by Charlie Cadywould
David Miliband’s response to Roy Hattersley in New Statesman represents a problem that seems to be endemic to parties of the centre-left. As soon as they are voted out, parties of the centre-left have an identity crisis, and spend years discussing to whom precisely they are to try to appeal.
Hattersley tells us that Labour must go back to its roots, talking explicitly about social democratic values and the morality and efficacy of the central state. Miliband does not disagree on the importance of the central state from a policy perspective: he agrees that there are things that only government can do, and other things that only government can do fairly.
What he objects to is that narrative that Hattersley wants to construct. Miliband wants to talk about making government better, but he agrees that the state needs to do more, he just doesn’t want Labour to frame the argument in that way. Hattersley, no doubt, agrees with Miliband that government can be better, and that local government has an important role to play, but he would prefer Labour’s narrative to be unashamedly about morality and the central state.
The debate between these two ex-frontbenchers is grounded in the false premise that Labour must have a consistent narrative in all its campaigning. It’s a false premise because a degree of inconsistency is absolutely necessary to winning elections.
Look at the way the Tories campaigned in 2010: “In Europe, not run by Europe”. In itself it is not an inconsistent policy, but the point is that the slogan can be framed in a way that appeals to hardcore euro-sceptics and moderates at different times. “I’ll cut the deficit, not the NHS”. Hammer home the first part to Telegraph-readers and Taxpayers’ Alliance members, and the second part while doing a question and answer session for Mumsnet. Consistent policies, inconsistent narrative.
There is a tendency on the left to consider this kind of strategy to be lacking in principles, to be part of the trend towards the centre-ground. Over the course of the last Labour government, the two did appear to go hand in hand – the perceived need to get the support of the right-wing newspapers led to a narrative that coincided with some very unleft-wing policies. But this doesn’t have to be the case, especially not in opposition.
You can have the right policies, but frame them in different ways for different groups, just as the Tories do so well. You don’t have to, as the Hattersley-Miliband debate seems to suggest, sell out on your principles to win power.
Labour can be for a more active state, for example with bank regulation, and at the same time, for more efficient, decentralised government where appropriate.
The best campaign strategy is to have an inconsistent narrative. So long as the policies are consistent, and the factual claims truthful, there is nothing immoral about the campaign. The Tories do it, and so progressives, social democrats, democratic socialists, whatever we want to call ourselves in any particular moment, should do the same if we want to win.
Labour doesn’t need to figure out what it’s for, it can be for different things to different people, it needs to figure out which policies are right for the country, and then frame them in a way that wins the next election.
Charlie Cadywould is a student and Labour party member