The one thing that the candidates for the Labour leadership are not short of is advice. And I can’t resist asking them to take one essential step. That is to read two books.
The first is The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield. The second is Austerity Britain (1945-51) by David Kynaston.
The first is eminently readable and a perceptive reflection on how a political party can detach itself from the political, economic, social and cultural trends on which its success was based.
The second, which is much longer and more impenetrable, has some unwelcome home truths for all of us who have a rosy view of what we have often portrayed as the solidarity and mutuality of the immediate post-war years. Taking Mass Observation as the source for the snapshot of genuine attitudes at the time, Kynaston is able to avoid the pitfalls of modern opinion pollsters by getting into the thoughtful diary entries of literally tens of thousands of men and women musing on what they really felt rather than what they thought others would want them to say.
Dangerfield’s book has a great deal to teach modern social democrats not just here but across the developed world, where, unfortunately, left of centre politics is very much on the back foot.
The Tories have traditionally been much better at understanding the need to adapt albeit reluctantly, to the changing world they face. Hence David Cameron’s drives to adjust the Tories’ approach to major social changes in attitude and lifestyle.
Of course, their underlying raison d’etre of facilitating the operation of the free market economy and the protection of those with wealth privilege and power has not deserted them. But a knowledge and a keen ability to track the fears and ambitions of those from whom they seek votes, has been in marked contrast of the failure to do so of Labour over its 115 year life.
As Kynaston shows and those with any grasp of history know, the “working class Tory” has been a phenomena from which our opponents have been able to draw support. It was after all the collapse of the semi-skilled and unskilled vote that lost Labour the 1951 election although they commanded a slightly greater percentage of the popular vote. The emerging middle class were the ones who stuck with and appreciated the most, the achievements of the 1945 Government and it has to be said, did not share the overwhelming hopelessness, weariness and resentment that so many erstwhile Labour supporters experienced in that difficult time.
Whilst getting on for three quarters of voters profile themselves as “middle class”, David Cameron’s drive for “blue collar conservatism” is not just a play for Ukip voters but a reflection of the historic appeal to those, who sometimes paternalistically, metropolitan Labour supporters have presumed will be instinctively on-board.
So, understanding your opponent, their basic appeal, and yes their ability from 2005 onwards to recover from the devastating defeat of 1997 is a prerequisite not just to winning the Labour leadership but for winning a future general election.
Without a debate which reflects hard-headedly on the contradiction of what wins internally might lose externally, Labour would really be doomed to a prolonged period as an ever resentful and bewildered opposition.
Since the departure of Tony Blair as Prime Minister in 2007 I have attended far too many meetings in which a phenomenal achievement of winning three full terms in office for the Labour Party has been disparaged as though it were tantamount to betrayal. Whilst that underlying feeling still exists, there is a danger that the Labour Party will have to go through yet another defeat to get the message that was last seen and understood in the post 1992 period.
In my own efforts to initiate a debate back in 2011 I published pamphlet to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the book by my old tutor Sir Professor Bernard Crick entitled “In Defence of Politics” revisiting the themes in that book, I endeavoured to raise some of the issues which are becoming predominant in the debate about the future of Labour.
If we are to answer the question “what is Labour for?” it might be helpful to start a debate about the nature of our democracy. The engagement of men and women in the decisions that are taken locally and globally which affect their lives and how the Party might be a driving force, not only for a different style of politics but for a fundamental change in the way in which in a highly complex world is understood and therefore how our democracy should work.
Ironically the reversal of Labour’s previous stance of opposing a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union offers an opportunity to engage in a meaningful debate about Britain’s place in a global economy where decisions are taken like it or not, way beyond the national Parliament in Westminster (never mind the devolved legislatures in Edinburgh or Cardiff). If the Labour Party’s contest for leader can be turned into a springboard for genuine engagement with the British people through the European Referendum and our response to global forces together with how to reinvigorate a new participative democracy, there is just a chance we might address the future rather than the past. Britain in 20 years’ time rather than Labour twenty years past and avoiding Austerity Britain in 2015 turning into the Strange Death of Labour Britain in 2020!