Thursday, 24 July 2014
Douglas Alexander - you might read this.
I wrote this post in January 2011. Just 8 months after Labour lost the election. Having somehow stumbled across it today, I think a) I seemed to know who Ed would be rather well and b) Douglas Alexander should read it right now.
"Sure, it's tough. You get kicked out of power and 5 minutes later people are screaming "Well what would you do? You haven't even got a policy!!" At the same time, they don't actually want you to have a policy yet, it's too soon. If you start spouting policies, the public will think you're arrogant, that you haven't learned anything from your recent defeat.
You need to accept that you made mistakes, but if you're not careful, you spend so much time in humility, it's hard to point out how the "other lot" could be any worse.
Activists sit nervously, wondering "Will there be passion?" Will there be the fire and brimstone they feel? "Who are we now and who will we be?"
That "Who will we be" is the big problem, isn't it? Who will we be?? What on earth is that? A person who has to ask who they will be hasn't a clue who they actually are. Surely nothing has damaged politics more than watching those who appeal to us for trust at the ballot box morph into whichever politically-hollow-chameleon they think we want to see. We've sunk helplessly into a swamp of "Who shall we be" and seem to have almost totally forgotten how to ask who we are.
In a policy vacuum or a period of consultation, it's that "who we are" that can guide opposition. No matter what the government announce, you know in your soul if you support it or not. You can agonise over your own policy positions until the end of time, but in the meantime, principle should fill the gap. Activists know those principles in their DNA. No-one needs to learn them or make sure they are "on message". Best of all, if you oppose on principal, on instinct, the public sense it. These days, they can smell the blood of hypocrisy from 100 miles. If you oppose by focus group and fear of the Daily Mail, they've switched off before you've finished your first sentence.
So, when Lansley announces his chaotic, destructive plans for effectively privatising the NHS, the principles of a universal service, free at the point of use are all you need to defend. You can support that principle violently without yet needing to say what you'd do instead.
When nurses or fire fighters or police officers face redundancies by the tens of thousands, you know that of all the people in society you need to fight for, to speak for, it's them. If you've just spent 13 years in government building up their numbers because the pursuit of excellence in our public services underpin everything you stand for, then the principle will always retain credibility.
When benefit changes mean that hundreds of thousands of the poorest members of society will lose their homes, forced to move away from everything they know and rely on, the principle, stamped indelibly on the back of your membership card, that we "live together freely" tells you all you need to know. When those same reforms threaten to leave paraplegics without wheelchairs or cancer patients without hospice care, then surely that is a direct threat on the ability to "realise our true potential?"
When banks announce £7 billion in bonuses as reward for a system that failed so utterly we will be paying off their greed for generations, "Power, wealth and opportunity" are hardly resting "in the hands of the many not the few." That underlying principle that forged the party and shaped your vision of society gives you the legitimacy to claim "Well, whatever we decide, no party of mine would ever support that."
The problem is that legitimacy isn't it? Labour can only claim those principles if they again hold them dear. One PFI scheme too many, one war too far and those principles are shaken. Suddenly we're worrying more about the "squeezed middle" or the "worthy poor" than the worries that underpin all of our lives.
The wealthy and powerful vote Labour too. In fewer numbers, certainly, but still in their hundreds of thousands. Not in self interest, but because they don't want to live in a gilded cage, sitting on a pile of cash while the poor starve and the sick suffer. They vote for the principles on the back of that Labour membership card. As long as the policies eventually reflect those principles, leaders can speak to all of us, not just to the contrived section of society focus groups favour that week - "Alarm clock Britain" "Mondeo Man" or "Worcester Woman." Perhaps most importantly of all, they might begin to speak again for the 35% or 40% of the population who no longer even bother to get up from their sofas and vote for anyone at all. The millions who believe politicians have no principles left.
Principles don't send you careering back to 70s militancy or 80s un-electability - far from it, they adapt to any time, simply underpinning the political compass, uniting a broad church of opinion behind a few unbreakable beliefs. They keep the Blairite and the Union leader fighting together, benefiting from each other's perspectives, safe in the knowledge that whichever policy ends up on the table, they will still be campaigning together to protect those vital principles.
A party that is frightened of it's principles looks hollow and unsure.
When Blair came to power, it was horses for courses. Labour had to finally prove that they could unify, it had to prove that whilst protecting Labour principles, they could slay Tory dragons. It had to shake the long held confidence of the Tories that only they would ever claim to be able to manage crime or inflation. The public wanted a massive reward for the trust they'd shown in allowing Blair not one but two unprecedented landslides. "Govern for us all" they said. Whatever you think of him now, his government achieved some basic principles that Labour had fought for since its birth - a minimum wage, free nursery education, excellence in health care and a passionate commitment to alleviating world poverty.
Ed finds himself leader of a party who lost their way. A party who forgot that whilst we govern for all, we fight for those who cannot fight alone. His great task is to prove that we remember why we exist. All the while there is still inequality, all the time we face exploitation, all the while people suffer injustice or prejudice they need a strong, confident Labour Party to show that their principles can offer the answers.
I don't think anyone wants him to fight Cameron on his own turf, as Cameron fought Blair and Blair fought Major. They want him to claim back the principles we allowed to fall away at times when reading that little membership card would have saved disgrace. Ed is no Cameron. He's inclusive and thoughtful and he's certainly no rudderless autocrat. If he allows our principles to shape his leadership and starts to convince the electorate that he knows instinctively what they are, then focus groups and tabloids start to lose their grip on policy making. I can't think there can be anyone in the UK who wouldn't agree that was long, long overdue.£