The Mess They’re In

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

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.