Labour must be more than technocrats. The challenge is to lift Britain out of its moral depression

by Gordon Lynch

A common observation about the Labour leadership contest this summer is that the candidates, for all their relative strengths, have not yet succeeded in providing a compelling vision of our country’s future and the role of the Labour party within it.

Where this wider debate has begun to open up it has been primarily in terms of differing positions towards deficit reduction and austerity. But whilst Labour’s ability to provide a credible economic plan for Britain’s future is undoubtedly the threshold that must be met for it to be taken seriously by the electorate, it is not sufficient to provide a powerful vision of our collective future. Nor does a focus on the failings of Labour’s last general election campaign provide a sufficient analysis of the depth of electoral disillusionment with progressive politics at the moment.

The roots of this disillusionment do not lie simply in the public blaming Labour for the current financial deficit. It lies in a moral depression which began before the financial one.

Since the relative euphoria of Labour’s electoral success in 1997, there have been three significant moral traumas in which public confidence in progressive politics has been deeply damaged. The first was the decision of Tony Blair’s government, with strong Conservative support, to engage in the 2003 Iraq War against unprecedented popular opposition. The party that had won in 1997 by articulating the public’s moral aspirations betrayed this six years later when it embarked on a war that was so deeply at odds with the ethical foreign policy that it initially espoused. The fact that the 2003 war set in motion a chain of events that has now led to the horrors of the rise of ISIS only perpetuates a residual sense of despair at such a fundamental failure of Britain’s political institutions to respect the moral convictions of its people.

The second moral trauma came in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007. The pain resulting from this was not simply the economic cost of bailing out the banks but the dawning realisation after this that the institutions who caused the crash were too powerful to be held to account for their actions. The stripping of Sir Fred Goodwin’s knighthood was a shallow act of scapegoating against a backdrop of continued bonuses for bankers and austerity for ordinary workers. But people’s sense of moral outrage at this could achieve little against a financial sector on which the country is still so economically dependent. The lack of any sense of moral resolution to this injustice has left a prevailing cynicism in its wake, in which Labour is blamed for its failure for addressing these fundamental problems in the financial sector during its thirteen years in office.

To these, we might add a third trauma of the capitulation of the Liberal Democrats, in whom progressive hopes were vested in 2010, in a coalition with the Conservatives that again was seen as a basic breach of democratic trust.

In the face of such powerful moral traumas in little more than a decade, it is not surprising that voters are not receptive to believing that progressive moral aspirations can be achieved through the established centre-left parties. In a context of diminished moral hope for the country, the Conservatives are able to strengthen their support as the party of economic competence who can hold the country together in the absence of a better alternative. Nor is it surprising that people’s experience of the difficulty of holding powerful political and financial institutions to account has led moral frustration to find its targets in the easier, weaker moral scapegoats of unworthy welfare claimants and immigrants. Doubtless there are problems with the welfare system and with immigration, for some local communities, that need to be addressed. But the degree of moral investment placed in these targets far outweighs any actual social problems associated with them, suggesting that they have become the means through which deeper dis-satisfaction with politics are finding an outlet.

The starting point for Labour now is not simply to project a message of economic competence, as a technocratic party capable of managing the economy in a somewhat less unfair way than the Conservatives. It needs to acknowledge the state of moral depression in which the country now finds itself. It needs to apologise not just for its part in the country’s current economic difficulties, but an even more fundamental disappointment that the electorate feels towards the possibility of a progressive moral direction for British politics. It needs to acknowledge the moral traumas of the recent past as well as the ways in which it has contributed to them. Ed Miliband, to his credit, began this process in the last election campaign, but this was arguably too little and too late. Only by facing the deep disappointments of the past can Labour begin to ask the question on which the future of progressive politics in Britain now hangs. Can we still dare to hope that politics can deliver a country that is fairer, more proud of its place in the world and in which people feel committed to a greater moral purpose?

Gordon Lynch is Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent and a member of the Labour party. He writes and blogs on moral dimensions of contemporary society

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10 Responses to “Labour must be more than technocrats. The challenge is to lift Britain out of its moral depression”

  1. Madasafish says:

    No mention of the fourth great moral trauma. A former PM using the background of his former office to accumulate great wealth and acting in a way more redolent of a Russian oligarch..

    And still proffering advice to teh party he is still a member of…

  2. swatantra says:

    I quite like the idea of a secular technocratic government that delivers what it promises and has fairness as its main parameter and guiding light. When we start bringing morals into it
    I start to get a bit worried when people start bringing morality into it because one man’s morals is another mans stoning or burning of heretics. Morality should be reserved for the bedroom.
    @ madasafish. Careful; we shouldn’t be too hard on poor Sir John.

  3. Tafia says:

    No mention of the fourth great moral trauma. A former PM using the background of his former office to accumulate great wealth and acting in a way more redolent of a Russian oligarch..

    Exactly Madasafish. For some inexplicable reason Labour’s Blair wing still cannot accept a simple reality – Blair, and by his extension, endorsements and involvement, is more toxic than a turd in a hot tub. And that anything – anything at all he endorses or puts his fingers on becomes poison there and then, even if it’s true.

    Kendall is facing total and massive public humiliation because she is labelled as the most Blairist candidate. (Not actually true – Burnham and Cooper are)

    If the Blair camp had any sense at all they’d get him to support Corbyn and thus doom him. But they have no sense and as a result none if the four candidates will ever be PM (not that any deserve to be or are capable of being anyway)

  4. Gordon, I think you should add the Westminster political class being caught up in the expenses scandal. This was the major cause of politicians not being trusted by the public.

  5. Helen says:

    This is the point the Pope is making today as reported on CNN news – notice it is not reported on the wonderful BBC news or even Sky news. Do the media collude with the money power brokers?

  6. Mr Akira Origami says:

    ….and the fifth moral trauma of electing Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, who will provide a compelling vision of our country’s future and the non-existent role of the Labour party within it.

  7. Will says:

    A very plausible analysis and a very good starting point for planning the response to the Election result.
    Just one question, why did so many Lib Dems, disliking their role in the coalition, respond by voting Tory in the Election.

  8. Mr Akira Origami says:

    “why did so many Lib Dems, disliking their role in the coalition, respond by voting Tory in the Election.”

    Maybe they didn’t fancy the idea of a lefty Labour Party/Scottish National Socialist Party coalition humiliating British folk whilst destroying the economy. Maybe they went further, thinking if a right wing Labour government fucked the economy so bad. imagine if a left wing Labour government got into power.

    Perhaps they thought voting Tory in the election was the morally right thing to do.

  9. Madasafish says:

    Given the previous scandals of the Papacy with murders, money and the Vatican Bank… and the Banco Ambrosiano scandal, he’s a brave man…

  10. tim says:

    I have to say that this article leaves a lot of things out, most likely because it doesn’t fit the ideological narrative.
    The author forgets that New Labour gave us spin, Teflon Tony, the slimy Peter mandelson (sacked twice/three times with a bonus?), the dodgy dossier, the subsequent suicide, and so many sleazy scandals involving money, donors, corruption, dodgy PR practises (remember Jo Moore), the bullying of Campbell and numerous other awful things. That’s not to say the Tories are any better, but New labour brought a new level of political malaise to the country. We always had a slight dislike/distrust of politicians before then, but the reign of New labour showed the public the modern face of politics. And no, we didn’t like it a bit.

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