We must be the pragmatists now

by Jonathan Todd

Pragmatism, of course, as Kevin Meagher has previously noted, was how Winston Churchill ushered in 13 years of Conservative government in 1951, fully 43 years after he first held ministerial office and six years after a sea change election had swept him from Downing Street. No ideological hang-ups kept him from accepting what needed to be accepted to make his party electable.

In contrast, a leading advisor to the last government can now observe to Uncut that “ideology is the worst thing to have happened to the modern Tory Party”.

Louise Mensch may rush to do the bidding of her frontbench and defend Jeremy Hunt’s indefensible transgressions. But most Tory backbenchers seem quicker to quibble with their frontbench than please it.

They appear to prefer the ideological purity of opposition to tough choices of government. And their past and their future encourage them in this indulgence.

Their past is of voting against their whip early in this parliament in votes that seemed relatively inconsequential at the time, but which have become habit forming, dangerously so as the votes get more consequential.

Their future isn’t on the frontbench. Liberal Democrats and more pliable sorts, like Mensch, block their path. Their future may, due to the unprecedented boundary review, be in selection battles, which they will require the support of typically ideologically-committed activists to win.

Where’s the harm in scratching the itch to rebel when you have no ministerial career to seek and a seat to save?

Not even Winston could have done it with this lot. It is not simply the political realities of diminished prospects for advancement within a multi-party government and the boundary review that have reduced them. It is something deeper in the gut of the right than that.

We see similar in the US. At the end of last year the Economist reported:

“Gone are the days when a smiling Reagan could be forgiven for raising taxes and ignoring abortion once in office. As the Republican base has become ever more detached from the mainstream, its list of unconditional demands has become ever more stringent.”

The sons and daughters of Thatcher and Reagan are uncompromising. The party that cheered Eisenhower in building the federal highway will not now countenance any plan for fiscal consolidation not wholly composed of spending cuts. Where once Churchill asked what needed to be done to win, this generation of Tories ask: what would Maggie do?

And so they believe six impossible things before breakfast, like the obvious canard that gutting employment rights in one of the most liberalised labour markets in the developed world is the key to recovery. If in doubt blame red tape. It is as mechanical and inadequate as Ron Manager’s coaching manual.

The right are more hobbled by doctrinaire politics and policy than ever before in modern history. The left can still miss this open goal if we mirror their behaviour. If we default to state as they default to market we close our minds and hearts to a world that needs us as much as it ever did.

To assume the historical function of pragmatists, which has been the right’s for much of this past century, with the consequence that we have invariably been led by Tory PMs, requires not only that we have a PLP hungry for power and pulling in the same political direction. This, obviously, is vital. And it is a credit to the leadership that we do.

We also need pragmatism on policy. The period from 1945 to 1979 came to teach us about the limits of the state as an economic actor. The period since has come to teach us about the limits of markets. We should recognise the limits of both state and market and approach every question with no presumption in favour of either. We are not yet quite doing this.

Maurice Glasman characterises the economic debate between stimulus and austerity as like a choice between Viagra and vivisection. Neither seems likely to lead to a happy love life. Similarly, Anthony Painter compares this debate to Eddie Izzard’s take on the use of extreme alternatives in order to win an argument. Would you like cake or death?

These parallels are indicative of a Labour party that has more policy thinking to do. To approach this thinking in a pragmatic manner is not to do so in a value-free way. We should seek, as David Miliband used to say during the leadership election, not to rewrite Clause 4 but to deliver it.

The question is always: what policy option best leads to the world that Clause 4 describes? The answer is not always more state.

Equally, just as pragmatic policies aren’t value-free nor are pragmatic politics. The kind of politics described by Max Weber in Politics as Vocation is far from a politics denuded of morality. It is a morality engaged with the true limits of the possible, which is actually more moral than a morality disengaged from reality. We must always ask where these limits really exist and never lose sight of the values that inform Clause 4.

Given the hole into which the right digs itself ever deeper, the future can belong to the left if we take the right lessons from Max Weber and our inspiration from Clause 4.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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3 Responses to “We must be the pragmatists now”

  1. Nick says:

    Its very simple. Jonathon Todd hasn’t a clue.

    e.g. UK government debt is around 7,000 bn.

    I can here him now. Oh no it isn’t. Its 1,050 bn.

    OK, borrowing is 1,050 bn. I take it then that you aren’t going to pay the other debts. Such as civil service pensions, the state pension, the state second pension, clean up nuclear plants…. All those things that result from money paid now for payouts later, or from contracts.

    Next argument, but the Greeks are worse off. As if being a little bit pregnant doesn’t make you pregnant. Both the Greek government and the UK government is bust.

    Until you admit to government running up the debts and the fraud in covering it up (why else would these debts be omitted from the accounts? It’s just like Maxwell and Madoff), nothing will change.

  2. John P Reid says:

    Nick’s got you there Jonathon

  3. aragon says:

    Well I have a different economic model from the ‘fiscal conservatives’
    who in my view have nothing to contribute to the debate.

    The status quo is not acceptable, so yes we need ideology and vision to move away from the status quo.

    And the current Labour leadership is not up to the job.

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