Vol. 33 No. 20 · 20 October 2011

The Mess They’re In

Ross McKibbin on what Labour can do and shouldn’t do

2766 words

Should Labour apologise, and if so what for? Ever since the last election and even more since the election of Ed Miliband as leader, there has been a near universal assumption that the party is not doing as well as it should, that its lead in the opinion polls is shaky, that the ‘South’ is lost, that Miliband is hopeless, and that, consequently, Labour should show ‘humility’ and return to Blairism under a different leader. John Rentoul recently wrote in the Independent that the Labour Party has moved ‘to the left faster than the speed of light’. The definition of ‘left’ here is one that few outside Blairite circles would recognise, but it’s still telling. The idea that Labour has fled to the ‘left’, though absurd by any conventional definition, and the belief in the party’s general decrepitude, are held not just in the media but also among both ageing and rising Blairites. They have reasons for wishing all this to be true. The problem is that it is not true. Although the opinion polls have wobbled, Labour has been ahead very nearly since the coalition was first formed – usually by a wide enough margin to win a putative election. Labour has also done well in all the by-elections in this parliament. Its performance has been surprisingly good: better than it had a right to expect. It is not Labour’s ‘disappointing’ record that needs explaining but why so many persist in saying that it is disappointing. The hostility of the Tory press is to be expected, but the extreme reluctance of the media generally to admit that Labour is doing reasonably well or that Miliband might become an effective leader is a measure of its general neo-Blairism. The first reason for not apologising is that Labour’s present political-electoral position does not warrant it.

The second reason is that apologising is usually bad politics. Those who blame Labour for what happened in 2008 and after will continue to blame it however many mea culpas Ed Balls utters. Such apologies rarely sound heartfelt and, once started, there is no end to the habit. Apologies in any case serve only to legitimate the policies and rhetoric of one’s opponents. The present government, despite the incoherence and silliness of many of its policies, has one rock to which it can cling: the debt. A debt which is always portrayed as Labour’s debt. The Tory policy of paying off the debt in a single parliament has always been political: it never had an economic justification and Cameron and Osborne’s attempts to give one were always unconvincing. But it gives the government a raison d’être it would not otherwise have, and presents to the electorate, which has its own struggles with debt, a policy it thinks it understands and which seems to explain everything else.

It was probably inevitable that Labour would have to apologise for its failure to regulate the banks, though it might be worthwhile, if awkward, to point out that the Tories were equally culpable. But it certainly should not apologise for the debt. That would simply confirm coalition myths. It could also point out as often as possible that deflating the economy actually raises the debt burden – which is what has happened under the coalition. There was no need for Balls to say that he would stick to Conservative spending cuts and no reason at all for him to claim that windfalls from the sale of the semi-nationalised banks should be used to redeem debt, rather than to increase spending. The coalition’s cuts are economically and morally mistaken; Labour should stick to the policy it had before the election – which, after all, did itself involve heavy (but not ruinous) cuts in public spending. Balls has made an effective case against the government’s cuts, this parliament has another four years to run, and we don’t know how long the electorate will assent to austerity – especially as the cuts have not yet fully taken effect – or when it will start, for example, to associate rapidly increasing hospital queues with the failure to ringfence the NHS budget. Now that the Labour Party has abandoned so much of its traditional social democracy, public spending is one of the few things it still stands for. Why throw this advantage away when there is no immediate electoral reason for doing so? Political parties should never miss the opportunity to say ‘we told you so’ if the opportunity arises – which it probably will.

Labour should be even more reluctant to apologise for its policies on immigration, crime etc. Or rather it should apologise for them, but not, as it is showing every sign of doing, on account of their lack of severity. Alan Johnson, ex-home secretary, in an otherwise sensible interview in the Independent on Sunday, says that he didn’t like it when Ed Miliband said ID cards were a mistake, but admits that this particular policy is the leader’s ‘“civil liberties” issue’. The leader is apparently ‘fine’ on the DNA database, CCTV and police numbers. ‘And he was fine on control orders, in the end, when it was all explained to him.’ Johnson is surprised that Cameron has allowed them to be ‘weakened’. Yvette Cooper, in a conference speech presumably designed to ingratiate herself with the police, and which earned the expected standing ovation, went even further. Unlike the coalition, Labour would support our ‘crime-fighting heroes’. The Labour Party has never understood the utter futility of all this. What good did ID cards, the now semi-illegal DNA database (about which Harriet Harman continued to dilate at the end of the Labour conference), the cameras and the whole paraphernalia of the security state do it? None: it darkened its good name. And I’d guess that to a large part of the public, the police today (or at any rate the Met) are anything but crime-fighting heroes. The Labour Party will never trump the Conservatives on these issues; but a belief that it can diverts the party from policies which are more socially significant and more in its interest to pursue.

It’s the same with immigration. Ed Miliband has apologised for Labour’s failure to see its effect on people’s jobs. Again, why do this? No one knows what the state of immigration will be in four years’ time. All we do know is that its most likely source, Eastern Europe, is beyond our control. Immigration is on the whole sensitive to economic conditions. There was a large migration from Poland and Lithuania when there was an unsatisfied demand for labour in Britain before 2008. That is what we would expect. Last year, despite all the efforts of the coalition government, net migration was even higher than in Labour’s final year because fewer Britons were leaving the country (as a result of the world recession). Again, that is what we would expect. The Blair government could have imposed temporary controls on Eastern European migration, but chose not to. And now the government cannot impose such restrictions. To pretend that immigration can be significantly controlled by legislation is simply dishonest. In order to say it is doing ‘something’ about immigration, the present government, like the last, wants to exclude Indian doctors and non-EU students because it cannot control the numbers coming from Eastern Europe. That is a self-defeating and foolish policy which Labour should leave alone. It has always exaggerated the significance of immigration as a political issue and, as with crime, it will never trump the Tories in any case. The only way immigration can really be regulated is to weaken the economy to such a degree that the demand for labour disappears. Here, the coalition might be successful.

Labour should keep apologies to a minimum and should not feel obliged in the early stages of a parliament to make a clean break with the past. That leads only to queasy speeches like Ed Miliband’s at the Labour conference. His attacks on the predatory businessmen and bankers who until recently were the Labour Party’s ideal of economic man were awkward and embarrassing. It will be some time before he can get away with a speech like that. The desire to stress a commitment to new values also encourages even more extensive use of clichés and soundbites, as well as a search for quick fixes – rhetorical fancies that have led but to the grave.

There is also a known unknown which should discourage Labour from over-committing itself: the position of the Lib Dems. Not only do we not know what the general political-economic climate will be four years from now, we do not know in particular where the Lib Dems will stand. Indeed, how the coalition parties will fight the next election, and how they will fight each other is anyone’s guess, especially as the failure of AV means they cannot safely stand against each other. When the coalition was formed, a substantial fraction of the Lib Dem vote went to Labour and appears to have stayed there. At present there are two Lib Dem Parties: the ministers, who must bear joint responsibility for coalition policies; and the non-ministerial MPs, who include the deputy leader, Simon Hughes, and various spokespeople, and who often act as though the coalition doesn’t exist. Nick Clegg has been an ineffective leader: he made a mess of the negotiations that led to the formation of the coalition, and a mess of the AV referendum (from which, however, he has ‘moved on’ with great speed); he saw no difficulty with Andrew Lansley’s health legislation until first the medical professions, then his party, cut up rough; he has acquiesced in educational proposals that will do nothing to promote his stated aim of social mobility (quite the reverse); and he has apparently colluded with the disgraceful proposal – which came from his department – that electoral registration should be the responsibility of the individual and not even compulsory, a proposal obviously designed (like the new electoral boundaries) to re-engineer the electorate in the Conservative Party’s favour. Despite assertions to the contrary, the Lib Dems have not, with the partial exception of the health legislation, significantly modified any of the Conservative Party’s programme.

The reason for Clegg’s apparent ineffectiveness is that he is, despite his social liberalism, in all essentials a Tory. That became increasingly obvious during the election campaign and has been confirmed since then – not least in his strident assertions at the Lib Dem conference that Labour should never again be left in charge of the economy. (And at that conference the attempts to distance the Lib Dems from the Tories were merely embarrassing.) If in four years’ time the tone of Lib Dem policies is set by Clegg, Labour will know it has no left of centre rival and can act accordingly. If, however, it is set by the other Lib Dem Party (Simon Hughes, say) its electoral stance will probably have to be different. That is about all one can say.

So what should Labour do? This is not an easy question to answer since so much of what the coalition has been doing was anticipated by Labour itself. It has somehow to have policies that are true to the party’s traditions (some of which were in the New Labour mix), are broadly acceptable to most voters but do not overlook Labour’s own electorate, and are also in the interests of an economy now in real trouble. There are three things it could do. First, by not sticking to current debt repayment levels, it could resume the schools’ building and repair programme and the Educational Maintenance Allowance, two of the last government’s best policies, shamefully abandoned by the coalition, from which the majority of parents who send their children to state primary and secondary schools – wherever they live – would benefit. Labour paid a heavy price for putting so much emphasis on its educational ‘reforms’ and neglecting to make clear to the electorate how much it was doing for the physical fabric of their children’s schools. There is probably not much Labour can do about the anything-but-free free schools, the faith schools, the privately run academies and the rest, since it has already sold the pass on these, but it could point out just how divisive and expensive they are, and promise that children who don’t go to them will at least attend schools that aren’t falling down. And they could demonstrate the pointlessness of the pupil premium, the Lib Dem nostrum dear to Clegg’s heart, in the context of other education cuts and a failing economy.

The second is to act from strength, and promise to restore the NHS’s funding. During the election Cameron insisted that the NHS budget would be protected, but ‘protected’ has many meanings. The coalition’s meaning is that the NHS will lose huge amounts of funding, but not as much as local government. How much Labour would gain from such a promise we don’t know. The majority of the electorate seems to think that the coalition will run the NHS more ‘efficiently’ than Labour, which never got the electoral credit it deserved for its investment in the NHS, partly because so much of the spending was encumbered by the PFI, partly because the Blairite rhetoric about the need for further ‘reform’ undermined the NHS’s reputation, and partly because of well-publicised stories about ‘waste’. It was noticeable that Labour’s criticisms of the first draft of Lansley’s NHS Bill had little popular resonance. The government took fright only after the opposition of the medical organisations became public and serious, the polls turned nasty and the Lib Dems decided to get their own back after the AV referendum. Beggars can’t be choosers, however, and at the moment defence of the NHS is one of the few possibilities for Labour.

The third is housing. Among the political class and the media it is a given that Thatcher was right to sell off council housing. But she was not right to do it for the reasons she did, and we have lived ever since with the disastrous consequences. She did it for purely political reasons – to turn council house tenants into Conservative voters – and forbade the construction of new housing for rent. The effect was drastically to reduce the supply of social housing, force up the price of private housing, encourage asset booms, reckless borrowing and equally reckless lending by the country’s financial institutions, all of which left people stranded when the inevitable happened and the boom went bust. The housing market has also made the economy operate like an unregulated casino. Doing something about this without alienating those who find themselves forced to play the casino’s games is not easy. But a start could be made. One of the results of house rationing – which is what it amounts to – is that large numbers of people have no access to affordable and habitable housing. The only way out is to increase the supply, particularly of social housing. This has many advantages. It eliminates the deeply distasteful debate as to whether social housing should be confined to the poor in work rather than the poor out of work. (Our political leaders favour the former of course.) It helps to compensate for Britain’s shamefully low levels of benefit payments. It gives the young who simply cannot afford even the first step on the housing ladder – their numbers are growing – reasonable places to live at reasonable rents, and, with luck, will slowly deflate the costs and windfalls of private housing (which is in everyone’s interest, not least those in the South), and help stabilise the economy. (What should not be done is what the coalition appears to want, which is to sell much of the existing public housing stock to tenants and use the return to build more social housing. The houses for sale would no doubt be underpriced, with the result that there will be no net gain to publicly rented housing.) There is another advantage: building houses has a marked multiplier effect. Construction of social housing is one of the best ways of getting a stagnant economy on the move again.

At the moment there is only so much the Labour Party can do. Neither victory nor defeat in the next election is certain. That is the argument against instant reinvention, though not against a more gradual rebalancing, which is both necessary and desirable.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 33 No. 21 · 3 November 2011

Ross McKibbin notes that the ‘general neo-Blairism’ of the media has led to a widespread tendency to overstate Labour’s current weakness, yet his analysis of Labour’s policy options seems to suffer from the same syndrome (LRB, 20 October). He argues that Labour needs policies which are consistent with what it did when in office, ‘broadly acceptable to most voters’, and ‘in the interests of an economy now in real trouble’; and he suggests that these requirements can be met only by a very limited menu of modest, pragmatic policies: resumption of the schools building programme, restoration of NHS funding, and expanding the supply of social housing.

Why did McKibbin not mention NHS privatisation? Yes, spending cuts are beginning to hurt, but the privatisation of the NHS will hurt far more, and voters are finally beginning to understand this. Rejecting the legacy of Milburn and Hewitt and reasserting Labour’s championship of the NHS as a public service looks increasingly like a vote-winner. And why no mention of banking? Even though Labour has not offered strong leadership on this issue, ‘most voters’ know that the bankers caused the crisis and are resisting all efforts to ensure they don’t cause another. There would be widespread support for separating high street banks from investment banks and for a clampdown on bonuses; and contrary to the City’s claims, which Mervyn King and Lord Oakeshott have exposed as special pleading, these measures – plus a financial transaction tax, as proposed by Angela Merkel and José Manuel Barroso – would also be in the interests of a more balanced economy.

Seen in this light, McKibbin’s agenda (‘there is only so much the Labour Party can do’) looks timorous and unimpressive, and, as an electoral strategy, ultimately dependent on the coalition making mistakes and the recession being prolonged – i.e. on luck. Now that the neoliberal promise of rapid growth and trickle-down prosperity no longer convinces, it isn’t clear why a strong commitment to re-regulate and tax capital and rebuild the infrastructure of the welfare state would not be electorally popular as well as good for the economy. Or is neo-Blairism so deeply entrenched among Labour MPs that these things would be unthinkable?

Colin Leys
London N4

Labour is doing OK? I don’t share Ross McKibbin’s optimism. Take education. To his credit, Andy Burnham was trying to put some clear water between Labour and the coalition, describing Michael Gove’s free schools as a ‘reckless gamble’. But in his recent reshuffle of the shadow cabinet, Ed Miliband brought in the Blairite refugee Stephen Twigg as education spokesperson, and shifted Burnham to health. Twigg announced his arrival by declaring his support for ‘free’ schools, citing the example of charter schools in America, in particular the Knowledge Is Power Programme (KIPP) schools. More than two million students in America are currently enrolled in charter schools (funded by the state but ‘freed’ from city council control); however, studies show that, once socio-economic factors are taken into account, their results are no better, and in many cases worse, than those in state schools.

At KIPP schools, parents have to sign a contract that binds them to getting their child to school by 7.30 a.m. every day, and making sure he/she stays until 5 p.m. (4 p.m. on Fridays); children will also be expected to attend on Saturdays from nine until one. Summer holidays are restricted to two weeks. Two or three hours’ homework must be completed every night and there is a rigorous uniform policy. Children are expected to move between lessons in silence. Any pupils or parents who do not meet these standards have to leave the school. KIPP schools do not seem to take students with learning difficulties or special needs, although legally obliged to. Attrition rates for pupils and teachers are high.

For many different reasons – chronic underinvestment, the growth of private religious schools, inequitable property taxes – the state education system in the United States is on the verge of disintegration. There is also a troubling racial divide: schools are more segregated than at any time since the 1950s. Apparently some parents are so desperate for educational success that they are willing to consign their children to the equivalent of an educational boot camp.

Labour’s other foray into the education debate has been to condemn the teaching unions’ plans to strike over the cuts in pensions. Opinion polls are evenly divided over whether or not to support them. (In a classic example of Clintonian triangulation, Ed Miliband tried to win some temporary support from the Daily Mail.) The Blairites disparaged public-sector workers as the type of people who ‘would vote Labour anyway’ or wouldn’t vote for an alternative. As a result Labour lost five million votes between 1997 and 2010. It won’t win again without them.

Richard Knights

Vol. 33 No. 22 · 17 November 2011

The government’s plans for council housing are even more insidious than Ross McKibbin suggests (LRB, 20 October). The plan is to encourage an acceleration in ‘right to buy’ purchases and funnel the capital receipts into ‘affordable housing’ – i.e. homes that have to be rented at 80 per cent of the market rate. That isn’t a meaningful alternative to private rented accommodation in most areas of the country. Furthermore, the money won’t necessarily be invested in the areas it came from. In Nottingham it probably means, based on the figures I’ve seen, the loss of ten social homes to be replaced by one ‘affordable’ home, probably in London.

Alex Ball

Ross McKibbin thinks there is a ‘Tory policy of paying off the debt in a single parliament’. If only that were possible. The ‘Tory policy’ (actually a coalition policy) is rather more modest: to eliminate the deficit by the end of the parliament: that is, to ensure that by then the debt has at least stopped growing.

Thomas Roe
London NW3

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences