Labour’s right must find a new clarity of mission

by David Butler

Saturday September 12th was perhaps the worst internal defeat ever suffered by the Labour right. The scale of Corbyn’s victory was as vast as it was stunning. To recover, the Labour right must rediscover a clarity of mission and craft a new story to tell the party and the country.

This defeat was worse than Michael Foot’s victory in 1980 and the internal setbacks of the late 70s and early 80s.  Foot was picked by a divided and fearful PLP. A minority of ideologically uncompromising activists drove the Bennite surge. Corbyn’s victory was, by contrast, a popular one; the Party’s members, supporters and affiliates dealt the blow.

Like the Liberals in 1906, this may be a victory from which the left of the party never recovers. Yet Corbyn’s failure, if that occurs, will not be sufficient to win back the hearts and minds of the party faithful.

Phil Collins argued that internal regeneration has three parts: intellectual, organisational, and personal. Intellectual renewal precedes the latter two. This involves not just reflecting upon ideology but also the strategic context that Labour operates within. Critically, it is also about finding a new clarity of mission.

The leadership election had a clear message: dry arguments about process, policy and electability are not enough to win. Too much time spent on these and too little time on developing a vision cursed the three moderate candidates in the race. The candidates of the right, unfairly or otherwise, came across as hollow.

A clarity of mission should be central to the story that the Labour right tell the party and the country. A definitive purpose is a pre-requisite for victory. it should be one of what Matthew Taylor of the RSA called “design principles” for policy and institutions.

Mission was at the heart of New Labour’s success. Early New Labour was about the renewal of our country as it entered the twenty-first century. The stale Tories could not do the modernisation of Britain; only the young, hopeful and thoroughly modern Labour Party could.

Republicanism* (or powerful freedom to use Anthony Painter’s phrase) should inspired this new clarity of mission. Central to republicanism is a single notion: that true freedom consists of non-domination – the absence of others exercising arbitrary power over one’s life.  A republican approach seeks to expand the ability of people to be architects of their own lives. This is achieved through the development of what Amartya Sen called “capabilities”.

In practical terms, republicanism involves designing policies and constructing institutions – economic, social and political – that expand capabilities, rebalance power in society and reduce coercion.

It is a creed that allows Labour to own the future – embracing individualism and the power and potential of markets and technology – whilst recognising and ameliorating the downsides of rapid social and economic change.

Republican language, speaking to the liberty and dignity of all of individuals, can transform how arid but worthy policies and institutional reforms are framed. Closing the skills gap isn’t just abut boosting growth but about liberating young working class kids from a precarious labour market and the greater autonomy over their lives that these skills offer.

The mission derived from powerful freedom is simple: Labour will give you more power over your life. Labour cannot insulate you from the world but it can give you the tools to survive and prosper. In the words of Roberto Mangabeira Unger, it offers every citizen “a better chance to live a larger life”.

Over the past five years, prominent figures within the party, not exclusively of the right, have embraced republicanism. Jon Cruddas, in his RSA lecture, argued the task of politics is to empower “individuals and their families, in the work they do and in the places they live”. In the Purple Book, talk of Sen’s “capabilities” concept could be found throughout. Liz Kendall’s leadership campaign also had republican themes. However, this spirit was not the dominant story of her campaign and she was too easily typecast as a Blairite caricature.

Finding a new clarity of mission is just the beginning. It is a necessary but not sufficient part of intellectual renewal. It does not tackle the organisational nor the personal renewal needed. However, without this new mission, risks the same failure happening again. Republicanism can be the foundation stone for rebuilding.

*a distinct doctrine from anti-monarchism

David Butler is a Labour activist

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12 Responses to “Labour’s right must find a new clarity of mission”

  1. Tafia says:

    the three moderate candidates in the race. The candidates of the right, unfairly or otherwise, came across as hollow.

    That’s because they were, are and always will be hollow. And that’s why if you depose Corbyn, the left will insert a new candidate and wipe the floor with them again.

    This is also arses and elnows. Burnham is as left wing as Miliband, yet you call him moderate and John P Reid in another section labelled him extreme left.

    You have no identity. You have had no identity for years. You are all fur coat and no knickers. And now you have been found out.

  2. Adam Gray says:

    In less Westminster-bubble jargon, David, what I think you’re talking about is that the Labour right should be championing meritocracy – and if that’s correct you’re spot on.

    As you say, the three unsuccessful leadership candidates had the disastrous message that they didn’t really believe in the case they were making: we just had to swallow it because it was electorally sensible. How uninspiring, even for those who believed it to be true.

    There’s no need to couch sensible arguments in this cynical, autocratic language: argue for reducing the debt because there are so many better things a Labour government could spend £35 billion of taxpayers’ money on than paying off international fat cat creditors, rather than because it makes Labour look responsible to a slither of swing voters.

    As the Tories have now done (albeit cynically), it’s far better to raise the wages of the low paid than talk about bunging benefit recipients higher welfare payments – but again, you don’t have to couch this in terms of “that’s what the electorate want” but in terms of the dignity and freedom of earning rather than receiving handouts.

    I doubt very many of the middle-class, out of touch metropolitan elitists who are rich enough to afford the Corbyn victory they signed up for have ever had to endure the humiliation of standing in line to declare any work done in the last fortnight before getting a giro – but most who have would much rather be independent than dependent.

    And it’s not just about re-framing the case for what the loony left call “Tory” policies: let’s reclaim some of the issues we’ve allowed them to seize for themselves. Why is anyone who wants a massive return to council house building regarded as a leftie? and why are we allowing people like Andrew Adonis to frame what a moderate, mainstream housing policy is? His prescription of selling off council estates to private developers and massively intensifying the density without creating any new affordable homes isn’t in any way, shape or form what Labour should be advocating.

    Instead, in an era when there is massive demand for affordable housing even among those who would, on current criteria, never qualify, let’s revert to the original vision of municipal housing: mixed communities of tenants from all backgrounds, some of whom may be young professionals renting a council flat while saving for their deposit. Building council homes pays for itself and it enables us to gradually eradicate housing benefit paid to buy-to-let fat-cat landlords. And it enables the sons and daughters of existing tenants to maybe get a home of their own in the area they grew up in, rather than having to move miles away to survive.

    The case for a new era of council housing should be championed by the right, instead of the failed, tepid, scared-to-upset-the-middle-classes mush that was new Labour’s biggest failure of its decade in office.

    Be radical: instead of pandering to the “bog-standard comprehensive” brigade go in the opposite direction. Education vouchers have always traditionally been the preserve of the far right of the Conservative Party. But they are the most progressive, radical and transformative policy a left-of-centre party could adopt – because they give every child from whatever background the funding backing to attend the best school for their unique talents. And let’s encourage schools – yes, even schools whose parents wish them to remain overseen by local authorities – to diversify and specialise, so that schools become more like universities with different centres teaching to an exceptional standard and allowing pupils the freedom to move around rather than being tied to one building for eight years.

    Andy Burnham was wrong: instead of banning the private and not for profit sector from the NHS we need to give working people exactly the same CHOICE that the wealthiest have. But he was right – and again, this is the time for boldness – on the need to come up with a new deal on social care, alongside a proper, costed funding mechanism. The right may attack a universal levy on estates to adequately fund social care but their failure to even implement the tepid Dilnot proposals (while saddling care homes with higher wage bills and independent funders with higher charges while local authority placements get subsidised) shows they are too cowardly to act, just as they would have been too cowardly to actually found the NHS.

    Social mobility was the great failure of new Labour. That’s why it’s the ground upon which the right should found their new manifesto. It’s a huge canvass on which to paint and it defines those who champion it as FOR something tangible, for which there is huge support among all backgrounds (who doesn’t believe in wanting better for their kids than they themselves have managed?) and which would make Labour competitive in area it hasn’t been since the mid 1990s. It also is a clear break among the silly pot-of-gold-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow chasers on the left, wittering on about equality as if they have the first clue about how to engineer it and entirely removed from the public who will not touch such off-the-shelf socialism.

  3. John P Reid says:

    We’ve got to get away from the idea
    That people are either

    Tony Benns idea that labour lost in 1983 as it wasn’t left wing enough, it was the medics fault, it was the SDPs fault,as had the SDP not existed everyone who voted for them with the liberals would’ve voted labour, that Scargill was right not to ballot the members, that losing in 1983 was a moral victory, that Ed miliband spent five years denouncing New lsabour and Blair,to cheers from his supporters and quotes we’ve got our party back, yet when he lost he was new labour,that when only 8.4million voting labour in 1983 and the millions who came back to go voting labour by 1997 they’d have done so without us rejecting most of the 1983 manifesto
    And that it was the right of the parties fault for not standing by the left when the left took over in 1981 that saw us lose,that the public didn’t support thatcher democratizing the unions and that ,the union block vote at conferences telling the party what to do,and the purging via deselection of those MPs they disagreed with was right,
    And the perception of the so called loony left,obsessed with finding racism when it wasn’t there never actually caused black people to speak out against the likes of Harringey council who they perceived as actually oppressing them,and causing a problem where there wasn’t one,

    Or the other idea that anyone who disagrees with that is A Neo liberal, progress member, who’s views are really Tory, and that it’s there fault that labour lost millions of votes since 1997′ without realizing that, swinging to the right after 1987 brought in those extra votes in the first place

    Many in the centre or the right aren’t Neo liberal , blue labour Compass Co-op Labour first,many were against the Iraq war,it was the old right of the party who tolerated the closed shop, if at the same time, they were the ones who got the race and sex relations act passed,

  4. TB says:

    “Labour’s right must find a new clarity of mission”……

    The best way of doing this is for them to consider defecting, en-masse, to the Liberal Democrats, the Real Tories and/or UKIP. It would be for the best, I think.

  5. paul barker says:

    This all sounds great to me but I am a Libdem. What the article suggests is a brilliant description of the renewal that The Libdems are trying to make. Would these twin struggles not make more sense as one ? The big difference of course is that 90% of Libdems would like the sound of what this article proposes while The Labour figure would probably be no more than 40%.

  6. ALL sections of the party need to take the fight to the Tories now. We’ve had enough of this navel gazing!

    ALL sections of the party should be saying:

    1) We are not deficit deniers. We’re deficit comprehenders.

    2) The Government’s deficit in everyone else’s surplus.

    3) We promise to balance the economy. We want an economy which works for all.

    4) The Tories are full employment deniers. Their economic policies literally deny jobs to our young people.

    5) The Tories are economically illiterate!

    We needs to find the clarity and courage to make these bold claims and challenge the so-called accepted wisdom. Not everyone will get it straightaway, but they will respect a newly dynamic party for taking the fight to the Tories in a positive way. We need to line up all the available experts in support of what we’re saying. We’ll have plenty of support from Economists – some with Nobel prizes – if we just ask!

  7. Fred says:

    Peter Martin why is it that France has your kind of economy and is near bankrupt with no growth?

    Labour are economically illiterate. All the left do is practice religious ideology. Spraying money around does not create the innovation that gives us lasting industry. It leads to consumption and leakage to tiger economies. Meanwhile the debt keeps climbing. Healey IMF 76? Sadly as people on the left are largely class warriors that never created jobs, they don’t know this and are happy to peddle failed ideology as they don’t know any better.

    You will never win an election as normal people don’t practice your religion and aren’t stupid. They will vote accordingly and the dingbats who always vote Labour will be all you have. 24% in 2020! You heard it here first.

  8. Richard says:

    Can you all hear that Overton Window slide left?
    Perhaps this may bring unity to party of a sufficient cohesion to make the tories pause for thought. Then the promised recession in 2018, some more #piggates and an unwanted and disastrous foray into Syria and you never know, we may have a left wing Labour government.
    I realise many who write on here are as ideologically opposed to a left wing Labour government as Blair showed himself to be in his infamous ‘heartless’ interview, but many more are honestly against Corbyn as you feel he cannot win.

  9. Madasafish says:

    PeterMartin said:

    (amongst other things):

    4) The Tories are full employment deniers. Their economic policies literally deny jobs to our young people.

    The facts are (from the ONS)
    UK unemployment is now around 5.5%
    UK employment levels are the highest level they have been Period.

    All I can say he’s not just economically illiterate (like the Tories!) but clearly incapable of reading facts in the public domain.

    So a typical Corbyn supporter.

  10. John p reid says:

    it’ll be more Likely be 2025 before we win.while Oxbridge career politicians get in ,the only opposition is blue labour ,we need to have working class MPs like John Cryer Simon Danksz or Bill emerson
    Before the election and we didn’t know that the Tories would win, at least that Bloke who said to Kinnock ,we’ve got our party back , was right, we’ve lost again

  11. @Fred

    You ask

    “..why is it that France has your kind of economy and is near bankrupt with no growth?”

    Firstly, France doesn’t have my “kind of economy”. I’d never advocate any country to give up its own sovereign currency, in France’s case the franc, and adopt someone else’s currency ie the euro. The only way any economy in the EZ can be successful is to run a large export surplus as do countries like Germany and Holland. As not everyone in the EZ can do that, it creates a beggar-thy-neighbour effect which will always mean that countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal etc (and to some extent France too) will have euros sucked out of their economies leaving them short and in near permanent recession.

    @ Madasafish,

    The UK does, thankfully, still have its own currency. I guess we have Gordon Brown to thank for that. If Tony Blair had has his way his reputation would be even worse than it is right now.

    So things aren’t as bad as they are in the EZ. But they are nowhere near what they could be if the Govt understood the policy space they had at their disposal. Unlike France, the UK can never go bust. It can never involuntarily default on any obligation it might have denominated in £. That’s not to say it can’t create too much inflation if it overdoes it but, on the other hand, if it underdoes it there will be too much recession, too many unemployed (yes 5.5% is too high even if we accept the counting method as fair which we shouldn’t), too many underemployed in low productivity jobs and on ZHCs etc.

  12. Richard Gadsden says:

    What you call “republicanism” is what I call “liberalism”. Conrad Russell put it best:

    “Liberals are for minimum oppression. We want to see all power subject to control; not just the power of the state but also that of Monsanto, a bent copper, or a violent husband.

    Attempts to defend the editorial independence of the BBC, or to secure equal rights for gay people, come out of the same wellspring which led my great-grandfather in twelve consecutive sessions to introduce a bill to allow Jews by religion to sit in Parliament. He got it through, even though he had to become Prime Minister to do so.”

    From my perspective, the Labour Right has rarely lived up to the promise of “Labour will give you more power over your life” when in Government. Listening to Yvette Cooper trying to outbid Theresa May on how many civil liberties she could wipe out during the leadership campaign has hardly convinced me otherwise.

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