by Kevin Meagher
Labour’s history is pockmarked with prolonged periods of opposition following ejection from office; none more so than during those 18 wasted years in the 80s and 90s.
The explanation for that generation in the wilderness is familiar enough: the party’s pitch to the country was tone deaf. On the economy, law and order, defence and a hundred other issues Labour had nothing to say that chimed with what people wanted to hear.
The party was more bothered with pleasing its own fissiparous cliques; the wannabe Dave Sparts, the bedsit revolutionaries, the local government crackpots who refused to set a rate, the headbangers of Militant.
The “loony left” were responsible for torpedoing Labour’s reputation and sinking the party’s chances with their puerile antics in Labour councils up and down the country and through their reckless control of the party’s policy-making machinery.
Fringe causes were put before mainstream concerns, with many in the party seriously accepting the flawed logic that stapling together a collection of special interest groups would create a counterweight to Thatcher’s electoral coalition of aspirational voters.
No prizes for guessing how successful that idea was.
Margaret Thatcher’s path to power was paved by a Labour party finding excuses to focus on anything other than the bread and butter issues that actually mattered to voters. She did not lead a coup d’état; she was elected – time after time – because Labour was unelectable: unfocused and incredible.
All that shroud waving and gesture politics during the 80s had the effect of sapping Labour’s voter appeal, pushing away would-be supporters who abhorred the party’s obsession with fringe concerns.
Of course it is true that public opinion should be shaped and that today’s marginal concern may become tomorrow’s orthodoxy. Indeed, backing individual campaigns and causes it is what motivates many of us to get involved in politics in the first place. But a political party needs to synthesise differing demands. It cannot simply stitch together a series of fixed positions and tell the electorate that it had better support them lock, stock and barrel.
Labour is a political party, not a collection of lapel badges and slogans. It seeks to govern and needs the support of people from all walks of life to do so. It needs to present a balanced, blended package. It means knocking the edges off spikier issues. It means splitting the difference between competing ones. It means navigating carefully around issues that divide opinion; keeping policy on an even keel, not kow-towing to every passing pressure group’s latest demand or fad.
A stark reminder of this came last week when Diane Abbott, in her role as shadow public health minister, reacted to the appointment of the charity, Life, to an obscure government advisory committee on sexual health.
Life is a pro-life campaigning organisation, as well as an established provider of family planning and sex education services.
“I have called for Life’s appointment to the sexual health forum to be retracted”, she intoned. (To no obvious effect).
For a pro-life charity to occupy a single seat around a table of ten is neither here nor there. It does not spell a change in policy direction of itself; it merely allows a different point of view to be aired; (a not uncommon characteristic as far as consultative forums go).
Sure, if you are pro-abortion you may not agree with Life’s outlook. But apocalyptic descriptions of its motives are best left for the junior common room, not serious politics.
There is plenty for Diane to go at, addressing the appalling health inequalities between rich and poor, not to mention the cutbacks made to valuable public health campaigns, without getting in a flap about this non-issue.
On the broader issue of abortion, there is no public consensus in the country – and never will be. It is a zero sum issue. Views on either side are sincerely held and it’s a hornet’s nest that the smart politician tries to avoid poking with a stick.
In short, raising the issue – especially in such an intemperate way – was a mistake.
A similar emotional spasm occurred in the party’s overblown reaction to Ken Clarke’s gaffe on rape sentencing the week before. Yes, Clarke was a bumbling fool tripping over his antediluvian phraseology as he sought to explain changes in rape sentencing policy; but calling for his resignation and making out his offence was more than a stupid blunder (compounded by his own pompous refusal to apologise and clarify his remarks) was an overreaction.
The party needs to maintain its focus on the domestic issues that really exercise voters. The frontbench’s task is already massive enough. It needs to fashion a coherent response to the ongoing financial crisis, develop a balanced view on the future role and shape of the state, engage with (and Labourise) the big society debate, and provide a clear account of how to preserve living standards for an entire swathe of the population fearful about their future prosperity.
If Labour fails to address these core concerns properly, it will probably lose the next election. If it wastes time pitching its tent on fringe issues, it will definitely do so.
Maintaining equilibrium is everything for a political party. Building a stable, mainstream platform is an absolute prerequisite for electoral success. Labour has an unfortunate habit of learning that lesson the hard way.
There is no room for the gesture politics Labour learnt to leave behind a decade ago. In future, let’s leave the black-and-white posturing and absolutist rhetoric to the pressure groups.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.