by Kevin Meagher
There’s an old African saying that when the elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. If that’s the case, these past couple of weeks have left Labour’s lawn fit for a spot of crown green bowling.
First to start a ruck by waving his proboscis about was Labour’s emeritus leader Tony Blair, chiding via the pages of the New Statesman, that Labour risks settling back “into its old territory of defending the status quo” and blowing the next election.
A couple of weeks of tit-for-tat followed before Len McLuskey, tusks a-gleaming, charged headlong at Tony’s hindquarters also telling the New Statesman this week that if Ed Miliband listens to Blairites in the party he is consigning himself to the “dustbin of history”.
Both hulking mammals have the same motivation; to bruise but not wound Ed Miliband and make it clear their respective herds are not to be taken for granted as we pass the 60% marker for this parliament. They are both concerned about the shape of Labour’s offer to the voters in 2015. McLuskey denounces any prospect of offering “austerity-lite”, claiming it will lead to certain election defeat. Blair, in stark contrast, warns that to “tack left on tax and spending” will lead to “strategic defeat”.
Yes, Labour’s got to be pragmatic in how it approaches the next election (Blair) but it’s got to win for a purpose too (McLuskey). This is the age-old conundrum for the democratic left. It’s one that pits those with a simplistic (and now outdated) assumption that the party can offer the bare minimum to core Labour voters because they have nowhere else to go, with those who are reluctant to countenance the bloody business of compromise at all. Despite the dust that has been kicked up these past couple of weeks, both sides are sketchy about details.
On spending, McLuskey urges Miliband to “create a radical alternative” to austerity in order to remain “the authentic voice of ordinary working people”. Does this mean no cuts? Some cuts? Cuts to bits of public spending we don’t like? (The trouble is that a private sector union like Unite has many members in defence industries and won’t want to see cuts here which other unions might happily countenance).
Things are no clearer on the other side of the aisle. When Tony Blair says in his New Statesman piece that Labour needs to be “seekers after answers, not the repository for people’s anger” he doesn’t set out a single practical idea about how Labour meets the political or economic challenges around spending, either in specifics or even what approach the party should take.
Coming up on the rails, as Atul Hatwal pointed out the other day, is the decision about whether Labour backs the government’s overall package following the spending review in June and then, perhaps, forces the pace on differing priorities. This requires clarity about Labour’s red line issues and what are henceforth merely nice-to-haves. We are light years away from seeing that kind of discussion start, never mind conclude.
Should we, for example, still have means-tested benefits for pensioners? Is Trident is a costly distraction? Does the public sector wage bill needs pruning? Should the balance between cuts and tax rises now tilt towards the latter? Should we lop-off areas of spending altogether rather than continue to salami-slice? Et cetera, et cetera.
These are the kind of hard choices Eds Miliband and Balls face – and they are considerably more difficult than they were in the glory days of 1997. Then, holding to Tory spending plans for two years was merely a temporary expedient before the Treasury’s taps were turned on. Pledging not to increase the basic and top rates of tax was a PR ruse to cover for the welter of stealth taxes which followed. Tony Blair’s governments were conventionally social democratic in this respect. He redistributed wealth (moderately) and spent (lots) on public services. He couldn’t manage the same restraint he now seems to urge on others.
The party’s scales are balanced here. For the left, the challenge, as ever, is accepting uncomfortable political reality, while the Blairite right needs to understand that Labour is a social democratic party which needs a strong, compelling offer to ordinary working people.
People feel more insecure, overburdened, more insular, angry that they are struggling to get by through, they see it, no fault of theirs. They are volatile and raw. It’s a mood which might harden into more radical demands (as McLuskey thinks). Or it might go the other way and manifest itself as rampant individualism (Blair’s theory). Frankly, we don’t know yet, which means the 2015 centre ground is currently wheeling around on castors.
Rather than flattening the grass any further, what would be helpful for Miliband is for all sides to offer a better reconciliation between how Labour wins the next election with what it does after. This is essential as there is no point fudging issues, winning an election and then seeing the party rip itself apart with cries of betrayal later on. In this respect, both Blair and McLuskey’s advice is pretty useless.
Still, you wouldn’t want to say that too loudly to two marauding elephants, would you?
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut