The challenges facing the left - and what can be done about them

The paradox of thrift, political inequality and the difficulties of conference season.

Twice this week, on consecutive nights, I have been invited to speak at events addressing the challenges facing the left. (This is an unusual density of speaking engagements. I think they get me in because I’m free, not because I’m any help.)

One was the launch of this excellent volume produced by Policy Network. The other was a branch meeting of Labour members in North London. The former focused on large-scale problems for “progressive” movements across Europe – the conundrum of why it is that what looked in 2008 like an obvious failure of globalised, free-market capitalism hasn’t massively benefited social democratic politics. The latter was much more interested in the question of whether Ed Miliband is going to be Prime Minister in 2015.

Neither gathering was optimistic and although the gloom was expressed in different ways, the themes were remarkably similar. At the risk of doing violence to long and nuanced conversations, I’m going to try to distil the common concerns into a few paragraphs.

The new political paradox of thrift

There is, on the left, a strong feeling that the macroeconomic argument that dominated the period immediately after the 2010 election was intellectually won and politically lost by the Keynesians. It is a source of dismay, verging on panic, that the pro-austerity side seems to be getting away with the stagnation of the past few years and is now poised to reap the benefits of dismal, uneven growth. Yes, of course there will be questions about living standards and who shares the proceeds of a flimsy recovery. But the reality is that George Osborne slipped the noose when his deficit and debt reduction targets where shredded and the economy was shrinking.

Labour always struggled to explain the economic paradox of thrift. Now they have their own political paradox to deal with – they are sure that austerity was the wrong policy and yet are being forced to devise a strategy resting on the implicit assumption that it is also unavoidable.

Pointing at inequality doesn’t steer voters to the left

There is a tendency in the Labour party to see the yawning gap between rich and poor, or rather between the very rich and the rest, as intrinsically vicious. That is a reasonable enough position. There is ample evidence that more equal societies are happier and healthier. But the mere fact of British inequality appears not to be as great a factor making people vote Labour as many had hoped (And not just because Labour presided over the unequal Noughties.)

What animates a sense of righteous indignation is the injustice of perceived unequal or undue reward – the fact that bankers continue to get their bonuses while ordinary workers’ wages are frozen, for example. But that isn’t quite the same as despising a social order where some people are much richer than others. Resentment of unfair reward can just as easily be politically mobilised by the right - in favour of benefit cuts, say, if the story told is that claimants haven’t done enough to earn their welfare cheques.

There is poverty in Britain that should be a source of collective national shame, yet the left is struggling to turn that into a galvanising political energy.  It doesn’t help that politics itself – or more accurately, politicians – are mistrusted. A social democratic party has twin challenges. First, it wants to persuade people that the collective good is served by a drastic and urgent reordering of the way wealth and opportunity are distributed. Second, it wants to persuade people that government is the right tool for doing it. Neither of those things are as obvious to many voters as Labour activists want them to be.

The classic old left proposition is that there are a few greedy rich people with far too much money who should be made to cough up to the taxman so he can hand out more to the rest. There is not much evidence in Britain that this is a reliable avenue to victory, but for want of a better idea it seems to be enjoying a quiet renaissance in the Labour ranks. (For a long and detailed study on different ways of expressing the egalitarian impulse and what might work in the context of UK politics, I recommend a forthcoming paper by Nick Pearce in the IPPR’s Juncture journal.)

There was in 2010 a significant number of people in the Labour party who hoped that Ed Miliband was the man who could articulate the moral case for addressing inequality with enough passion and urgency that Britain’s dormant social democrat conscience would be reawakened. The feeling among his most ardent supporters was that he could distil the essence of The Spirit Level into a political love potion for the nation to imbibe. From my encounters with Labour members I can say the reality has dawned that this won’t happen and that leaves many feeling desperately uninspired.

Miliband needs a good post-conference

It is traditional at this time of year to write that party leaders face a critical moment at their annual conferences and that they must deliver the speech of their lives. Those things are broadly true of Miliband’s current situation. But there is a caveat. No-one doubts that the Labour leader can pull of a good speech when he needs to. He did it last year. The Labour party in recent years has been good at circling wagons at its conference and refusing to give the media the civil war stories that hacks are chasing. The discipline frays but remains fairly solid. So it is easy to imagine Miliband getting through his Brighton jamboree with his position unharmed and quite possibly enhanced. The big day for him is the one after the conference. The most consistent complaint I hear from Labour members and MPs is that, even when the leadership find a good position on something, there is no follow-up.

There never seems to be a plan for ramming home the new line or presenting it in a way that captures the public imagination. Miliband’s positions can be mapped out on paper and, more often than not, they are sensible and shrewd. They are meticulously designed to address the concerns of target voters without alienating the Labour core. The problem comes in taking those positions off the page and building them into a political project in three dimensions. The challenge isn’t delivering a good speech, it is turning it into more than just another speech.

We know Ed Miliband is capable of pulling a good conference speech out of the bag. But what happens next?. Photo: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty
Show Hide image

Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.