We’ve heard a lot recently from both the left and right of the Labour Party about how Ed Miliband is, if not getting everything absolutely wrong, then at the very least coming at absolutely everything from the wrong angle.
Never happy with the election of the younger Miliband as party leader, the Blairites have used the three years since 2010 to find new and subtle ways to undermine him for having the temerity to suggest the political centre ground may once again be movable - this time to the left. The fact that David Miliband is gone and Tony Blair is increasingly tainted by association with dictatorship and a seemingly endless accumulation of wealth has added a sense of bitterness - and urgency - to their criticism. The Blairite talent pool also appears to be rather thin if those referred to by Len McCluskey in last week’s New Statesman interview are anything to go by.
As an ideology Blairism ran out of steam a number of years ago. Progressives shouldn’t mourn its passing, either. Triangulation in practice very often meant abandoning principle at the first hint that it might get the backs up of a handful of Daily Mail-reading swing voters. It can seem fatuous against the backdrop of the current coalition and its brutal social policies to retrospectively criticise what went on under New Labour, but it wasn’t all that long ago that a Labour government was presiding over detention without trial, the entrenchment of NHS privatisation and the growth of obscene inequality.
Points of principle
That said, the left of the Labour Party has its own problems. In placing principle above all else, it forgets that a large proportion of the electorate do not share the egalitarian values they take for granted. The Blairite obsession with electability is flipped on its head by a left which assumes its ideas are so obviously correct that presentation and compromise are the actions of spineless prevaricators. Make the argument that one should meet the electorate halfway and you will receive a look like you’ve just kicked an old lady in the head. Like in the latest Ken Loach film The Spirit of ’45, all Labour apparently needs to do is sweep to power in 2010 on a promise to nationalise the utilities, tax the rich until they reach for the shotgun and forgo all foreign policy adventures. In other words, much like the hard-left is forever time-warped in the St Petersburg of 1917, the Old Labourites act as if politics were still about shouting about bread rationing to navvies in cloth caps.
The world has changed but they, seemingly, have not.
The prevailing theme is that both groups are living in a past which no longer exists and probably never did exist exactly as it is remembered. Contrary to the fantasies of New Labour nostalgists, effacing one’s socialist and social democratic beliefs in order to appease the perceived conservatism of the electorate is to miss the historical point in 2013. The post-1979 political settlement is failing to deliver for working people, while the rewards of globalisation are being increasingly siphoned off by corporations and individuals that view the payment of tax as a choice and workers’ rights as something you lie about for PR.
In a recent interview, Ed Miliband pledged to roll back Thatcherism, which he said was not delivering for most working people. He said during his Commons tribute, however, that Mrs Thatcher was right about some things, including some of the privatisations which took place during her time in office.
On both counts he has a point.
The challenges faced by the left today are very different to those that existed in either 1945 or 1997. If it is to make inroads and redefine the political settlement as Mrs Thatcher did, it must learn from history rather than simply invoke or sloganise it.
The heirs to Blair should recognise that it is the politics of the centre ground that are failing working people and that, like the belief in unicorns, it is delusional to think there are no longer opposing class interests because the working class watch satellite television and have i-Phones. But the left cannot simply hark back to discredited state planning and 90 per cent rates of taxation. It takes maturity to recognise that some of one’s core assumptions are wrong, and those tenets of Old Labourism which once worked would today be about as practical as a tour of Atlantis.
Bask in the glow of 1945 if you must, but don’t look to post-war Britain for solutions to today’s problems. As well as providing comfort, nostalgia can also act as a break on the birth of new ideas.