Let’s leave the lapel badges in the 1980s and focus on what matters

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.

In Diane’s view, its appointment to the committee was “chilling news”, part of a “deadly medley” of pro-life groups working to influence government policy on abortion.

“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.


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24 Responses to “Let’s leave the lapel badges in the 1980s and focus on what matters”

  1. Oh good. Another senior Labour male telling me how to feel about abortion and rape. That always goes well.

  2. iain ker says:

    Newsflash – it wasn’t the behaviour of TUCLabour in the 1980s that cost you the 2010 general election, it was the behaviour and performance of TUCLabour in the 2000s.

    BTW I think you’ve got a bit confused with,

    ‘In Diane’s view, its appointment to the committee was “chilling news”.

    She was chilled yeah, that’s modern talk for ‘relaxed’.

    Get with it.

  3. John P Reid says:

    Emma I couldn’t see anything in this article about telling you how to feel about Rape and I can’t think of any other tiem a senior male has said that about Rape, or abortion eitehr ,do tell when they have please.

    The Only times I’ve known Laobure people telling others about rape ,was when Several backbenchers sadi that if rape Suspect identities were kept quiet before a Trial had found tehm guilty, It implies that the Alleged vicitm is lieing, While in the same breath that people falsely accused of Rapes life aren’t ruined, Complete twaddle.

    The only time I know of LAobur talking about the Abortion Issue was in 2008 when LAbour changed the law to Letting a Doctor decide If a Pregnant woman who wanted a termiination needed to see a Psychiatrist, A change from the 1967 law, Something that Nadine Dorries wants to bring back adn soemthing Laobur are opposed to bringing back.

  4. Forlornehope says:

    The real issue is devastatingly simple. Labour should stand for higher levels of public spending than those planned by the LibCons to ensure decent levels of benefits and acceptable public services. Unfortunately most people have now decided that this cannot be done with borrowed money and, despite the dreams of some on the left there is no hidden pot of gold that Gordon never found in his ten years at the Treasury. All those of us on or above median income will have to pay more tax and that means most of the public sector professionals who now form such a large part of Labour’s vote. We need to have the guts to make the case for “Tax and Spend” not just roll over and accept the Tory agenda. Until we do this, everything else is just hot air.

  5. leftie says:

    another day another article pointing out what we’re doing wrong with no suggestion of what to do instead

    does anyone have any positive ideas about what labour should be doing? that’s a genuine question.

  6. Frederick James says:

    “A similar emotional spasm occurred in the party’s overblown reaction to Ken Clarke’s gaffe on rape sentencing the week before.”

    Code for “Ed is crap”. Why not just come out and say it?

  7. Graham Day says:

    Loosely translated, but you didn’t dare say it. The party has been hijacked by the more politically correct than thou brigade.

  8. ROB SHEFFIELD says:

    “The party was more bothered with pleasing its own fissiparous cliques; the wannabe Dave Sparts, the bedsit revolutionaries… The “loony left” were responsible for torpedoing Labour’s reputation and sinking the party’s chances…”

    Excellent poignant material.

    We are witnessing at the moment a boom period for the tone-deaf Dave Spart’s of their tiny worlds- yet another of these fringe ginger groups with crackpot electorate-repellent views sets out its wares tomorrow.

    If Labour wins the next election (sometime between 2013-2015) it will be because such cliques sank without a trace.

    Here’s hoping.

  9. Is this really the tone which Labour Uncut wishes to set?

    Should we conclude that concern about rape and abortion rights is “loony left” behaviour?

    I happen to think that calling for Clarke’s resignation wasn’t the right reaction but to fail to attack what he said would have been a betrayal of large numbers of women.

    And abortion rights are here to stay – what is appropriate about having someone opposed to all abortions appointed to a body that deals with sexual health not because of any expertise but because of their opposition to abortions? That is what granting a place to Life involves, and it is indeed a “chilling” (and I don’t mean relaxing) example of a Tory gesture to the forces of darkness just like Thatcher’s Clause 28.

  10. iain ker says:

    what is appropriate about having someone opposed to all abortions appointed to a body that deals with sexual health not because of any expertise but because of their opposition to abortions? That is what granting a place to Life involves, and it is indeed a “chilling” example of a Tory gesture to the forces of darkness just like Thatcher’s Clause 28.

    ****************************************************

    Yeah these forces of darkness that might object when a poor wee mite, 23 weeks old, gets the feeling she’s not loved and that a nasty man wants to decapitate him and/or inject her in the heart with something fatal all because his mother wants to assert HER RIGHT TO CHOOSE !!!!!

    Nasty, nasty, chilling and I don’t mean relaxing forces of darkness. nasty, nasty Tories, nasty. nasty clause.

    Just be thankful *you* weren’t a bit inconvenient when you were 23 weeks old.

  11. Kevin, nice piece. We are entering a phase where the far left is starting to see opportunities for traction in the Labour Party and movement (see my LabourList piece here).

    Dave Sparts is back.

  12. Douglas says:

    @iain ker:

    Most people, myself included, are upset not because Life is anti-abortion, but because they are anti-abortion in ALL cases. Even in cases of rape, incest or serious medical harm to the mother.

    I am against abortion being used for “convenience” but I am sickened that anyone would try to tell a rape victim, for example, that she must be forced to carry the child to term. That is simply inhumane.

  13. CS Clark says:

    ‘We are entering a phase where the far left is starting to see opportunities for traction in the Labour Party and movement’

    And one of the pieces of evidence for this is attacking Ken Clarke for being soft on crime? Stroll on.

  14. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    It’s a mistake to put the government on the back foot on an issue that’s a net vote winner for us?

    Large majorities of the country support the right to an abortion and that applies across the political spectrum. It won’t shift more than a few thousand votes at most, but plenty of those are socially liberal Tories, of whom there are a fair amount in the ABC1 social groups.

    Meanwhile it’ll lose us some votes amongst some religious voters. But this is an issue of importance primarily to evangelical Protestants, who we do badly amongst, and devout Catholics, who vote for us if social justice is more important to them than abortion and don’t if the calculus is the other way round.

    Plus these voters tend to be concentrated in areas of strong Labour support. David Lammy might have to put out a leaflet to evangelical churches in his constituency, but he’s in no danger anyway, and Jim Dobbin might have to affirm that he himself is pro-life, but Heywood and Middleton is hardly likely to flip.

    It’s not a big issue. It’s a very minor issue dressed up in stronger language than usual in an attempt to get a few column inches. Which happened, and without the Daily Mail condemning Abbott for it on the front page.

    Suggesting that this is remotely comparable to rate-capping is to lose all sense of proportion.

    And suggesting that the Shadow Minister for Public Health shouldn’t talk about a public health issue because it isn’t what the public is interested in is to miss the point of the role.

  15. AmberStar says:

    Check the polling; Labour’s vote share amongst women has risen since the call for Ken Clarke’s resignation. And Diane Abbot is correct, the Life appointment is a cause for concern – her expression was hyperbole but Diane’s well known for expressing herself strongly. Her remarks have raised little comment from anybody other than you, Kevin.

    The Women’s issues, which you are conflating with loony-leftism, are important to a great many women & some men too, actually. Ed’s PMQ was welcomed by many of us.
    😎

  16. Kevin says:

    Jon Lansman – You may well disagree with Life. That is your right; but to call a charity that runs three children’s hospices “the forces of darkness” is a bit low, even for you.

    Unlike the crackpot Bennites of the 1980s I happen to believe in plurality and people being able to express different opinions. As regular readers will know, I’m happy also to have mine critiqued.

    Perhaps, as a self-styled “veteran Bennite” I’m touching a raw nerve attacking the loony left?

  17. @AmberStar: Just a point of order: correlation is not causation. You have no evidence whatsoever that the better polling was to do with Diane’s intervention, although the two events may have happened sequentially.

    And, btw, the important thing is not for us to appeal to the readers of this blog; it’s for us to appeal to the outside world.

    “We must become the progressive’s champion.” – Ed Miliband, the Guardian, 14 Jan 2011
    “No, you must become the people’s champion.” – Byrdfelt, comments below same article

  18. Sam says:

    “It’s a mistake to put the government on the back foot on an issue that’s a net vote winner for us?”

    That’s the problem with Labour isn’t it? Ideological concerns were ditched years ago – now you only care about votes. It doesn’t matter how many votes it gets you, standing up for the right of a woman to choose is the ONLY principled position and must be taken whether or not it makes you popular. Believe it or not, principled politics generates electoral trust. Even if people disagree with you, at least they know your position.

  19. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Sam, I was saying we should stand up for a woman’s right to choose.

    But that doesn’t mean we should ignore votes. If we don’t get them, it doesn’t matter what our ideological position is, because we won’t be able to put it into action.

    I don’t support saying whatever is necessary to get elected. But we can’t just ignore what makes people vote the way they do. You have to actually appeal to people, not just print your manifesto and hope more people vote for you than the opposition.

  20. AmberStar says:

    @ Rob Marchant

    @AmberStar: Just a point of order: correlation is not causation. You have no evidence whatsoever that the better polling was to do with Diane’s intervention, although the two events may have happened sequentially.
    ——————————————————–
    1. You’ve misunderstood, I meant Ed’s PMQ & the publicity around the Ken Clarke outrage/gaffe was well received by women & in the period following it, Labour’s polling with women improved.

    2. You Gov also polled on the Ken Clarke issue – women were against Clarke’s attitude & 53% thought Cameron should’ve asked for his resignation.

    3. I am well aware that correlation is not causation. But most of the time, correlation with polls is all we have to work with regarding whether or not something has helped or hindered. The Ken Clarke issue was a big media story & the women’s vote for Labour increased thereafter. IMO, women got the impression that Ed listens to the women in his cabinet &/or cares about things women care about as much as the specific issue itself. But I can’t prove it was. You can’t prove it wasn’t. And, on balance, I have correlation & you have zilch. 🙂

  21. anin says:

    So how how did the oh so sensible right wing Blair, Brown, Mandelsons, Murdoch loving Labour Party manage to lose the election. Not just any loss but its its second worst defeat in 60 yrs.In never again territory

    How after all the suckingup to the Bankers, crawling to the wealthy and all the privatisations, all the anti union laws and victimisations, gleeful witchunts of the left did it go so wrong.

    Your premises regarding the 70s and 80s and your understanding of history of Labour need some serious rethinking

  22. Great, concern for women’s health and safety – over half the UK population, you forget to your cost – is simply ‘gesture politics’. Yes Labour is floundering, but articles like this aren’t helping. You wouldn’t get my vote with comments like these, but then, I’m a woman, I guess there are too few of us for that to really matter to you.

  23. Stuart says:

    Rob Marchant says:
    June 1, 2011 at 4:48 pm
    Kevin, nice piece. We are entering a phase where the far left is starting to see opportunities for traction in the Labour Party and movement (see my LabourList piece here).

    Dave Sparts is back.

    A quick look at the LabourList piece and the authors blog as well is quite revealing. A complete lack of knowledge about the internal tensions in some trade unions is evident. Although to be fair it is more that the author does know but chooses to override this to make their pet political statement. Namely the return of the 1980s and Trotskyism which says more about those who predict the imminent return of the Tendency than the reality of any such event.

    As somebody who knows a few Trots here and there I can assure you that they have no desire whatsoever to return back to the Labour Party. And, yes shockingly enough, I believe that everybody has the right to be a member of a trade union. Including those who are not members of Progress (an inaptly named organisation if there ever was one).

  24. Kevin says:

    Hannah – sorry, your point is what exactly?

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