Labour’s rhetorical ratchet is destroying the party’s electoral hopes

by Atul Hatwal

When Ed Miliband became leader of the Labour party, a rhetorical ratchet was installed in the machinery of Labour politics. Since then, the only direction of travel permissible for Labour’s public statements has been to the left. The only criticism of the leadership allowed has been from the left.

Now, as the party’s poll lead dissolves, the consequences of this ratchet for Labour’s electoral chances are becoming increasingly clear. Two incidents from the past week – one on policy and one on process – exemplify the depth of the party’s problems.

First, on policy, there was Andy Burnham’s performance on Newsnight.

Labour has a perfectly defensible and reasonable policy on the use of private healthcare in the NHS: it can only be used to supplement rather than replace public provision. In practice, it means that the private sector would only be used to clear backlogs. It’s how the last Labour government operated.

But, faced with the need to demonstrate how Labour policy has progressed since 2010, the ratchet has forced Andy Burnham to the left, beyond the point of incoherence.

Because of the ratchet, a centrist dividing line on health based on Labour competence versus Tory incompetence is impossible. Instead, Labour has opted for an ideological frame of public good versus private bad with Labour promising to roll back the private.

Clearly such rhetoric is incompatible with a policy where, depending on demand for treatment, the proportion of health services provided by the private sector could actually rise. Kirsty Wark ruthlessly exposed this contradiction in her encounter with Burnham.

The presence of the ratchet has meant that, incredibly, an obviously illogical rhetorical position is more politically palatable than one that is less strident and more practical.

Then there was the party’s response to the criticism from Alan Milburn and John Hutton on the direction of the campaign.

It was notable in its scale, vitriol and focus: the crime was disloyalty. To rock the boat so near a general election was beyond the pale. John Prescott called Milburn and Hutton Tory collaborators and Twitter mob were baying for the traitors’ political blood.

But on Monday, 15 Labour MPs wrote an open letter calling for a wholesale re-writing of Labour’s platform, to the sound of silence from the party – nothing from John Prescott, no outcry from party activists on Twitter, no excoriating criticism about disloyalty on Labour websites.

Yet in every possible way, this intervention was much more consequential than Milburn and Hutton’s comments.

Whereas Milburn and Hutton were talking primarily about process – a tactical question of how to fight the campaign – the MPs letter dealt with the substance of policy.

Calling for massive increases in taxes, borrowing and spending, coupled with rail nationalisation and a major expansion of union rights, the MPs’ letter challenged almost every aspect of settled Labour policy.

And unlike Milburn and Hutton, as MPs, this group will have the leverage to push their agenda, particularly if there was to be a Labour-led coalition post-May, where every vote was on a knife edge.

Yet there was no broader discussion in the party of the signal that the letter sent for the potential stability of an Ed Miliband government or what it said about party unity.

Imagine, for a moment, if 15 MPs had set out an agenda similarly at odds with Labour’s programme, but from the centre right? The eruption of mob anger from Labour’s left would have melted Twitter.

The strategy underpinning the first term of the Blair government was frequently summarised in the phrase, “talk right, act left.” Andy Burnham’s Newsnight interview and the contrasting party reactions to criticism are evidence of Labour’s de facto strategy, as fashioned by the presence of the ratchet: “talk left, forget about action.”

For Labour, all that matters is sounding sufficiently left-wing. It’s irrelevant if this contradicts the detail of policy or if it repels the public.

It is the reality of how Labour is going to campaign, why the poll lead has already disappeared and is a large part of why any remaining hopes of scraping through as the largest party are dwindling.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut


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20 Responses to “Labour’s rhetorical ratchet is destroying the party’s electoral hopes”

  1. steve says:

    “the only direction of travel permissible for Labour’s public statements has been to the left.”

    Yet in the Kirsty Wark interview Burnham admitted that there is a role for the private sector within the NHS.

    We should be grateful for this candid admission. And well done to Wark for drawing it out.

    Clearly the Labour Party hasn’t moved on from the New Labour days – when Burnham himself was an enthusiastic NHS privatiser.

    Labour may talk Left but the policy reality is something quite different. Labour’s “We will save the NHS” election campaign is merely electoral posturing.

    The politically bankrupt Labour Party no longer has anything to offer.

  2. paul barker says:

    All true, more or less but way too late. There is nothing Labour Centrists can do about The Election. Your choices are all about what to do after May 8th.

  3. Madasafish says:

    It all comes back to leadership.

    Labour don’t have any.

  4. james says:

    This is THE article that shows up the cognitive dissonance of the UK left. As long as it SOUNDS `politically or emotionally correct` then that’s the same as it happening or the desire for it to happen.

    It was fully and deviously employed against the Lib Dems at the local elections basically hoodwinking people into voting Labour (stating govt policy as an assertion of labour doing the opposite without actually saying so). This is despite the fact that I consider my current LD local cllr a lot more EFFECTIVELY far sighted and helpful for those with low and middle incomes.

    It’s almost as if Ed Miliband is a follower of people that want power at ANY cost. The meme was that the LDs sold their principles for ministerial seats. Surely another meme is that SHOULD Labour get into No 10 that they’d have to do exactly the same.

  5. Michael says:

    The question is who will replace Miliband? The front bench is unimpressive as anyone who has any authenticity is side lined. Regarding the 2015 line up the candidates are moving further from the people due to parachuting Spads who need to pass a genitalia test to be selected, Biradari politics, inherited privilege for the children of the Labour anointed, and communist Union reps.

    In the end it is the ordinary people who voted Labour that have suffered by not being represented thus opening up a hole of despair for UKIP to fill.

  6. Robert says:

    Blairites need to accept that they are a despised minority, while the hard left is part of Labour’s broad church. Their only hope is that Labour is in opposition after the next election and they can then try to return to New Labour. I will leave the Labour Party if they succeed.

  7. Robert, which Blairites would become leader, Burnham,Creasey, Reeves, Chuka, Emma Reynolds, De Perio, Liz the shadow health sec?

    Look at Blue labour Simon danczuk, John Mann ,Ann Cryer they’d back Jon cruddas, now Cruddas makes out he’s left wing ,but he’s no more left wing htat a Blairite

  8. Henrik says:

    @Robert: you may well be right and the faction within Labour which knows how to win elections is in eclipse behind the hard men and women of the Left. That’ll be nice, after the 2015 defeat, you can get on with the purges and argument you should actually have been having since May 2010. Perhaps by 2020 a more fit for purpose loyal Opposition might have emerged from the bloodshed.

  9. Ex Labour says:

    Burnhams interview was car crash viewing. His stance was totally illogical and well done to Kirsty and the BBC for exposing this nonsense. I’ve often criticised the BBC for being the Labour Party’s mouthpiece but this was a “paxman moment” when she repeatedly said “give me a number” and young monobrow couldn’t answer. BTW has anyone noticed young Burnham has had his monobrow sorted ? I digress, but the reality is that Milibands order to “weaponise” the NHS is causing Labour spokesmen to talk bollocks. When a politico says to the interviewer that the are not listening or dont understand you know their arguement is dead.

    If you say one thing and then try to do another, the public are not stupid and realise you are playing politics – not a good idea with the NHS.

    The simple answer to the question was to say that the NHS is the provider of choice and the private sector will only be used in exceptional circumstances eg to meet high demand or reduce backlogs. I think the public would perfectly understand this and accept it as a reasonable position to take. Unfortunately this is not viable under the “weaponisation”.

  10. Henrik, purges seems a bit harsh, I’ve got a feeling that the Tory press will be looking fo rthose statements over the alst 5 years, Andy Newman, Stalin was a heron and Chairman Mao did such a great job,or Karen Buck the tories don’t want the poor to breed, or the Hammersmith Fulhan labour councillor today saying polcie shouldn’t arrest petrol thieves, or my Friend Aaron kiely with his the Jury in the Duggan case gave teh wrong verdict, we should over throw the state,

    it’ll be a rerun of the 87 election where the tories ran alot of silly quotes from Kieth Vaz, Diane Abbott Ken livingstone, and even Peter Hain about Sinn Fien being peaceful, it’ll probably cost us a few votes

    but purging!, none of these things warrant expulsion, there maybe some lefties calling for Milburn and Huton to be expelled because they’ve donee work for the Tories over the last few years, or even Charles Clarke and co, who’ve predicted the Tories will win, I can see a few people walking away Ken livingstone, who’s careers behind him, and won’t get his prefered choice as Labours choice for mayor,

    but people leaving becasue we may get a Blairite in charge,or even If Ed miliband stays on,at the worse I just see a few Blairite Backbenchers who’ve stayed in politics,getting jobs in the city Frank field etc, (yes I know he backed Ed for leader)

  11. Paul Tinnion says:

    It is not true that Labour’s policy was only to use the private sector to “clear backlogs”. It was policy that “choose and book” should include a private provider. At one time my local PCT had a target that 15 percent of elective surgery should be provided by the private sector.

  12. Ralph says:

    Burnham was a sad overly made up clown struggling to weave two strands of thread and being limited to the poor attempt at “nuance” constructed for him.

    You are beaten. Your IPCC manifesto is gone, your freeze on energy a joke, blown away on the mild breeze of resistance it took to deal with it…you have no polices you have a massive trust deficit.

    Ironically after this GE you will be wishing you had had an internal battle because the victor would now be free united and free of doubt as to direction. Instead you have the Left who know what will happen should Ed Milliband and his pathetic low grade following get in and so will not support you…so that goodbye to the Blairite hating Left, the Blairite voters won’t support you because your Leadership Team are laughable and the incredibly crap policies that appeared Left wing that have now gone have put them off too.
    The only reason you remain in the polls is due to the legacy of Bevan and Atlee and the memory of a compassionate party that people who are ignorant of politics still identify with and will vote for…until they have to ask themselves some very searching and relevant questions…give them time and they will realize the truth.

    No narrative to unify the Right and Left to make a centre, not a single brain in the whole of the Parliamentary PLP, no challenger, no fighter no conviction and therefore no authenticity, just little lobbyists, SPADS and WONKs waiting for their next payslip for being there.

    The grind continues and exile awaits in Scotland and will follow in England until the very memory of the dead pointless exercise is over. The Conservatives have everything now, they know how to win…and as time goes by their campaign machine will be second to none. They will have a coalition of the centre with which to challenge UKIP and the Greens. They are making all the right noises, having the right discussions on policy in an informed and intelligent manner. They have the “responsible narrative” and they have a direction now.

    It could not be better for the UK after the divisions created by Labour, of the reckless and appalling behaviour of the mad MPs that rule over it. There is only one home for weird…and that is political oblivion.

  13. Welsh Borderer says:

    You cannot be serious ! What left ratchet ? If only, would be the response of most Labour members and the 10% of the electorate who have voted LibDem since 2005 because they found them more progressive than an LP which fawned on business, allowed growing inequality, refused to give unions effective collective bargaining rights and unforgivably attacked Iraq. For a couple of years after the last GE Ed managed to get this 10% into Labour’s column by promising that Labour would be significantly more progressive. Alas the Blairites in Westminster have out-manoeuvred him and so we go to the Country yet again on an almost wholly Blairite platform, relying on a core vote which is crumbling in reaction, and apparently in mass desertion in Scotland where an arch-Blairite is in charge. The call for an injection of socialist principle into the manifesto was modest and overdue. Otherwise the haemorrhage of votes to the SNP, Greens and even back to the Libdems will continue.

  14. swatantra says:

    In a pretty tricky hung Parliament situation a group of 15 could well cause havoc, and have a much greater influence than they actually merit. Somehow Ed will have to neutralise that influence by suggesting that there is ‘No Deal’ if they want to keep Labour out of Govt for another 10 years so be it. But its more likely that 3 Greens and a handful of Plaid could in practice have more influence than the 15 who could easily be brought to heel, by threats and enducements of some kind or other. They would be the equivalent of the eurosketik wing of the Tories that made life difficult for several Tory Administrations. Somehow I see a restructuring of a new Centre Left Party emerging from all this chaos.

  15. Madasafish says:

    It is a sad fact of political life based on the past half century ( so not a flash in the pan) that Labour Governments are not very good at running a tight economic ship when there is little money. They have a tendency to tax and spend, which chokes off economic growth.

    The UK economy is too full of consumers and not enough producers. Until that is righted, money will be tight. In reality we are living far beyond our means and have done so for the past 20 years.

    I have seen NOTHING – and I repeat nothing – from any Labour spokesman or Leader to suggest they acknowledge this rather fundamental fact.

    If you don’t recognise the problem, you will not solve it.

    The Tories are no better but at least they are trying to match spending and income – however incompetently it may be. Labour don’t even pretend to try.

  16. Fred says:

    The Labour position is always now based on ideology. As the press are pointing out ordinary people are voting for answers. Labour want public provision, voters want the best quality healthcare for the same cash outlay. Labours position is illogical to ordinary folk.

    Kirsty made Burnham look stupid. The voters are working out that Labour is trying to drive its ideology as opposed to providing solutions for our globalised world.

  17. BenM says:

    Almostseemscruel to point out to the Blairites and Tories posting here that Labour still lead in the polls while the useless and unpopular Tories continue to flatline and are most likely to form the next government.

    The harping from this quarterof theLabour Party has been so shrill that when Miliband concludes those coalition deals and walks through the doors of number ten he’s going to be seen as a hero rather than guilty of electoral underperformance against the worst, feeblest and immoral governing administration in my lifetime.

  18. Tafia says:

    BenM The SNP have bow declared they will not go into coalition with Labour, but will supply their block vote on a case-by-case basis and Labour will have to ‘buy’ it on each and every occasion. They have also said they will not prop them up just for the sake of it.

  19. BenM says:

    “Labour Governments are not very good at running a tight economic ship when there is little money. They have a tendency to tax and spend, which chokes off economic growth.”

    Care to provide some proof of this? Because any reading of economic history shows that it is the Tories who are the worst econoic performers of all.

    According to economist Simon Wren Lewis, the average growth rate since Osborne took on the Chancellorship is 0.5% lower than under the last Labour government – financial crisis included.

    Of the £1.4trn stock of debt, most was added by the Tories.

    Of all the recessions to hit the economy since the War all except 2008-09 occurred under Tory governments.

    OK, the highest proportionate deficit was under Labour. But the Tories are at number 2 for their 1992-93 deficit. With a much milder recession.

    Everywhere you look, the record of the economy under Tory stewardship is much poorer than that under Labour governments.

    It’s not even close – the Tories are simply very bad managers of the economy.

  20. McCurry says:

    @Atul, When Blair was in power, it was acceptable to attack him for not being right wing enough, while the left were regarded as the enemy. Same difference.

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