Labour’s real divisions are between “Would-ers” and “Could-ers”

by Kevin Meagher

Andrew Rawnsley’s guide to modern divisions in the Labour party in yesterday’s Observer makes a great political parlour game, identifying, as he does, five new fissures in the party in how it approaches strategy, policy and winning next year’s election.

Yet, it’s much simpler than that: Labour’s sedimentary rock cracks neatly into two main groups.

The first, is the ‘Would If We Could’ camp. They want to make as much difference as possible while never losing sight of the fact that the British people are instinctively cautious and even suspicious of political grandiosity. “We would back X policy if we could get it past the public, but we don’t think we can” goes the theory.

For the Would-ers, winning power is their main preoccupation. There are no silver medals in politics and no point remaining ideologically chaste but losing in the process. So splitting the difference becomes second nature, or “shrinking the offer” in current parlance.

Then there’s the ‘Could If We Would’ group. They argue that Ed Miliband needs to be bold and present a big offer to voters. If he does, Labour will swing millions of people who are disenfranchised with politics and want something to believe in behind the party. “We could win, if only we would back X policy.” This isn’t a view confined to the old Left; it strikes a chord with many people on the party’s centre-left too who yearn to have their idealism validated.

They get around the Would-ers warnings about not scaring the electorate with big proposals by bemoaning the “Tory media” which constantly talks down the very possibility of radical change. This is why many Could-ers are pleased Miliband has taken the positions he has in relation to Murdoch and Leveson.

They also cite the fact that four out of ten voters no longer bother with politics as evidence of the bankruptcy of the Would-ers electoral triangulation. People are looking for “a new politics” that will inspire them and the Could-ers want to make that appeal. If you build it, they will come, so to speak.

What gives their argument momentum, they believe, is that 2015 is a watershed moment in British politics, like 1945 or 1979. (This is why Ed Miliband has, counter-intuitively, talked admiringly of Margaret Thatcher). Change is in the air and Labour can “be the change”, as the Compass pressure group slogan has it.

When the country faces big challenges dealing with the aftermath of the recession, the banking crisis and austerity, then there is a need for equally big solutions. Hence, why last week’s letter to the Guardian from key elements in Labour’s thinkocracy called for Miliband to pledge nothing less than “transformational change”.

Would-ers, in contrast, take a wearier view of the limits of what is possible. Their idealism is spliced with the hard realism of Labour’s abysmal electoral record, governing for just 33 years out of the last 100. They fear that next year may be another false dawn, like 1987 or 1992 were, with the public recoiling, in the final analysis, from backing Labour. Voters may think the Tories are heartless, but sense they are also efficient, and while they accept Labour has noble intentions, don’t trust the party with their wallets and purses.

This split between Would-ers and Could-ers applies to all manner of issues. Take the living wage. For Could-ers, it represents a means of galvanising millions of low paid workers behind a clear, tangible policy, unambiguously focused on their interests. In contrast, Woud-ers argue that it would be nice to legislate to have a higher floor on earnings, but if it’s set too high it will cost jobs and frighten businesses and make Labour an easy target for Tory cannon fire.

Looking back, it’s clear to see Labour’s battles down the years have been extensions of this fault line. For instance, those arguing that Britain could unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1980s – if only the party would be bold enough – were pitched against the party’s multilateralists.

They were hardly arguing that nuclear weapons were mankind’s greatest achievement, but that getting rid of them must be part of a co-ordinated international effort and not upset the delicate Cold War balance of power.

Both Blairites and Brownites were Would-ers, although the latter were so only reluctantly. The desire to offer more radical change still burned in Gordon Brown, which is why he used to sneak through his radicalism under the aegis of being “prudent with a purpose”. It is also why many of his supporters expected a significant change in tone and direction when he became Prime Minister, only to be let down when he showed himself to be a Would-er at heart.

So which side is Ed Miliband on? He draws strength from the Could-ers, who are urging him to think big and promise radical change. But like his old boss, he will probably end up telling them that he would be bold, if he could.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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7 Responses to “Labour’s real divisions are between “Would-ers” and “Could-ers””

  1. Robert says:

    This analysis might be correct now but it underestimates the extent to which Tony Blair had different beliefs to the most of the Labour Party after 2001. He believed in neo-liberal radicalism, which has been taken to its logical conclusion by the this government.

  2. Henrik says:

    It would be interesting to hear some big ideas, or even a compelling vision of what the country might look like, from Labour. Whether that would win an election would depend on how interesting and attractive the big ideas and the vision were and, vitally, on the extent to which folk would believe in both the intent and sincerity of the Party in putting these forward – and, of course, in the ability of a Labour government to deliver it.

    There in a nub is one of the big problems you guys face. Your track record in government, as it has entered folk memory, is one of insincerity, opportunism, incompetence and dubious behaviour. I’m sure that’s not entirely fair, but that’s the narrative which has won and that’s the label you need to get rid of if you’re going to make a better job of being HM Opposition during the next government than you have to date.

  3. john reid says:

    I have to disagree with you Robert of the view that the majority of the Labour party after 2001 didn’t agree with Blairs view, as a lot of people who disagreed with Blair had left by then,rightly or wrongly but es I accept that alot of lay Labour voters didn’t agree with his view but still voted Labour in 2005

  4. BenM says:

    If Henrik think the Tory shower are going to be in government after May 2015, I think he’ll be sorely disappointed.

  5. John reid says:

    BenM, sounds like the sort of thing I was saying in March1992

  6. Henrik says:

    @BenM: I’ve got a nice crisp ten-rouble note here which I’m willing to put down as my bet that May 2015 will see either another Tory-Lib Dem Coalition or a majority Tory government. Probably the best outcome for you guys, it buys you some time to sort out who and what you are and what your offering is.

  7. John reid says:

    Henrik, how about. Minority Tory Govt,who go it alone as the remaining Libdems won’t go into coalition again, and as there’s no public feeling for 2 elections, the Tories go on till2017′ when there’s the referendum

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