Saturday, August 01, 2015

Labour’s choice. The SDP, or Keir Hardie?


New Labour was the SDP. The SDP established the policy framework which made a Labour Government electable. New Labour was a liberal Social Democratic Party as, of course, was the SDP. Whilst the Gang of Four did not achieve their personal ambitions for power from 1997 they will have seen their policy positions firmly in Government - and no doubt taken pride from that. Yes the LibDems absorbed a few leading SDPers like Kennedy and Cable. But the key effect was not really on the LibDems but Labour. The 1983 defeat was attributable in part to the SDP (who actually led in the polls pre Falklands), in part to The Thatcher bounce after the Falklands War, in part to the unelectability of Foot's Labour, and in part to the FPTP electoral system.

Post Foot Neil Kinnock realised that if Labour was ever to get power again it had to rid itself of the out-of-date socialist policies that were still entrenched in its psyche and its constitution. Clause 4 was a symbol of this. It had to go, and it went. Public ownership became not an ideological goal but a pragmatic choice. And so on. Blair and Brown of course built on Kinnock’s achievements, created New Labour and gained power. Where they governed from is a matter of dispute – my view is that they were a Social Democrat Government on the SDP and German model. Unfortunately everything is clouded by Blair’s wars. But even in 2005 he won a comfortable majority – the New Labour brand was sufficiently strong to carry him home.

New Labour was economically pragmatic and Brown was a very good Chancellor indeed. From 2005 onwards Labour was moving to invest and build on the economic strengths that Brown’s Chancellorship had created. Then Armageddon which was hardly (much) of the British Government’s making but a world-wide crash from which Britain was far from immune.

Throughout all of this time and on into the Coalition years there were few calls for the establishment of a truly Socialist Britain. The Old Labour people were still around and they cried “Foul” from the side-lines occasionally. But Britain had long since chosen to be a mixed economy and increasingly a liberal society. New Labour can take great credit for both achievements. The Conservatives haven’t (yet) managed to unscramble the new paradigm. Hanging over all of this is the maxim that politics is the “Art of the Possible”. To do anything you must be elected. To be elected you cannot campaign from the extremes. Certainly not with the FPTP system - UKIP gained nearly 4m votes but just one seat.

Finally it’s about personalities. In my view Labour was electable this year and the polls through the year agreed and said they would be. Then at the last minute it switched. Faced with the thought of Miliband and Balls next door to one another in Downing Street sufficient numbers of likely Labour voters didn’t. They either indulged in a bit of gut feel protesting by voting UKIP, decided that Cameron was the lesser of two evils or just stayed away from the polling stations. That scuppered Labour’s chances. Would they all have flooded to vote if Labour had presented a genuinely Hard Left manifesto? Some might have, but more would have rejected that position completely.

Some argue that Jeremy Corbyn is Attlee’s heir and to some extent they are right. But even 1945-51 was not an overtly Socialist , and certainly not pacifist, Government. Really you have to go back to Keir Hardie to find Corbyn’s true political ancestor. Is that truly what Labour in 2015 wants ?


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