Saturday, 18 December 2010

Osborne is right (but no, not on economics)

You can certainly find argued, by far better-qualified commentators than I - Martin Wolf and Paul Krugman, to name but two that Tory economic policy is wrong-headed, dogmatic and bad for the country. That said, I now have to admit to something which rather pains me. Yes, I have misjudged George Osborne as a politician. He seemed to me quite plausibly to fit to the stereotype of Tory Boy, that delightful creation of Harry Enfield, or his stupider brother (must be something about that hair). And I now recognise that it was lazy thinking on my part, because he’s not.

On the contrary, on recent evidence I have found him to be rather intelligent, albeit carrying out a policy I don't believe in. Now, if you don’t feel we ever have anything to learn from our political enemies, you can happily stop reading here. But, for those open-minded souls who are prepared to accept they don’t have all the answers on political strategy – not policy, I stress, political strategy – read on.

Where Osborne is right is in the following: in the reliably forensic John Rentoul’s article “No Short Cut to Office” last week, he quotes from an Osborne article in Prospect magazine:

“There is a lesson, too, for governments from recent political history. If you are not pushing forward the frontiers of reform, then you end up being pushed backwards by the forces of reaction. There are powerful forces ranged against any attempt to improve the way things are done”

What is fascinating from the article is that he has learned this truth through long years in Opposition on the opposite side of the political fence from us: but it’s universal, and there’s the nub of our current situation. While we maintain our current mode of comfort zone politics, do we not pander to the natural forces of reaction that are in all of us? As a Labour activist, I want us to examine policies which scare us a bit. Arguments which make us think, not arguments which reinforce our own natural prejudices. Like our jobs and relationships, our politics should challenge us a little, shouldn’t it?

That is to say, listening to the party membership (and, I hope, the public), is important, yes. And we will doubtless be doing a lot of that over the next couple of years. But so is saying tough and challenging things to each other, which are going to make us all think. We seem to have heard precious little since the 6th May – to be fair to Ed, that includes the other candidates in the leadership campaign too – which truly challenges our prejudices. Where is the thinking of the unthinkable? Where are these unpalatable truths, which all politicians must grapple with in order to grow? Where, in short, is the grit in our oyster?

We seem to have happily accepted the relief from daily hard choices that Opposition bestows on us as a blessing, and not a curse. Perhaps it’s monumentally unfashionable to quote him, but on Wednesday one former Prime Minister made some comments in an appearance last week alongside his old pal Bill Clinton which could be applied here, in the US or anywhere in the world:

“…the truth is, in my experience, the right wing always win when we retreat in our comfort zone and don’t keep breaking new ground, and that’s what we’ve got to do.”

But irrespective of whether we personally like or agree with Tony Blair, we can be sure of one thing: that David Cameron would be delighted with the prospect of our corralling ourselves in. Indeed, he is already sending out the sheepdogs, braying and barking, to the centre ground, to gently steer us away from any difficult politics which might wake us up and cause us to be a threat. We, for our part, are wont to willingly stand aside for them and abandon the centre, rather than challenge, because we truly believe we are at our ideological limits where we are and can go no further. As, indeed, they stood aside for us for many years.

Rentoul ends by observing,

“I’d say Labour are going to have to think quite deeply about how to oppose this lot.”

He’s right. Cameron has taken his party in a direction it does not really want to go on touchstone issues like the environment – and even maintaining relative silence on Europe – because he understands that challenging his party is a prerequisite for winning and maintaining power. The Tories and the Lib Dems are politically wrong-headed, and sometimes unscrupulous, as we have seen from the tuition fees saga: but they have both already taken on that essential element of change: challenging the comfort zone within their own parties in order to provide a workable agenda for government. We, since the election, have not. We need to.

This post also published at Labour Uncut.

1 comment:

  1. STOP PRESS: some nice flamer comments on the Labour Uncut article so far. But I'm afraid they only seem to reinforce my "comfort zone" argument.


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