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