Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Smart people learn from their enemies

The furore over last week’s defection of former Labour staffer, Luke Bozier, to the Tories provides a convenient excuse for a closer look at the party that he has just joined. Not with a view to doing the same, you understand – it’d be a cold day in hell for most of us – but with a view to a bit of hard-nosed, non-partisan analysis.

Leafing through Alan Clark’s idiosyncratic history of his party, The Tories, there are some interesting lessons for Labour. Not ideologically, of course: but about the nature of politics, and the nature of power. And power is something which the Tories were uncommonly good at securing and retaining during the period of the book, from their successful defenestration of Lloyd George in 1922 through to their rout in 1997. Indeed, during this period, as Clark points out:

“…the Conservative Party was the dominant political force in Britain – even when, for short periods, it was in Opposition”.

An analysis which is essentially correct: during that 75 year period, the Tories were never in opposition for more than six consecutive years. The harsh electoral reality was that Labour was only ever seeing how long it might keep the Tories out for, before their inevitable, swift return. To be fair to the historian’s objectivity with which Clark documents his subject, he also concedes that its electoral popularity was sometimes at the expense of the national interest. But for a model of how to dominate an electoral landscape, you can’t do much better than the Tories during this period. A party for whom winning was always a serious business: until, in 1997, when they lost the plot.

Now, if you can’t swallow your pride and learn from those who do something well, then you’re probably not destined to do it very well yourself. Let’s not forget the various Tories in the current cabinet who consult Blair’s A Journey on a regular basis – not because they agree with him, but because they think he was rather good at being prime minister. Smart people learn from their enemies, and Clark was someone who, while having witnessed high-level politics first-hand, could still analyse it with a surgical detachment.

In his Diaries he often wrote, as Roy Hattersley once said of the poet Blake Morrison, “with a reckless respect for the truth”. Never fiercely tribal, he was genuinely impressed by Labour’s renaissance, as Alastair Campbell’s own diaries reveal. As Labourites, while we might vicariously enjoy the politics-laid-bare of his writing, we may still find Clark personally unpleasant or even loathsome. A man who could veer between high principle and low cunning, he was certainly no saint. But stupid he was not, either: in fact, his analysis was often unusually lucid.

For a good example of this, we need look no further than the first few pages ofThe Tories, where he discusses the fate of the various Tory premiers:

“…the inseparable linkage between political aspiration and economic reality…all who sought to ignore this came to grief…”
He is talking about the Tories, but the historical moral applies equally to progressive parties; something Bill “the economy, stupid” Clinton well understood. And, over the last couple of weeks, it seems that the Labour leadership has finally assimilated that lesson. We should all be cautiously pleased.

For over a year, denial has been the order of the day: listening to the shadow cabinet on the economy has been rather like listening to the orchestra on the Titanic, resolutely refusing to stop playing the same tune as the waters rise menacingly around it. The recent statements of both Miliband and Balls on the importance of fiscal probity have now broken with that denial, and not before time.

It is a first step: as Progress’ Robert Philpot has written, there is still a yawning gap when it comes to defining what Labour would do with public services. But the fundamental point, made by Hopi Sen in his Renewal essayduring the summer, and refined by the pamphlet In The Black Labour, has hit home. What is Labour actually for, in times of austerity? A new model is surely required, if we are to avoid the public perception of attempting to defy economic gravity.

Although our prospects still look somewhat bleak as of today – some recentpolls having been possibly the worst since the election – this important change is to be applauded for providing an honest, credible foundation for a program for 2015. There’s plenty for the coalition to screw up by then: what one of Cameron’s predecessors wryly termed “events, dear boy”, can easily intervene. And we have at last shown ourselves to have some seriousness about winning, perhaps even in time to turn this boat around by the next election.

But it’s a tall order. In his December interview with the FT, Miliband himself, to his credit, made a telling comment: “I always said it would be a long journey to be just a one-term opposition”.

A managing of expectations for posterity, if ever there was one.

This post was first published at Labour Uncut, and featured in The Week Uncut, the most popular posts of that week.

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