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Home Opinion The cold comfort of holding patterns
Labour • Redistribution • Austerity

The cold comfort of holding patterns

Hopi Sen - 18 December 2012

Labour has found its oppositional rhythm. Tough political leadership is now required to set a governing blueprint which does not rely on redistributing the successes of social market capitalism

Barring convulsion, there are thirty months until the next British General Election. A hundred and twenty four weeks. Eight hundred and seventy days.

It feels a very long time.

For a British opposition, such extended longueurs are rare. In our traditional electoral cycle, a government entering its third calendar year is either confidently preparing for an election, or wondering whether to serve a full five year term in the hope that something, anything, will turn up to prevent defeat.

Two years and six months into the last government, we’d already seen a change of Prime Minister, a brief “Iron Brown” Boom, a consequent souffle-like collapse and the first tremors of a global economic catastrophe. Labour felt doomed, but the possibility that fortunes could rapidly change hung over all political calculus.

By contrast, today’s politics feels provisional and uncertain, but strangely stable. We have a weak, partial, sluggish, unimpressive recovery. We have an unpopular government implementing cuts public opinion feels are probably needed, but are being executed over-hastily, unfairly, and recently, incompetently.

As for the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, unhappily dysfunctional, yet bound together by the electoral facts of coalition and the economic consequences of their early decisions, it resembles nothing more than a whirlwind romance descending slowly into bitter, tense dislike. Just this week, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, spelled out precisely how horrid his coalition partners are. There is no joy in the governing relationship, but the partners cling together, knowing that neither sees any advantage in separation, yet.

You might expect this to produce a political convulsion, but one seems unlikely. The government and the economy are both stuck in an unhappy holding pattern, and both see little hope of immediate change.

Against this depressing backdrop, Labour has found its oppositional rhythm. Back in January, Ed Miliband was a few mis-steps from defenestration. Now he commands his party, can point to stable poll leads, and has an effective strategy for combating the government.

This consists of an aggressive exposure of the aforementioned over-hastiness, unfairness, and incompetence, combined with a social critique - that this government is out of touch because at its core, it represents the needs of a tiny minority of the wealthy and privileged of this country. This argument is effective, not least because it is true.

The government is trying to answer this critique by appealing to “strivers, not shirkers”, trying to develop policies which give boons to the working man and woman, while tightening the screws on the feckless and indigent.

Unfortunately for Tory strategists, the way Conservative politics interacts with deficit reduction mean they cannot “cut the deficit fairly” without growth. As it seems to be their eagerness to cut spending which prevents the growth that would make such a Conservative economic re-alignment palatable to the British middle classes, the government is caught in a trap of their own making.

Seeing this, Labour has learned that there are few political pleasures greater than kicking a government when it cannot escape.

Yet, while it is clear what the Conservatives are doing wrong, and Labour is able to say clearly that it would do things differently given the chance now, there’s a gap where Labour’s next manifesto will be.

Partly, this is due to the extended political cycle. Those thirty months feel so far away. There’s no pressure for Labour to bring up a detailed set of policies with so long until the next election. It might not even be wise.

Yet there’s more to the absence of Labour policy than electoral tactics. Labour is still wrestling with a fundamental question: what a modern Labour government is if it isn’t a machine for redistributing the successes of social market capitalism.

Labour is searching for a narrative that does more than expose conservative idiocy, one that answers the awkward question of how a government with no money can deliver progressive change.

To answer this, Labour’s ongoing policy review seems to have become a rolling seminar in political philosophy. In its most abstruse form, this involves debating “pre-distribution”. In its most populist, it involves saying the words “One Nation” as frequently as possible, appropriating the language and politics of “we’re all in this together”.  

More directly, Labour could be the vehicle for a new industrial renaissance. It could be an engine to lift the incomes of the working poor. It could be the vanguard of a state that exists to allow others to develop the values of the common good. It could be the banner for progressive patriotism, or a host of other worthy causes.

Unfortunately for all these narratives, the more the current government fails, the more the task of deficit reduction is pushed back to the next parliament, and the more urgent the choices and priorities of the next Labour government become.

This means the coming political conflict, both between and inside parties, will be about the choices driven by limited funds. Tax increases or spending cuts? Benefits slashed or health protected? Industrial Bank or Corporation tax cut?

Ultimately the longueurs of extended opposition will end, and the fight over choices will begin.

This won’t be an easy, straightforward battle. Public opinion seems to be hardening against spending cuts, but is still inherently sceptical of redistribution. Voters seem to be against public sector reform and against increased borrowing. Amid great insecurity, British politics seems to have a conservative (small-c!) bias. Unfortunately, a policy of preservation is one offer no party can credibly make.

So, unfortunately for those of us condemned to observe the extended recessional of coalition, in 2013, British politicians may find staying in their holding pattern less dangerous than trying a new approach.

Hopi Sen is a former head of communications for the Parliamentary Labour Party. He is now a consultant, writer and commentator. He also blogs at hopisen.com

A contribution to State of the Left, a monthly insight report from Policy Network's Social Democracy Observatory

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Globalisation and Governance.

Tags: Hopi Sen , Opinion , Labour , Labour Party , Redistribution , Austerity , Election , UK , Britain , United Kingdom , Gordon Brown , Global Financial Crisis , Austerity , Conservative , Liberal Democrat , Conservatives , Liberal Democrats , Conservative Party , Liberal Democrat Party , Coalition , Nick Clegg , David Cameron , Ed Miliband , Strivers , Shirkers , Tory , Tories , Pre-distribution , One Nation , Tax , Spending Cuts , Industrial Bank , Corporation Tax , Healthcare , Social Welfare , State of the Left ,


Abubaker B. Mayanja
18 December 2012 17:48

All the answers lie in Winston Churchill's " The idea of a state is to draw a line below which people cannot fall; but not to prevent those who want to excel from doing so' the theory is about right; the third way or the Social Market Economy. Market regulations to deal with the adverse effects of unfettered markets and creating quasi markets for delivery of social services. I see no need to re-event the wheel so we kind of come to the same conclusion; to get labour re- elected , resources(time, brains and money) should be directed towards the social market economy as opposed to bashing conservatives or the coalition (that's where i take issue with your discourse) . I see know reference to Toyota in Land-rover ads. Just sell the product; let the average guy on the street understand what it means, then the engine of new labour will be firing. No need for philosophical rhetoric.

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