Why the political right trumps the left

The policymaking trilemma facing Labour.

The economy continues to flat-line, unemployment is escalating especially for young people, and the headlines show the government attacking the NHS and the incomes of respectable tax-paying pensioners. The “cash for Cameron” scandal has further undermined the coalition government and given Labour a buoyant, short-term poll bounce. Yet the same polls still show the coalition ahead of Labour on economic credibility. Why does the left find it so hard to make headway when they are shooting at an open goal?

An important underlying factor is the policymaking trilemma that Labour faces. The left must respond adequately to the economic crisis to be seen as competent, it must address the established themes in public opinion to be electable, and it must develop generous and inclusive policies, to be progressive.

There are real difficulties in all three areas, and they are growing steadily more intractable. First, low public sector productivity growth and demographic shifts tighten already harsh spending constraints. Productivity in the main state services, the NHS and education has failed to rise since detailed analyses started in the early 1990s. This is despite a whole armoury of reforms: staff redeployment, new public management, internal markets, the productivity challenges, targets, flexible working, new pricing mechanisms and so on. As the public demands improvements over time, costs will rise, unless new ways of doing more for less can be found.

Second, it is hard to make egalitarian or redistributive policies attractive to much of the electorate when public opinion is unsupportive of higher taxes for any but the distant rich, and public discourse makes rigid distinctions between those who are deserving and undeserving of state welfare. In the past, public attitudes to benefit levels have tracked unemployment: when unemployment goes up people say benefits are too mean, when it goes down they say they are too generous. The most recent British Social Attitudes survey shows that attitudes have shifted: unemployment is rising steeply, yet more people believe benefits are too liberal. Analysis of media discourse shows that references to claimants as ‘scroungers’ and ‘workshy’ also continue to rise, despite the fact that the jobless vastly outnumber available jobs.

Third, both the spending constraints and the key themes in public opinion conflict with generous and inclusive policies. 

The right faces no such difficulties. Spending cuts are central to its programme. The failure to make the tax system progressive, meagre benefits and the stigmatisation of the poor as scroungers fit both public opinion and the right agenda. There is no commitment to generosity or inclusiveness.

One implication is that Labour must be realistic in its policies, recognising the reality of spending constraints and the importance of investing to create future growth, as the May 2012 Budget did. If the party is to retain its progressive identity it must also ensure that new policies are inclusive and build solidarity.  The rhetoric of ‘hard-working families’ implicitly excludes all those outside the labour market.

The approaches that offer a positive way forward include new universal services. Ben Galim in a recent IPPR paper demonstrates that a universal child care service would produce a real return for the economy as it made it easier for women to pursue paid jobs. Moves towards a social care service might have similar impact and be highly popular.

Governments also need to promote pre-distribution policies. Tax and spend redistribution works after the market has distributed resources, and market incomes are growing steadily more unequal. Pre-distribution would rebalance the rules of the game between the mass of the population and the elite. This would require stronger trade unions, better protection at work, workers’ representation on remuneration committees, minimum wage at living wage levels, cheaper fares, cheaper utility prices, perhaps the extension of producer and consumer co-operatives. All these measures would help shift the balance of power back towards that of the 1960s and 1970s, when outcomes were much more equal.

The essential element in these policies is that they build solidarity between social groups. They confront the current social agenda that is concerned to divide rich and poor, workers and scroungers, deserving and undeserving, insiders and outsiders. It will only be possible for Labour to address the Left Trilemma if it builds support across society through a programme that includes the widest possible range of groups.

A Left Trilemma: progressive public policy in an age of austerity by Peter Taylor-Gooby is available from Policy Network.

A man walks through wasteland in the town of Jaywick. Photograph: Getty Images.
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.