political trenches. Which of McBride’s old allies has just hosted the French economist in Westminster? Why, Stewart Wood. Mean, mean Damian!
Cartoon: Adrian Teal
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