Osborne is right (but not on economics)

by Rob Marchant

Tory economic policy is wrong headed, dogmatic and bad for the country. This argument is well-made by economic commentators including Paul Krugman and Martin Wolf (paywall). But it may be necessary to admit to something that pains us. We may have misjudged George Osborne as a politician. He seemed to plausibly fit the stereotype of Tory boy, that delightful creation of Harry Enfield’s, or his stupider brother (must be something about that hair). But it must be recognised that this is lazy thinking. He is not stupid.

On the contrary, recent evidence seems to show he is rather intelligent, despite carrying out policies that the readers of Labour Uncut are unlikely to believe in. If you do not feel we have anything to learn from our political enemies, you can happily stop reading here. For those open-minded souls who are prepared to accept they do not have all the answers on political strategy, not policy I stress – but political strategy, read on.

In an interview with Prospect, reported in the Independent, Osborne makes a very good point when he says:

“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 is that he has learned this truth through long years in opposition, sat on the opposite side of the political fence from us. But it is universal, and there is the nub of our current situation. While we maintain our current mode of comfort zone politics, how do we not pander to the natural forces of reaction that are in all of us? We must examine the policies that scare us and arguments that make us think, not arguments that reinforce our own natural prejudices. Like our jobs and relationships, our politics should challenge us a little, shouldn’t they?

Listening to the party membership, and 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 should make us all think. We seem to have heard precious little since 6 May, from either Ed or the other leadership candidates, which truly challenge 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 accepted the no longer making hard everyday choices, which opposition bestows on us, as a blessing and not a curse. Perhaps it is monumentally unfashionable to quote him, but on Wednesday Tony Blair appeared alongside his old pal Bill Clinton. He made a comment 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 agree with or like Tony Blair, we can be sure of one thing. David Cameron would be delighted with the prospect of our corralling of ourselves. 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 for it. We truly believe we are at our ideological limits and can go no further. Just like the Tories, who for many years, kindly stood aside for us.

Rentoul, in the Independent article ends by observing, “I’d say Labour are going to have to think quite deeply about how to oppose this lot.”

We should. Cameron has taken his party in a direction it does not really want to go on touchstone issues like the environment. They are 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 both have 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.

Rob Marchant is a former party staffer, blogger and social entrepreneur.  He blogs at The Centre Left.


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6 Responses to “Osborne is right (but not on economics)”

  1. Chris says:

    “challenging the comfort zone within their own parties in order to provide a workable agenda for government.”

    What then is the point of being an member of a political party if all the leadership of said party do is enact policies you don’t agree with and then rub your nose in the fact they did something you didn’t want them to do.

  2. Rabelais says:

    What Chris said above but also…

    Rob,
    What you are suggestion is politics reduced to machismo, all ‘hard choices’ and ‘thinking the unthinkable’. This always sounds great; Mail readers love it because it re-calls dear old Margaret for them and usually this sort of rhetoric is code for a right-wing agenda (as it is now). But what specifically are you proposing to think that is apparently unthinkable? What hard choices are you proposing to make? To whom are they unthinkable and hard? It’s great to talk tough in politics, just as it’s great to boast in the bar among your mates after a game of rugby. But if politics is just pushing and shoving to knock your opponent off guard and keep him or her there, then frankly what’s the point of voters, party members; what’s the point of any of it?

    But if you want to do something hard here’s a list of some specifics (but perhaps they are just unthinkable):

    Raise taxes for the rich (and close the loop-holes that allow them to squirrel away huge sums of money)
    Tuition fees and give students a living grant
    Nationalise the railways.
    Scrap trident.
    Set a date for withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan.

    That’ll do for a start.

  3. Chris, to answer your question: the point is to be challenged, to debate and come up with something that is not just pie-in-the-sky. My point is that the mainstream of ALL political parties like to operate on their own terms rather than those which (a) might work in practice and (b) might just be acceptable to the electorate. Cameron has learned that lesson, largely from us. In our ongoing policy review, are we heading for policies which are comfortable for us, in our nice little Party bunker, or those which will deal with the cold, hard world outside? My fear is that it may end up being the former.

  4. Rabelais, well I’m delighted you are suggesting I’m macho (you have to be the first on that one). If your complaint is about lack of specifics in my article, fair enough. I would simply say that I have not heard a single policy position so far that is not either the same or a move to the left from a previous policy position. That, in Labour’s case, is a general shift towards our comfort zone (as a move to the right would be towards the Tories’ comfort zone), and not away from it.

    I respect your choices on the list of policy proposals, but most of them would move us back to where we were 15-20 years ago in policy terms. The exceptions are no. 3 (partly done already, although under very exceptional circumstances), and no. 5 which didn’t exist then. But yes, in terms of getting re-elected, they really are mostly unthinkable.

  5. Mike says:

    The sad thing is that in this party ‘dealing with the cold, hard world outside’ means being as right-wing as possible in order to be in power, watching those right-wing policies fail, and then have the right-wing media claim it was socialism all along and what’s needed is a good dose of right-wing policy.

  6. james says:

    Whatever policies we have, our basis in organised labour is always going to be a threat to the capitalist class. And we’re always going to have people like Rob arguing that we can’t have an independent policy agenda, and must instead follow whatever line is worked out in boardrooms and summits of the elite…

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