Where does idealism stop and pragmatism begin?

by Kevin Meagher

For all the talk about the font size and just how luminescent our mea culpa on the deficit should be, there is a bigger question stalking the Labour party: where does political idealism end and pragmatism begin? How is the balance to be struck between what Labour wants to do and what it has to do?

On this wheel the party always breaks. It’s been the same since Ramsay McDonald’s great betrayal of 1931, when he led breakaway Labour MPs into the national government to enforce Sir George May’s disastrous austerity package during the depression.

The same drama played itself out under Clement Attlee, when rearmament costs saw charges imposed for false teeth and spectacles, besmirching Aneurin Bevan’s idealistic vision of a free NHS. He promptly resigned from the cabinet, beginning a decade-long cold war with his arch-pragmatist rival, Hugh Gaitskell.

Most damagingly, the IMF-inspired austerity package, that James Callaghan’s government was forced to swallow during the financial crisis of the mid-seventies, saw Labour’s entire programme junked; precipitating the internal war that would rip the party to pieces during the early 1980s.

How to balance idealism and hard reality?

To understand why this same, age-old dilemma for the centre-left is playing itself out right now, we have to go back to the general election defeat in 2010. The drubbing many had predicted did not occur. Yes, the party’s share of the vote was dreadful; but the net result was a Tory opposition with every conceivable advantage at its disposal – from hard cash to newness – still failed to win an overall majority.

The result gave pause for hope that Labour could be a sabbatical away from office, rather than a generation in the wilderness. This was compounded by a widespread belief that the coalition was an unstable and unholy alliance that would fall apart long before 2015. It seems crazy now, but it was a commonly held view there would be a second general election in 2010.

So what followed was a good natured, if uninspiring, leadership contest where no candidate asked difficult questions about Labour’s record or future purpose. Why bother, when most members remained essentially optimistic about the future?

But this sense of unity was illusory. No-one was willing to delve too deeply into how a social democratic party would in future do social democratic things against a backdrop of years of biting austerity – the very question Ed Miliband set out to answer this week. As a result, the period of introspection, the trawling of the party’s soul that should have followed defeat – was postponed.

Then came 2011. Black dog began to stir. Despite winning 800 new councillors back in May’s local elections, more had been expected. By-elections came and went. Labour did well enough, but these were phony victories in Labour-held seats. Opinion poll leads were consistent, but uneven.

Yes, in a straight choice voters opted for Labour over the Tories. But when asked about leadership qualities, or who was best placed to manage the economy, the picture was less sanguine. The coalition had shaky moments, but it survived. Winning in 2015 was no longer a certainty.

And so the hard questions finally begin to emerge about how Labour will rebuild its reputation for economic competence.

But four years of being told that the financial crisis was solely Gordon Brown’s fault has taken a devastating toll. It is now a hard-wired assumption among voters that deficit reduction must be the number one priority for the economy. Thus the social democratic seed falls on stony ground.

So this year will prove pivotal; the mid-way point of this parliament. By 2014 voters attitudes will have hardened irrevocably. For Ed Miliband’s critics, two years in the job is long enough for him to have made a mark, yet not too late to start all over again with someone else if he fails to offer a compelling account of how idealism and pragmatism are to be resolved.

But his critics demand too much of him. This dilemma is not his alone to resolve.

Renewal does not come at the flick of a switch; you cannot just reboot political parties. Labour lost an election after 13 years in power. That is a lot of record to have to account for, and a lot of intellectual u-turns that need performing. There was always going to be a period where the electorate would not listen to Labour’s analysis on the economy; about the same length of time they give a new government the benefit if the doubt.

The significance of this week’s speech is that Ed is now doing the heavy lifting that all candidates, including himself (perhaps especially so) avoided doing during the leadership election. What is Labour for? What can it credibly offer that is close enough to the realpolitik of the hour, while providing an alternative worth voting for? The party needs to be carefully managed through this period of intense self-reflection and reinvention.

The risk in not being bold and revisionist is that the party approaches 2015 unreformed, unrealistic – and unelectable. By the same token members cannot – and will not – be bounced into abandoning the party’s social democratic raison d’être.

Some within the party – not many – may indeed be “flat earthers”, denying the scale of the fiscal challenge. By the same token some ultra pragmatists seem to be “scorched earthers” – ignoring the centrality of social spending in achieving Labour’s goals. Difficult though the current economic circumstances are, Labour managed to create the welfare state and NHS in far worse. On the basis of some current thinking, we would not even have tried.

What his critics fail to accept is that there is remarkably little distance between Ed Miliband and any of his senior colleagues. The Labour party is now firmly in the hands of a generation of genuine social democrats.

Yvette Cooper, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham or indeed David Miliband; whether starting off as Blairites or Brownites, they share the same instinctive belief in activist government, incremental reform and making “fairness” more than a rhetorical blandishment. Furthermore, the broader Labour tribe is basically united on the big questions of economic and foreign policy – the twin poles that have led to each of Labour’s previous breakdowns.

In Ed Miliband’s place each of his senior colleagues would also grapple with the tortuous dilemma of deciding what accommodations the party must make with its principles and where it should stand its ground. They would each find it difficult to strike the balance.

While short term performance and party management issues are his alone to address, the longer term challenge of working out what the party stands for in such an uncertain and unpropitious time for progressive politics is something that the whole party has to engage in.

Striking the right balance between idealism and hard-headed realism must be achieved – but let’s not pretend it’s easier than it is.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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12 Responses to “Where does idealism stop and pragmatism begin?”

  1. Madasafish says:

    working out what the party stands for

    The unions
    Government employees.
    Those on benefits.
    The banks – which it rescued and allowed to continue to pay huge bonuses despite losses.

  2. figurewizard says:

    The management of our economy has been a disaster. The growth so loudly trumpeted before every new budget was based on a fallacy; that increasing house prices outstripping growth in disposable income matched by cheap and unjustifiably easy and cheap credit could somehow carry on indefinitely. Gordon Brown and those around him were responsible for falling into this trap, even though a cursory look at the figures for revenues and expenditure and not forgetting the balance of trade should have raised doubts.

    The growth in public expenditure is now exposed as having been as unsustainable as that of the housing market. The nadir for the administration came in 2007, when in order to curry favour with the electoral middle ground for an Autumn election that never was, Brown cut 2P off the basic rate of tax, while scrapping the 10% rate for some five million working poor (mostly youngsters) and many pensioners.

    Since then and the economic crisis that followed many people have recognised where Labour’s priorities lay; in staying in power, whatever the cost. My advice is to make Frank Field your leader.

  3. Ralph Baldwin says:

    I wonder what a women fighting for the vote around a centruy ago would have made of this lol.

    Of course idealism has to be directed and pragmatic, the whole reason (we do not see them anymore in the Labour party as they have been replaced by cronyism and careerist turds who believe in nothing and who are happy to be “hard headed” until someone asks them to face tough decsions about themselves or their own circumstances) people become idealistic is because they understand there are pragmatic alternatives lol.

    But luts leave idealism, passion and belief as its an alien language to the PLP who have the motional range of a peanut as a result of privalaged upbringing. They have lost themselves in a world that is compltely alien to the well-informed and meaningful public who quite rightly reject them.

    Ed Milliband is a true representative of the PLP is their character and form incarnate and the public know precisely what to do with it. If indeed the PLp were indeed “hard-headed” and not spineless and pathetic, they would stand down and allow their CLP’s to select real local representatives who have an opinion rather than the empty drones we see.

  4. swatantra says:

    The fact is if Labour can’t win elections then its not going to be in any position to determine the course of events. The Trade off between Right and Left Wings of the Party comes after the Election not before. Personally I prefer the Middle more pragmatic way. Politics has always been about the Art of the Possible and not about dewey eyed idealism. And the Public prefer to see a Party tackling the problems that blight their lives rather than wishfull thinking.
    We’veseen The Coalition actually nicking ideas from Labour in the pastfew months. and it should make everyone sck that the Tories have hijacked Cooperatives and the Lib dems hijacked Worker participation in Industry at Board level. Labour should have done this all 10 years ago.

  5. paul barker says:

    The article starts well but then retreats into Flatland.
    Labours performance in The Leadership polls isnt just a bit dissapointing, Milliband came behind Clegg in the last Poll I saw.
    According to Yougov 1 in 14 Labour Voters think Ed is the best person to lead Labour. Half those asked didnt want any of the 5 possibles.
    Perhaps you should give up ?

  6. John Slinger says:

    A very good article Michael. Hopefully people might want to come and see some ‘pragmatic radicalism’ in action tonight at our first Top Of The Policies event (of several) of 2012 on skills – kindly sponsored by unionlearn and Unions21. You’ll see an event filled with Labour people from all wings of the party, united in an attempt to generate and promote new, credible ideas.

    We have great speakers (including LabourUncut’s economic editor, Jonathan Todd), a superb chair (Michael White) and a fun format designed to air as many ideas as possible (2 min policy pitches), subject them to scrutiny (2 mins Q&A) and democratic vote (FPTP) leading to a Top Policy on skills.

    You can find out more here http://pragmaticradicalism.co.uk/top-of-the-policies-skills-event.

    The event is in the upstairs room of the Barley Mow pub on Horseferry Road, 6.30-8.30pm. Free drinks, free entry. If you have an urge to present an idea – get in touch with me at john.slinger@pragmaticradicalism.co.uk.

    Help us promote the event:

    Please tweet:
    @PragRad #TopOfThePolicies-SKILLS,TONIGHT,BarleyMow pub, 6.30,2 mins pols http://tinyurl.com/dy8xxu4 M White chair. Follow on twitter.


  7. aragon says:

    What if the pragmatists are wrong and the flat earthers are right ?

    There is no empirical evidence that the pragmatists are right !

  8. AmberStar says:

    Ed Balls & Ed Miliband would have gained credibility for sticking to their principles, had they continued to say that you can’t cut your way to growth.

    The IMF, market experts & the US experience is beginning to move in Labour’s favour. The public take a while to react to such things (it can be as much as 6 months, when you are trying to make yourself heard in opposition). I think the Eds should have stuck to their original position, despite the sub-sections of the polls which Kevin mentions.

    And Ed’s popularity began to tank after he spoke against the November day of action by the Unions. That’s when Labour supporters turned away from Ed M. We could smell the corpse of New Labour being dragged back from the grave.

  9. AmberStar says:

    That said, however, I actually still think that Ed M will be given the benefit of the doubt by the Party. But he needs to listen to the people who represent millions of potential voters i.e. The Unions. They are not always wrong despite what the Blairites might want to believe.

  10. swatantra says:

    It would be interesting to know what percentage of Union members actually vote Labour. I’ve a feeling the figure would be pretty low. The Unions do no favours for Labour apart from donating money.

  11. AmberStar says:

    @ Swatantra

    I’ve a feeling the figure would be pretty low. The Unions do no favours for Labour apart from donating money.
    It’s actually a pretty high % of Union members who vote Labour; & keep in mind, they can choose to not pay the political levy but I believe most do pay it.

  12. John P Reid says:

    swatantra ,jan 16 6:48pm, good point

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