In the mad-dog days of the 1980s, I would apply a simple test to proceedings at Labour Party conferences. Emerging on to the streets of Blackpool or Brighton, would you want normal citizens enjoying the sunshine to witness what was going on in there? If the answer was “certainly not”, then Labour had a problem – which it ultimately addressed and resolved.
The same test continues to apply though this week it was set in Liverpool with some of the same dramatis personae still with us. On the face of it, the answer should be a no-brainer.
Britain will not vote for a political party which espouses a radical agenda, says conventional wisdom. In case they think of doing so, the right-wing press will bring them into line by polling-day.
That may remain true yet it is premature to make the assumption. New Old Labour, or whatever we should call it, may not be all right but it is far from being all wrong either – and we live in volatile political times.
The Tories, ironically, are less dismissive than many within Labour’s ranks. Writing on Conservative Home website, former minister Robert Halfon acknowledged: “The problem for the Conservatives is that the Corbyn description of what is going on resonates with millions of people.
“Failing railways. Increased homelessness on our streets. Families struggling — despite working every day. Our infrastructure under strain and potholes across our roads. High streets closing as traditional shopping is swooped up by Amazon on the internet. Crime and antisocial behaviour on the rise. They are speaking to the problems faced by many. We too often speak only for the few.”
Such sentiments, though treasonable at next week’s Tory conference, are no more than sensible recognition that much of the population is contemptuous of what the political system is delivering – and is awaiting a chance to say so.
Much of this mood flows from the banking crisis and its ongoing aftermath. The injustice is grotesque, not least in Scotland. Greedy villains who destroyed great banks escaped scot-free while the masses pay for their folly through austerity driven from Westminster and compounded in Edinburgh through the treatment of local councils.
The political class treats this is as the unalterable norm. Arguing for more equitable outcomes is sneered at as “the politics of envy”. Yet as people observe the symptoms, with no end in sight, why should they not conclude that a radical agenda at least offers hope?
Or consider public ownership. Clever commentators treat it as the stuff of ridicule to talk about bringing back utilities that behave as greed machines for those in positions to exploit them. If you look at each individual case, the demand becomes perfectly rational.
More than half the rail system is already in public ownership – not because of left-wing ideology but because the great captains of industry, like Souter and Branson, exploited their bonanza to the hilt then walked away from the bits they could not squeeze further profit from.
The chief executive of Scottish and Southern Energy – which grew out of a noble public enterprise – was paid £3m last year. For what? For charging more customers than any competitor the highest tariff and repeatedly being fined for mis-selling. I would love to see electricity supply in the north of Scotland back in public ownership. Does anyone disagree?
Workers on boards? Was it not Theresa May who put it in her manifesto only to drop it like a hot brick thereafter? Is it now so outrageous because Labour is proposing it? Polling suggests that not many of the electorate think so.
In the 1990s, I argued that the marketing tool of “New Labour” and a radical agenda were totally compatible. Indeed, that reality was applied in the early Blair years which had a record of progressive reform to match any before them.
Labour should be more honest about that history and focused on presenting an agenda that offers both hope and realism. It is not radical policies which are their biggest threat but perceptions of credibility which are still very much work in progress.