Joyce McMillan: Labour must rediscover its roots

Labour's leadership contenders, among them Andy Burnham, could fail to match even Ed Miliband. Picture: Greg Macvean
Labour's leadership contenders, among them Andy Burnham, could fail to match even Ed Miliband. Picture: Greg Macvean
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PARTY has to establish a real alternative to the populist right that puts wealth before society, writes Joyce McMillan.

FIVE weeks on from the historic general election of 2015; and for those who want to see a strong centre-left alternative flourishing across the UK, the sheer scale of the challenge it has created becomes more apparent every day. In Scotland, there was no doubt something salutary, and perhaps inevitable, about the SNP’s crushing first-past-the-post humiliation of an increasingly moribund Labour Party; the SNP is now Scotland’s social-democratic party of choice, and Labour has to learn to live with that reality, for at least the next decade or so.

Labour has to start opposing the Tories and their account of society, lock, stock and barrel

In the rest of the UK, though, reports of the Labour Party’s demise – of its “catastrophic” defeat, and “explosive” collapse – have been greatly exaggerated, no doubt to suit the agenda of Ed Miliband’s detractors. In fact, with 232 MPs and 30.4 per cent of the vote, Labour remains by far the second-largest party, and the only real challenger to the present government.

And it’s because the Labour Party remains central to the future of social democracy in Britain that no-one on the centre-left of Scottish politics can afford to waste time gloating over Labour’s fall from grace, any more than Labour should waste time sniping at the SNP. Indeed Scotland’s SNP government is already discovering just how difficult it would be – particularly during an oil price slump – for Scotland to attempt a unilateral end to austerity, while the rest of the UK economy remains locked into its current right-wing orthodoxy, without any strong UK-wide opposition.

Which is why it is so worrying – indeed downright alarming – to note both the haste with which the Labour Party has rushed into leadership elections in Scotland and the UK, and the utter lack of any convincing future vision so far offered by any of the candidates. In Scotland, the only issue setting the heather alight is whether or not Scottish Labour should become a separate party, although few seem interested in debating exactly why, or for what purpose. And at UK level – well, the best that can be said of the babble of competing and largely incoherent accounts of why Labour lost, and what it needs to do to start winning again, is that it reminds us that, for all his shortcomings, Ed Miliband was probably, overall, a more thoughtful and far-sighted Labour leader than any of his likely successors.

So first, and paradoxically, I think Labour needs to stop listening to the detailed concerns of voters for a while, and to start instead formulating a broad and radical vision of the kind of future Britain it wants. George Osborne and David Cameron did not get where they are today, after all, by asking voters for their opinions. They got there by painting a picture of future Britain that is both repellent and crystal clear; a Britain where money matters, public spending is held down, those who depend on it are demonised, and private wealth excuses all things. It’s a vision that is believed – quite wrongly – to equate with economic efficiency; so people vote for it, because they feel they know what they are getting. In order to complete with that, Labour therefore has to offer a vision of the future that is equally clear and credible, but measurably better, more complete, more human. This will be difficult; but it is the essential task of imagination and leadership Labour must now fulfil, in order to make its continuing existence as a party worthwhile.

Then, secondly, Labour has to start opposing the Tories and their account of society, lock, stock and barrel. It has been a characteristic of the Labour Party, since the election defeat of 1992, that it is absolutely terrified of the combination of right-wing popular media and right-wing public opinion, which it rarely challenges. The result is a UK public debate that has increasingly come completely adrift of reality, on issues ranging from immigration and working-age benefits to the economy itself. By failing to defend its own record, and by appearing ambivalent about the “austerity” myth, Labour has critically failed in its duty to inform and lead public opinion; and to lay the ground for a political debate that it might actually win, instead of simply marketing itself as a kind of Tory-lite.

For in the end, even if that were the only way to win UK general elections, it would be a future for the Labour Party as boring and meaningless as it is humiliating. If you think our current economic and financial system is hunky-dory, that our way of life is just, decent and environmentally sustainable, and that it’s reasonable to slash essential public spending on the most vulnerable amid massive accumulations of private wealth, then you should accept that you are a Tory. And if you think that most of this needs to be challenged and changed, then you oppose it; or you become a meaningless mouthpiece of a Labour Party without dignity or purpose.

And this is, in a sense, no longer a matter of left and right, or pro-business and anti-business. It’s a matter of either promoting a real economy that generates jobs, pays living wages, treats employees with dignity, lives in a healthy and respectful partnership with a strong public sector, and rejects the extreme free-market ideology of our present elites; or continuing with a broken system of global finance that has already failed once, and yet is still holding economies and elected governments to ransom, for increasingly abstruse ideological reasons. Labour politicians who want a worthwhile future should have no hesitation in choosing which side of that argument they are on.

And once Labour has made a clear decision about that, then – and only then – the party in Scotland might be able to hold a sensible debate about whether it wants a separate future, a united one, or a federal one. If Labour in the rest of UK chooses the path of compliance and Toryism-lite, then separation may be the only answer. If Labour across the UK makes the right choices, though – to develop a new vision for Britain and its people, to reinvent, to argue, to oppose and to lead – then perhaps no separation will be necessary; and the party in Scotland will be able to begin to rebuild, at last.

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