Politicians must show greater personal humility and political courage, says John Kampfner

In a recent comment article I wrote about my hopes and fears about the new coalition. To put it another way, to what extent did I regret my decision, which I explained in a pamphlet I launched with Nick Clegg and a shorter accompanying piece in the Guardian back in March, to endorse the Liberal Democrats?

As a self-professed left-liberal, surely I must have been feeling sore when my newly-adopted party jumped into bed with the Conservatives? No, I wrote, I felt neither betrayed nor chastened. Awkward sometimes, nervous pretty much every day, complacent, never. It has not been an easy decision, particularly when the odd blogger embarks on a customary “Judas is a term too good for you” green ink rant.

But when Tom Watson asked me to pen a few thoughts on what might entice me back into the Labour fold, the offer was too sensible to resist.

I don’t see the issue of allegiance as a simple trade-off. One of my strongest criticisms of Labour, whether “new” or “old”, was its tribalism. I have not swapped one tribe for another. My appeal is for a broader based pluralist politics, embracing the best from all parties, and none. Some of the strongest politics is taking place far away from the musty building in SW1 where MPs reside, and in which the public has so little faith. Much of it revolves creating a more liberal Britain.

But back to Tom’s question. I’ll break it down into three main areas: policy, vision and behaviour.

Policy: Labour achieved some notable successes, from the minimum wage to civil partnerships, but its actions were determined essentially by cowardice and fear. Whether Iraq (Blair’s ingratiation with Bush) or the banks (bail-out plus supine non-regulation), Labour was fearful of the Right. It played to the lowest common denominator. It was authoritarian on criminal justice and weak on political reform. Contrast its criminal-justice agenda with the last three months which have seen ID cards abandoned, stop and search abandoned, child asylum-seeker detention abandoned.

Vision: In all the 13 years of the Labour government, I could not fathom what the vision was. What was the abiding principle? I concluded, with reluctance, that the most important priority was to win, and to keep the other lot out. A tribe is a group based around social affinity and common interests; it is not a vehicle for change or inspiration.

Behaviour: It was this ideological emptiness that led the Labour machine to behave in the way it did. By ‘machine’, I mean the inner core around Blair and Brown. I exclude a number of ex-ministers and MPs who acted with greater self-knowledge, people like Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam (both sadly long departed) and Jon Cruddas. Peter Mandelson’s book provides the definitive word on the narcissism and bullying that we all wrote about – and were denounced for writing.

So where does Labour go from here? The leadership contest has been unedifying. This is due to its length, to its narrow audience, but also to a more fundamental lack of ideas. In the absence of Cruddas, I hope that Ed Miliband wins. But the victor will achieve little if he does not ensure that Labour searches its soul.

The party needs to ask why, at the height of public anger over the banks, it was the Left and not the Right that received a kicking across Europe? The critique needs to go beyond media ownership (valid though that point is) and incorporate imaginative and self-critical thinking about the role of the state and individual in a world that long ago moved on from Bevan and bed pans.

The coalition faces a rocky road ahead. Many people will suffer as the cuts bite. I will be as critical as the next person. I don’t see politics as a zero-sum game; you’re with us or against us. Britain needs a credible Labour opposition and when the times comes a Labour government of some sort again. It won’t happen until its politicians show greater personal humility and greater political courage.

John Kampfner

3 Responses to “Politicians must show greater personal humility and political courage, says John Kampfner”

  1. Why the hostility to political parties based on “A tribe (which) is a group based around social affinity and common interests”

    John seems to want political parties that treat voters as consumers offered different “inspirin” products.

    I believe working people get a rough deal from the economic system and need a party – Labour – which will advance their common interests.

    John seems to want to deny the relevance of economic or social class to voting behaviour or the creation of parties.

    Of course once you uproot a “radical” political party from a basis in working class political and economic representation – as per the Lib Dems – you end up with the moral confusion that makes coalition with the Tories left. An absence of “tribalism” tends to create an absence of core values.

  2. See, this is why I’m tribal about my voting preferences.

    Because there’s nothing that makes me sicker than a well-off liberal saluting possibly the most right-wing government of my lifetime, giving praise to its piecemeal measures on civil liberties (all cancelled out by the stunningly civil libertarian act of giving Experian a free hand to go through credit records for fraud), whilst brushing aside the deliberate class warfare it practices.

    Because while Labour has been flawed and factional, that’s a reason to improve it from within, not to jump into bed with a pair of parties whose policies are demonstrably worse than its own.

    Because, fundamentally, whilst I disagree with Luke Akehurst on more issues than I care to think of, I at least know that his fundamental values are those of the Labour Party. Whereas John Kampfner’s values get harder to see with every passing day.

  3. james says:

    I agree with Luke. “Tribalism” is reflective of the divides that exist between people and groups of people – both in terms of (material) interests and ideas.

    The reason for the “Judas is a term too good for you” rhetoric is because people feel betrayed. As someone who was a critical supporter of Labour in office, people did look up to you as someone who would give an explanation of what was going on. I know I did. So we were upset at the change of heart – because for many of us it matters immensely for the living standards of our friends and families that the Tories are kept out of power.

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