Friday 21 May 2021

Centrism Rebooted?

Four years ago this place suggested the writing was on the wall for Progress, and last weekend they wound themselves up to merge with the Policy Network. Marking the occasion was their conference which featured Keir Starmer and David Miliband, each pulling in 55 and 23-strong audiences respectively. Not the most auspicious of beginnings as both are significantly down on the in-person gatherings of just a few years ago. But I'm not here to pour scorn on the newly minted Progressive Britain but to see what's on offer and whether the centrists of the 2021 Labour Party have moved on from The Master. And the answer is ... not really.

Writing for LabourList, Nathan Yeowell says "we need need to rethink our centre left politics, not reheat them." Okay, but Progress has said the same thing for the last 20 years, so how does this "rethinking" differ? Well firstly, there's a plea for honesty and accounting for mistakes made. Sort of. Going back to 2010, Nathan argues we were busy "squabbling over which Miliband brother should be leader", which meant the Tories were given free reign to establish their association between Labour and profligacy and push their case for the "need" for swingeing cuts to the public sector. Compounding this trouble was the fact a systematic analysis and understanding of Labour's time in government wasn't established, meaning the party was ill-placed to counter Tory charges.

Oh dear. We're in the foothills of the argument and already we're encountering factionally convenient memory loss. Firstly, there was a Labour leadership contest which was why Labour was talking to itself and memory and some might recall the policy platforms of the two frontrunners. Dearest David, the great never-was of Labour politics was widely seen as the Blair continuity candidate and he was ... in favour of a programme of cuts. The blessed Ed, who affected a soft left pose, also acknowledged the "need" for cuts. The only candidates who didn't were Diane Abbott and, bizarrely, Ed Balls. If this wasn't enough, Labour went into the 2010 election also promising a programme then chancellor Alastair Darling summed up as "cuts worse than Thatcher." So let's take the bit between the teeth. The Tories drove the argument for austerity after the banking collapse and Labour completely capitulated to their common sense. They did so while in office, during the election, and pushed the line during the leadership debates. It was they who handed the initiative over to the Tories by stupidly affirming all of their attack lines, and refused to defend their record while still in office. This was an utter failure of politics, of centrist politics as well as a failure of leadership.

Nathan goes on and lays the fault of the subsequent defeat in 2015 at the feet of "political positioning and parlour games at Westminster." Was this really the case? Again, that wonderful thing called recollection comes to the rescue. Yes, Ed Miliband's leadership was too wonky, but its chief weakness was abiding by the common sense established by the press and the government, and also vigorously argued for by the centrist Labour. For them, Andy Burnham's health reforms were too ambitious, the suggestion of state intervention (note, not nationalisation) in the economy smacked of Soviet command and control, and yet somehow, mysteriously, Labour was still too left wing. The diagnosis, completely unsupported by polling evidence, was Labour lost because it was too weak on "aspiration". This is where we meet a symptomatic silence. Nathan opines how 2015 opened the door to Corbynism but the subsequent four years are merely designated a fractious period, or sturm and drang as he puts it in an unnecessary Wagnerian flourish. Curious that the former head of Progress might focus on the Commons minutiae of 2010 and 2015 as if these were the pivotal moments for Labour this last decade, and not the fall out from the Scottish referendum, the 2017 election - the first and only time Labour gained seats in a parliamentary election in 20 years - and the debilitating undermining of the Corbyn leadership by the parliamentary party and the centrists in exile in the "Remain movement". The disaster of 2019 had many authors, and no amount of "forgetting" or refusal to face up to their responsibility will get the Labour right, Progress-types, nor Keir Starmer off the hook for the part they played in securing defeat. Expecting the likes of Progressive Britain to accept responsibility for failure is one thing, but the fact these key events in the history of the party merit no mention suggests their idea of a rethink is as deep as their rebranding exercise.

If not recent history, what does centrism redux want to focus on? Nathan suggests accepting Brexit as a done deal, four years too late. That Labour should talk to progressive parties in Europe and the US, but curiously no whisper of discussions here in the UK. We need new policies and, in a roaring rhetorical finish, we must "look forward not back". Might I suggest this project won't get very far if you don't examine the contours of the political landscape we're in. And the two main questions are why the Tories are seemingly invulnerable despite the Coronavirus catastrophe, and what Labour's coalitions were in the two most recent elections and how they might be brought together again while taking votes off the government. See, it's not hard. If a hobby blogger can spot what the issues are, there's no excuse those enjoying the privilege of working full time in politics for not identifying what is staring right back at them.

What about policy? Nathan has little to say, but there is a prospectus already in the wings. A couple of months ago Rachel Reeves was talking up Labour values, and long-time readers might recall Wes Streeting's pamphlet on broadly the same theme. The next manifesto will draw from both, but with added plastic patriotism and paens for the army and police. But none of this matters if they keep ignoring the politics of Labour's coalition. Without an honest accounting, without an unsparing look at 2014-2019, it doesn't matter how many "radical" policies and fine-sounding initiatives they come up with. None will leave the environs of their seminar rooms, Fabian Review nor the Portcullis House coffee shop because they don't know and are uninterested in understanding how the country they want to run works. How pitiful it is that the Tories have a better handle and feel for the politics out there than the party that was founded as the voice of working people.

Thinking about the position of the party, where it has come from and what its trajectory is was first task of Progressive Britain. And at less than a week old it has flunked this most basic of tests.

Image Credit


Nell said...

But it did deliver the most hilarious quotes.

Anonymous said...

The diagnosis, completely unsupported by polling evidence, was Labour lost because it was too weak on "aspiration".

Looking back, I think all the talk about "aspiration" was basically a middle-class demand to always be the centre of attention, a refusal to understand or empathise with the plight of others in society.

Don't want to engage with the human rights abuses the coalition government is committing? Hey, it doesn't matter - there's no such thing as society remember?

Blissex said...

«all the talk about "aspiration" was basically a middle-class demand to always be the centre of attention, a refusal to understand or empathise with the plight of others in society.»

That is a very generous and optimistic opinion. In practice "legendary" Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander in a 2008 pamphlet described “aspiration” as a yearning for “second home ownership, two cars in the driveway, a nice garden, two foreign holidays a year, and leisure systems in the home such as sound, cinema, and gym equipment”.

That gives away the game: there is no way the average voters can get all that upper-middle class living standard without massive tax-free property profits. Just read the two newspapers who are the very heralds of the politics of aspiration, the "Telegraph" and "Daily Mail": it is all about BTL and property prices.

It is not merely being “the centre of attention”, or just “a refusal to understand or empathise with the plight of others”, but a strong and persistent demand for policies to actively redistribute immense chunks of wealth and income upwards, from less rich people to richer people, by rigging the property and financial markets without any regard to fiscal prudence or economic growth.

Blissex said...

«I think all the talk about "aspiration"»

To illustrate even better what "aspiration" really means for "centrists", my usual quote as to the apotheosis of "centrist" ideology:
Labour MPs have raised concerns that Jeremy Corbyn’s rhetoric on tax avoidance could appear anti-aspiration. A senior shadow cabinet source said the party leader was in danger of overreaching himself in his criticism of David Cameron for investing in Blairmore, the fund set up in an offshore tax haven in the Bahamas by his father Ian.

Here "aspiration" means to Labour MPs the yearning for policies with well designed loopholes that allow offshoring of large amounts of income and wealth to tax havens by millionaire tory politicians.