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30 May 2022

Where are Labour’s big ideas?

In an age of permanent crisis, a party that stands only for managerialism will be washed away.

By Neal Lawson

Lenin, the architect of Russia’s 1917 revolution, proclaimed that “the victory of ideas needs organising”. He was alluding to the role of the vanguard party in cajoling hesitant working and rural classes into revolution. But to organise the victory of ideas you must first have some. This is where we come to Labour.

Because whatever you think of Jeremy Corbyn, Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, John Smith or Neil Kinnock, they dealt in the battle of ideas. By ideas they didn’t simply mean policy but concepts, visions, analysis and strategies – a political project in other words.

Today, in comparison, Labour’s leadership is an ideas-free zone. There is no discernible political project. This is unprecedented. Why has this happened and what does it say about Labour?

First, to be clear, this is not to argue the party doesn’t have people who think. David Lammy, Lisa Nandy, Steve Reed and others in and around the shadow cabinet have ideas, as do backbenchers such as Clive Lewis, Stella Creasy and Jon Cruddas. Outside the Commons, mayors such as Andy Burnham and Jamie Driscoll and the Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, buzz with more plans than they have power. Think tanks such as the Fabians, the Institute for Public Policy Research and Labour Together pump out thoughtful reports. But in their different ways, they all do so as lone wolves. There is no orchestrated symphony. There will be huge expectations for Keir Starmer’s promised book, to be published later this year, and to succeed it will require not just deep and long reflection but a sympathetic ecosystem.

Aside from Starmer’s questionable, high-risk response to “beergate”, Labour has chosen a strategy of focusing on small targets in the hope of falling unnoticed over the finish line. The party’s claim isn’t to any radical new ideas or big plans but to competence, integrity and internal party control. The aim of the former two is to provide a contrast with Boris Johnson, the aim of the latter is to ensure Corbynism never happens again. Hence Starmer’s iron-fist approach to candidate selection in seats such as Wakefield, where there is a by-election on 23 June.

Yet trying to win elections free of ideas is the biggest risk of all. Yes, governments lose elections, but only to parties demonstrably ready to govern. Indeed, Labour only ever wins when it owns the future, witness 1945, 1964 and 1997. Because even if you win office, then what? Without big ideas, Labour hands the Tories an easy chance to undermine its claim to competence and integrity. 

Battered by Brexit, the loss of Scotland and four general election defeats in a row, Labour seems to have forgotten that ideas matter. Ideas are the foundation on which all political projects rest. Without them, with no lodestar, there’s inevitably only drift. The values you hold, your understanding of the technological, cultural and environmental conjuncture, your theory of change and sense of the agency and governance that can make change happen are critical components of any meaningful political project. From Aristotle and notions of the good society to Hobbes’s Leviathan and the role of the state, from Burke’s “little platoons” to the Communist Manifesto and collective ownership, from Keynes to Hayek, we are ruled by ideas.

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Read Paul Addison’s magisterial The Road to 1945, published in 1975, in which he describes a 100-year conversation that led to Clement Attlee’s transformative post-war government. Or think of the publication in 1944 of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and how that informed Thatcherism 30 years later. What book or which thinkers guide Labour’s path today?

The lack of an obvious answer should trouble Labour because it, in particular, needs ideas. The Tories rarely do. In that sense, Thatcherism was an aberration. The clue is in the title, conservatism is a spirit, the urge to conserve. And because the Tories represent already established and dominant forces, they are always in power; office is just the icing on the cake. Ideas have mostly been incidental to them.

[See also: Rishi Sunak has handed Labour the political advantage]

Labour is also defined by its title and so by class, not sentiment. Inevitably and inexorably, when labour’s forward march was halted and then reversed, the party lost its moorings. New Labour was a bold attempt to put go-faster stripes on what had become an out-of-date vehicle. Today, shifts in class composition leave it Poseidon-like, its hull turned up the wrong way, dominated by the middle class, not the industrial workers. No wonder its crew is disorientated, lost at sea.

Holed beneath the water line, Labour today, it seems, fears the risk of ideas and won’t invest in the rewards. Better to say nothing.

In truth, Labour has always found ideas problematic. It was never an intellectual party like the French socialists or the German social democrats, but it tolerated some intellectuals. Today it seems happy to be hollowed out. Dry nouns such as security, prosperity and respect are as deep as it gets.

Cocooned by the first past the post voting system, Labour is guaranteed second place in a two-horse race, and with it the trappings of being Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition: Short Money, broadcast time and PMQs. Proportional representation would be a big idea to transform our political culture and structures, but why, as one shadow minister put it, ever risk giving any power to the Liberal Democrats or Greens?

Pressure will inevitably build on Labour’s leadership to “get some ideas”. A speech will be hurriedly concocted but it is unlikely to hang together and convince without deep thought and ferment. A political project of meaning takes years to assemble. And so, integrity replaces ideas, personality replaces policy and competence replaces a crusade.

The tragedy, of course, is that this is the very moment for big thinking and big ideas. An age of permanent crisis – the crumbling global order, climate crisis, pandemics, the tech revolution, ageing populations – demands equally big answers. The economists Kate Raworth and Mariana Mazzucato, the Brazilian philosopher Roberto Unger and many more have ready-made responses but Labour is stubbornly disconnected from such global debate, content instead to slice and dice the electorate and drape only a flag over its intellectual shortcomings. It does so at a time when Joe Biden in the US and Olaf Scholz in Germany have purposefully reached out to the radical left for energy and ideas and won.

Labour is up in the polls only because the Tories are down. But its lead is small and fragile because it is built on sand. What is given because of such little effort can, and most probably will, be lost with even less. With no foundations and no footings, Labour might still get lucky and win office but managerialism in an age of crisis will be washed away. Welcome to the sound of silence.

[See also: Labour must back strikes to fight the cost-of-living crisis]

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