Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Permission politics

The prime minister closed her party’s conference with a bold pitch for the ‘centre-ground’ of British politics. It lacked real vision, it certainly lacked consistency, and it lacked policy commitments. But it did not lack chutzpah.

Simply saying you are on the centre-ground does not make it so. The public, not prime ministers, decide where the centre-ground lies. Politicians play a role in shaping it, and it goes without saying that parties in government, let alone politicians ahead in the polls, have a great say in influencing centre-ground opinion. Politicians can help curate it, but they have no copyright on it.

Both Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband believed that the 2008 crash moved the centre-ground left. To this day, there is no measurable evidence to support that thesis, either in the United Kingdom or across the globe. Outside the United States, only rightwing incumbents have been re-elected in post-crash general elections. Even countries like Australia that avoided recession replaced their centre-left government with a rightwing alternative. The failure of global markets and some pretty solid government-led responses – led by Brown, Barack Obama and Kevin Rudd – were supposed to make people more critical of markets and better disposed to the state. Something entirely different happened – the rejection of elites: Miliband beating his ‘heir to Blair’ brother David, the Scottish nationalist surge, the rise of Syriza, Podemos, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, not to mention the vote for Brexit. Even Theresa May’s own pitch draws on this anti-elite sentiment. The sensible, policy-heavy, ‘experts matter’ centre seems weaker than ever.

All this means that the late Philip Gould was right when, towards the end of his life, he intuited that the notion of the centre-ground, as it is traditionally conceived, was losing its usefulness. No longer is politics like a two-player boardgame where you advance forward from one side or the other, concentrating on only certain key places – where the swing voters are – until you achieve a commanding position and from there claim victory.

Gould worried that politicians were increasingly conducting their politics in an ‘empty stadium’. As the rules of the game changed and grew tougher, the traditional moves no longer sufficed. Politicians had fewer answers and thus fewer people were listening; politics was looking only smaller while the nation’s problems looked bigger.

For these reasons and more, Labour, and politicians of all colours, needs to think again about the idea of a centre-ground altogether. At worst, the very notion suggests that you have to concede your principles and beliefs to win votes and win over voters. It is fixed, amorphous and ambiguous all at the same time. When seen alongside ‘triangulation’ it makes politics almost grubby or unprincipled. Within the Labour party, its advocates come across as calculated, managerial and opportunist.

Where the Miliband project failed – in no small part because he fought it on the more ‘leftwing’ centre-ground he wanted, not on the terrain the voters had marked out – was because Labour’s leader failed to properly seek permission from the public to put his plans into practice. In the past, Labour has believed that credible and coherent ideas will convince the public that it can run the country. It seeks permission to do what it most cares about through having the answers to the problems the voters most care about. Labour got to pass civil partnerships and a ban on fox-hunting because it was trusted on the economy. It rescued the NHS, improved schools and filled in potholes. It is on this ‘permission politics’ that Labour’s centre‑left must focus.

General election voters in marginal seats ask five big questions of the parties. Will you run the economy so I can afford my mortgage? Will my kids have a good school in the area to attend? Will the NHS be there when I, or my elderly relatives, need it? Will the police turn up when a crime takes place and will they have some reasonable chance of catching the perpetrator? Will the next generation do better than the current one?

In 1945, 1964, 1997, 2001 and 2005 Labour had answers for all of these. By contrast, in 1983 and 1987 it believed it was ‘rightwing’ to answer such questions. In 1992 the party arguably had answers to all but the first. By 2010, it had a strong record on each and answers on the NHS, and on the economy that had been, but not about the economy to come. In 2015, it was just the NHS and lots of warm words with little fleshed out about the ‘promise of Britain’ for the generation to come. In the last two elections, Brown and Miliband had got themselves contorted on city academies and believed it was ‘rightwing’ to talk about home affairs. Brown made more speeches about taxing carrier bags – a policy he did not ever deliver – than crime. Miliband made even fewer. You do not have to like the answers to acknowledge that, since 2005, the Tories have at least had an answer to all five questions. The addition of immigration – it is unclear exactly what the public wants other than less of it – only muddies the water for progressives yet further. Most would rather change the question.

So the task for those in Labour is simple: no compromising – answer all the questions. The party is self-evidently far from being in a position to do this right now. But, nevertheless, members must, concurrently to the party’s travails, be thinking about how they give the public what it wants, the country what it needs, all based on what the party believes.

May believes she needs permission for her ‘blue collar’ economics from her blue rinse party, not the country. In doing so she buys off the former with grammar schools that the latter really does not want or need. She is no more centre-ground because of her speech on the Wednesday of her party’s conference, than she was after her ‘hard Brexit’ speech on the Sunday. The abandoned ground in British politics is there for Labour’s taking. It requires it to go to the public with an honest plan and gain permission to implement it.

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

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4 comments

  • Who are the baddies in I, Daniel Blake? More to the point, what are they? Are they likely to be Tories? Hardly! Until Jeremy Corbyn came along, people like that were the only ones left in the Labour Party in any numbers. Therefore, there are now two Labour Parties. One is the party of Daniel Blake and of those who side with him. The other is the party of his persecutors, the party that invented benefit sanctions, the party that devised the Work Capability Assessment that is now being discontinued by the Conservative Party.

    One is the party that wants to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The other is the party that not only refuses to vote for such a halt, but which, in the case of Stephen Kinnock, tweets that we are somehow morally obliged to supply those arms, siding so explicitly with Saudi Arabia in Yemen that one wonders why he did not vote with the Government.

    One is the party that wants to enact the NHS Reinstatement Bill, which is the reason why even David Owen wants Jeremy Corbyn to become Prime Minister. The other is the party that broke up and privatised the NHS in England, but nowhere else, in the first place.

    One is the party that wants Barnaby Marder to remove the failed racist rabble-rouser, Zac Goldsmith, from Parliament. The other is the party that wants to leave it the Liberal Democrats, late of the Coalition, to remove Goldsmith, but which would not mind if they failed to do so.

    One is the party that wants to save the beautiful South of England from fracking, HS2, and a third runway at Heathrow. The other is the party that wants to despoil irreparably the beautiful South of England by means of fracking, HS2, and a third runway at Heathrow.

    One is the party that respects the outcome of the EU referendum, even without necessarily expecting awfully much ever to come of it. The other is the party that wants to re-run the EU referendum until the plebs give the right answer, and which is in the meantime prepared to give a free pass to the unprepared Prime Minister, to her buffoonish Foreign Secretary, to her honourable but over-promoted Brexit Secretary, and to her morally repugnant International Trade Secretary.

    One is the party that is delighted that the EU referendum result has made the focus of political attention the areas that voted Leave while voting Labour, to the extent that even a Conservative Government will actively pay Nissan to employ people in Sunderland, with many more such examples doubtless on their way. The other is the party that is horrified both at the Nissan deal, and at the notion that the slightest political attention ought to be paid to the areas that voted Leave while voting Labour, areas that that party routinely purports to represent in Parliament and in local government.

    One is the party that will support Theresa May against many of her own side, and which will press her to deliver, on workers’ and consumers’ representation in corporate governance, on shareholders’ control over executive pay, on restraining pay disparities within companies, on an investment-based Industrial Strategy and infrastructure programme, on greatly increased housebuilding, on action against tax avoidance, on banning tax-avoiding companies from public contracts, on capping energy prices, on banning or greatly restricting foreign takeovers, and on ending unpaid internships. The other is the party that will vote with the Conservative Hard Right against each and every one of those measures, which Blair and Brown no more delivered than they delivered an inquiry into Orgreave.

    One is the party that has always wanted to take back the rail franchises into public ownership as and when they came up for renewal. The other is the party that now pretends always to have been of that view, but which in reality used to scream abuse at those of us who dared to express it.

    One is the party that fought tooth and nail against the Blair Government’s assault on civil liberties, an assault that had begun under the previous Conservative Government, before any thought of Islamist terrorism. The other is the party that still yearns for identity cards and for 90-day detention without charge, and which conspires with the Conservative hangers and floggers to give the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee to Yvette Cooper.

    One is the party that always opposed the failed austerity programme of the sacked George Osborne. The other is the party of the only people who still think that that programme was correct.

    One is the party that has opposed every British military intervention of the last 20 years. The other is the party of the only people who still defend each and every one of those interventions.

    One is the party that stands outside Durham County Hall in protest at the bailing out of Durham County Cricket Club while all 2700 Teaching Assistants are to be sacked at Christmas and then reappointed on a 23 per cent pay cut. The other is the party that wallows inside Durham County Hall or in a private box at the Riverside, bailing out Durham County Cricket Club while sacking all 2700 Teaching Assistants at Christmas in order to reappoint them on a 23 per cent pay cut.

    One is the party of Jeremy Corbyn. The other is the Nasty Party.

  • Well done David! So many of these progress editorials and articles are completely free from substance. They string together a set of empty rhetoric and think it is an analysis. It is a rightist politics of predisposition which does not go deep into detail but instead tried to squeeze things into familiar context.
    The only passion in their approach comes in their deeply unsettling attacks on Corbyn and the views of the vast majority of Labour members and supporters. They openly and enthusiastically attack and trivialise him and them for not meeting their approval. Progress goes out of its way to mock or twist his words.
    It is obvious they do not see the leadership’s approach as legitimate politics and so unleash a barrage on the lack of realism, anti-austerity, anti-War/ For progress this is inadmissible and they are determined to enforce their judgement no matter the consequences. They do not tackle ideas just rule them unacceptable.
    They pine for Tony who, as the hard leftist Sir John Chilcot testifies, has damaged trust in politics, went beyond the facts in giving reasons to go to war and misused his position.

  • You have identified the crucial issues perfectly bar one. The difficult one which is immigration. Certainly how the economy affects every individual will be the prime motivator even if it is hidden slightly. Immigration is the bat that hits Labour in the backside because of the failure of the economy to provide a reasonable future with security for people. However Labour have to handle this as well as have the answers for making the economy look like it will improve.
    Hopefully we can change false self employment into a movement for cooperatives and yes mutualise the railway system. Jeremy Corbyn is correct to say that being focused on stopping exploitation of foreign workers being brought here to undercut local wage agreements will lower the level of immigration. Labour has to offer a real vision of opportunity on the economy and hold up better opportunities for people than what is out there now. We know where the sensible ground lays, that is where hope is for the future. Our policies have to be clear and yes different.

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