23 March 2008

A response to Change is What We Do: Boldness and Progressive Politics

The following is my response to Change is What We Do, Wendy Alexander's attempt to look at the Labour Party and its future direction. Alexander is, of course, stuffed to the gills with qualifications. I have a 2:2 in Linguistics. All the same, let's try some rebuttal.

We in the Labour Party have been fortunate to live in a time when politics in the English-speaking world have been dominated by three of the most gifted politicians of the centre-left – Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown.

Already there's a problem here: Clinton and Blair got to where they did by 'triangulation', by moving their respective parties further towards - and perhaps even beyond - the Centre. Further, Clinton lost his hegemony over US politics in 1994, when the Republicans took control of Congress, and even now, his chosen candidate for President - his wife - is trailing first-term Senator Barack Obama in the race for the Democratic nomination. Blair, meanwhile, had to put up with speculation over when he would leave politics from, well, virtually day one. Labour in 1997 got fewer votes than the Conservatives did in 1992, the 2005 Labour Government was elected on a smaller share of the vote than any Government since the Reform Act, and under Blair, Labour came second in Scotland for only the second time in fifty years (though Jack McConnell apparently isn't one of the most gifted politicians of the centre-left so that must be his fault). And Brown's performance in the hot seat has been less than inspiring: his earlier solid handling of the various crises that marred his first months in office has been undermined by the botched election, he is facing a Cabinet split over the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, and he has been missing in action while major economic problems have left his successor as Chancellor Alistair Darling look impotent.

That’s why Scottish Labour can learn from Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown. They did that work, they won that respect and support, and we should learn the lessons. For the bitterest lesson of all is that the SNP have certainly done so. The slogan that headlined the Nationalist campaign that defeated us was “It’s time for change”. They managed to capture a mood in Scotland that wanted change. It was the same mood that we in Scottish Labour caught in 1997 and 1999. We stayed in tune with that feeling in 2001, 2003, and 2005. But we lost it in 2007.

Wrong. Firstly, the SNP slogan was "It's time", but the word change wasn't in the slogan. No, the sentence was completed with an SNP policy, or at least an aspiration. Yes, there was a change inherent in that, but the SNP campaign stated what the change would be, which Labour did manage in 1997. By contrast, "It's time for a change" was the Labour 1992 slogan, which was unsuccessful. Further, the Labour message in 1999 was "Divorce is an expensive business" - i.e. aren't the SNP horrible? - the message in 2001 was "Don't go back to the Tories!"; the message in 2003 was a combination of going back over the last four years and scaremongering about independence and the 2005 slogan was the meaningless "forward not back" (forward to where?) and "If you value [the NHS, schools, etc.], vote for it" - implying that the Tories would rip the heart out of "it" (and to be fair, on the 2005 manifesto, they probably would have done) if they got their hands on the levers of power. Therefore, the 1997 campaign is the aberration, and the 2007 campaign was entirely in keeping with what came before. The difference is that this time, the Opposition had something to match - and better - it.

The truth is that change is at the heart of progressive politics and must be at the heart of Scottish Labour. We are the party of change. We want to change the institutions, the practices, the beliefs that hold our society back. If institutions are not working to make Scotland a better place, our job is to put something better in their place. If there are practices that are holding Scotland back, our task is to sweep them away. And if there are beliefs that are checking progress, our aim is to challenge and defeat them.

Firstly, change for the pure sake of change is risky. Change has to be justified: there has to be a reason for change (the status quo is flawed) and the change proposed has to be the best one available. That is why it's difficult for a government to maintain office for long periods and at the same time propose, support, deliver and sustain constant change. Sooner or later, you have to change things you already changed. Why? Did the last changes not work? Why should we trust you with these changes? And in any case, the Labour manifesto owed more to the status quo than any of the other major parties. Alexander is correct: Labour have become the party of the status quo. And you could argue that the Unionist stance of the Labour party is at odds with their professed desire for change and progress. Why, then, is the one Labour member advocating that Unionism be challenged (but not necessarily defeated) - former First Minister Henry McLeish - being discredited by George Foulkes in today's press?

Bill Clinton memorably told the Labour Party conference in Blackpool in 2002 that for politicians of the centre-left, even those in power, the phrase “it’s time for a change” should not be a threat, not even a challenge, but should instead be a constant theme. For those of us on the progressive wing of politics, it is always “time for a change”, because change is why people vote for us.

Well, Labour did forget this - they offered no change in 2007 - but consider: if people want change on its own, regardless of what the change is, why are governments re-elected? If people wanted "change" in 2001 and 2005, why did they vote Labour and not Tory? If they wanted "change" in 2003, why did they vote Labour and not SNP? Alexander is in effect proposing a "permanent revolution" (sound familiar?). What happens when the revolution becomes the status quo? Alexander has picked up on the buzzword, sunk her teeth in, and she won't let go. But what will she do with it now?

It is no coincidence that our principal opponents have historically been labelled “conservatives”. At heart, they wish to conserve what already exists because that is how the privileges enjoyed by them and their supporters are maintained.

In key respects, the Nationalists are worse than the Conservatives. The Nationalists seek to disguise their conservatism in the language of radicalism. But at heart, they are deeply conservative. They want to turn the clock back 300 years to a past that never was in order to achieve a future that never can be. Nobody on the centre left
should be in any doubt that if the Nationalists ever came close to achieving what they want, the winners will be few and the losers will be many.

So firstly, there is confusion in this section as to who Labour's principal challenger actually is in Scotland. It's obviously the SNP (though the LibDems will make a case based on their second-place in the 2005 Election). Then there's the logic of conservatism being disguised as radicalism (is that possible?). The past that Alexander claims never was, actually was: Scotland was independent. We know this. Isn't ruling out an optimistic, positive vision of Scotland's future (the "future that can never be") counter to Alexander's earlier calls for change? And Alexander's accusation that independence would benefit the "few" will come as a surprise to those on the left of Scottish politics such as the SSP, Solidarity and the Greens, who are in favour of an independent Scotland. Independence on its own won't favour the few or the many: it will be the independent government of Scotland that decides that.

Tony Blair taught Labour to put internal division aside and to seek power. Our job as a party of the centre-left is to ensure that power is used for the benefit of the many and not the few. We learned also that we must encourage the creation of wealth. But it is our job as Labour politicians to make sure that wealth is not just created, but is also put to work to create jobs and opportunities for everyone, not to stagnate in the hands of select and fortunate individuals.

In many ways, this is part of the problem: Blair had Labour seeking power for power's sake. What, other than being in Government, does Labour stand for? We don't know. And wealth is still stagnating in the hands of select and fortunate individuals. The difference is that now, they're Labour peers.

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