Moderation and competence – the building blocks of political credibility

by Kevin Meagher

Asked to sum-up his personal credo, the late political theorist Bernard Crick described himself as a moderate socialist. “Small ‘m’ capital ‘S’.  Clever and apt, especially as moderation has always been a useful ally for the democratic socialist.

All the more so given the sceptical British distrust political grandiosity and anything that sounds too fancy, which is why Lord Woolton, the post-war Conservative party chairman, insisted on referring to Labour as “the socialists” during the 1950s in order to make the party seem alien and doctrinaire.

Yet here we are again, with Labour cast as dirigiste meddlers with their price freezes, rent controls and nationalisation in an era where people are, broadly, comfortable with consumer choice and free enterprise. Tread softly if you are to venture into this field. Alas, clod-hopping Labour chose to insert its size 12s into the bear trap clearly marked “anti-business”. It is a crude charge for a party, which, on closer examination, is equally committed to “maintaining the most competitive Corporation Tax rate in the G7,” but such characterisations are the stuff of election campaigns and the party should have known better.

Allied with the desirability for political moderation is the need to be credible. If Labour has spent the past five years carelessly forfeiting its reputation for prudence and restraint, it was actively reckless in disregarding the need to be seen as basically competent and trustworthy.‘Don’t Do Stupid S***, warns Barack Obama, yet the party did. Repeatedly.

It was a running feature throughout Ed Miliband’s leadership. Those indifferent Commons performances. Frightening off party donors. Forgetting to include any reference to immigration and the deficit in his last party conference speech before the election. Of course, the personal is also political and he didn’t do himself any favours by neglecting to register his sons’ births. Or nearly setting fire to someone’s garage. Or munching on that bacon sandwich.

These pratfalls and unforced errors were more than bad luck or the vengefulness of the Murdoch press. They were symptomatic of the view that public relations is an unworthy preoccupation of modern politics and that the loftily-minded should not be measured by it. Hence, Miliband’s bizarre claim not to read any newspapers, preferring US websites instead. It was the same disregard (intellectual arrogance, actually) that saw Michael Foot roll-up to the Cenotaph looking like an old tramp.

But the abandonment of moderation and forgetting how to be competent were not solely Ed Miliband’s doing. Labour has struggled from 2008 onwards to define what it did wrong (and, yes, what it did right)  in relation to the banking crash. There’s a big, gaping hole where there should be an argument about what happened, or, at the very least, an explanation.

Yes, the regulatory regime the party created was inadequate in stopping banks internalising too much risk, but this was also a global phenomenon. Yet the sheer lack of anything to say, of any sort of economic story, saw Labour tread water for five years, relying on a narrow attack on falling living standards, while feeling utterly unable to critique the coalition’s woeful macro-economic record in case their own was flung back at them. In light of having something compelling to say, the competent move, which might have at least given Labour the chance of a fresh hearing, would have been to replace Ed Balls, forever cast as Gordon Brown’s factotum, as Shadow Chancellor with someone unconnected with past mistakes.

I don’t think it is too strong to say that by embracing moderation and competence five years ago – the basic building blocks of political credibility – Labour could have been spared last month’s drubbing. Certainly, the party could have lost less conclusively than it did and this in itself would have been transformative from where it now finds itself.

As it picks itself up off the floor, relearning these lessons is essential for Labour’s renewal. And that’s essential with a capital ‘E’.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut

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4 Responses to “Moderation and competence – the building blocks of political credibility”

  1. David Walker says:

    I thought this piece was worth reposting

    John McTernan on the cant of an honest debate in the Labour movement
    18/05/2010, 06:12:46 AM

    There are two great mistakes that parties make when they lose elections. First, they blame each other, then they blame the voters. Each in its own right is disastrous. Together, they are toxic.

    Thus far, the emergent leadership campaign has been more benign. There is a refreshing willingness to concede that we made errors in office and need to reconsider before we rebuild.

    But the biggest trap awaits – the false consciousness of an “honest debate in the party/the labour movement.” This is cant, and dangerous cant. A debate with ourselves is a conversation with the already convinced – we all voted Labour. We lost, not amongst the 29% who voted Labour or (generously) the 10% of voters who pay the levy or join the party. We lost among the middle-ground decent folk of Britain. If we were serious we’d let voters in Brighton, Redditch and Redcar choose our next leader.

    I’m not suggesting that we have primaries. There is a very good reason that parties have members: the collective discipline provided is crucial for effectiveness in campaigning and ultimately in governing. What I do believe is that unless we understand not just why we lost but also what our people want, then we are doomed to a treadmill of defeat.

    Let’s be clear, we were liberated by New Labour because it was a set of policy ideas based on analysis. The example set by Philip Gould was finally copied by the Tories when Lord Ashcroft funded the work that underpinned his polemic pamphlet “Smell the coffee.” What we need now is an equally detailed and compelling assessment of where public opinion now stands. We will differ about how to respond to the facts, but can we have the sense to gather them first?


    It seems pretty clear that the last 5 years have been utterly wasted. No meaningful positive steps have been taken at all. How many people who didn’t vote Labour will have a say in picking the next leader? None and the opinion of those who didn’t vote for the party won’t even be sought.

    The leader will be picked by extremists, because that’s what all party politicians are – even someone like Blair! Anyone who cares about politics enough to choose it as a career is going to be obsessed by the subject.

    The Tories have a slightly better method of picking a leader, but not by much! The field is reduced to 2 on the basis of votes by Tory MPs – extremists, in other words. The eventual winner is chosen by those who have joined the Conservative party and presumably voted for it.

    Foot, Kinnock, Brown, Miliband, Hague, Duncan-Smith, Howard… Either party could have avoided years in the political wilderness, if they had simply asked the few swing voters that decide elections who they would like to see in charge.

    Most of these people care very little about politics and pay almost no attention to what happens at Westminster. So, how come they always reach the correct conclusion on election day? They get it right every time.

  2. Mike Stallard says:

    The working class has now gone, defunct, vanished, obliterated. If you want to see working class – go to China. Mrs Thatcher’s terms in office saw to that.
    The Labour Party is the party of the working class – following Marx.
    So what can it stand for now?
    It stands for government which is seen as the means for improving society.
    But who is the government?
    From the election on TV, it was obvious that both parties – Labour and Conservative – were not in any way representative of us down here. Obviously the Conservative front bench was purged of all traces of working class people – except form Michael Gove that is. But we noted that Mr Miliband was always addressing a host of adoring acolytes.
    Neither seemed to meet and be part of ordinary people’s lives like, say, David Davis, Frank Field or Nye Bevan.
    There are a lot of credible alternatives to government being the answer. Labour has not found them yet. Carne Ross? Douglas Carswell? Dan Hannan’s book?
    The days of class warfare have actually long gone. When Labour wakes up to that, politics will change.

  3. John P Reid says:

    Simply asked a few swing voters, that’s easier said than done

  4. Forlornehope says:

    As more and more information comes out about Labour’s last five years, let alone the shambolic campaign (thank you Mr Wintour) it does raise the question: if that is how staggeringly incompetent they are at running their party how on earth do they have the sheer arrogance to put themselves forward to run the country?

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