Smart people learn from their enemies

by Rob Marchant

The furore over last week’s defection of former Labour staffer, Luke Bozier, to the Tories provides a convenient excuse for a closer look at the party that he has just joined. Not with a view to doing the same, you understand – it’d be a cold day in hell for most of us – but with a view to a bit of hard-nosed, non-partisan analysis.

Leafing through Alan Clark’s idiosyncratic history of his party, The Tories, there are some interesting lessons for Labour. Not ideologically, of course: but about the nature of politics, and the nature of power. And power is something which the Tories were uncommonly good at securing and retaining during the period of the book, from their successful defenestration of Lloyd George in 1922 through to their rout in 1997. Indeed, during this period, as Clark points out:

“…the Conservative Party was the dominant political force in Britain – even when, for short periods, it was in Opposition”.

An analysis which is essentially correct: during that 75 year period, the Tories were never in opposition for more than six consecutive years. The harsh electoral reality was that Labour was only ever seeing how long it might keep the Tories out for, before their inevitable, swift return. To be fair to the historian’s objectivity with which Clark documents his subject, he also concedes that its electoral popularity was sometimes at the expense of the national interest. But for a model of how to dominate an electoral landscape, you can’t do much better than the Tories during this period. A party for whom winning was always a serious business: until, in 1997, when they lost the plot.

Now, if you can’t swallow your pride and learn from those who do something well, then you’re probably not destined to do it very well yourself. Let’s not forget the various Tories in the current cabinet who consult Blair’s A Journey on a regular basis – not because they agree with him, but because they think he was rather good at being prime minister. Smart people learn from their enemies, and Clark was someone who, while having witnessed high-level politics first-hand, could still analyse it with a surgical detachment.

In his Diaries he often wrote, as Roy Hattersley once said of the poet Blake Morrison, “with a reckless respect for the truth”. Never fiercely tribal, he was genuinely impressed by Labour’s renaissance, as Alastair Campbell’s own diaries reveal. As Labourites, while we might vicariously enjoy the politics-laid-bare of his writing, we may still find Clark personally unpleasant or even loathsome. A man who could veer between high principle and low cunning, he was certainly no saint. But stupid he was not, either: in fact, his analysis was often unusually lucid.

For a good example of this, we need look no further than the first few pages of The Tories, where he discusses the fate of the various Tory premiers:

“…the inseparable linkage between political aspiration and economic reality…all who sought to ignore this came to grief…”

He is talking about the Tories, but the historical moral applies equally to progressive parties; something Bill “the economy, stupid” Clinton well understood. And, over the last couple of weeks, it seems that the Labour leadership has finally assimilated that lesson. We should all be cautiously pleased.

For over a year, denial has been the order of the day: listening to the shadow cabinet on the economy has been rather like listening to the orchestra on the Titanic, resolutely refusing to stop playing the same tune as the waters rise menacingly around it. The recent statements of both Miliband and Balls on the importance of fiscal probity have now broken with that denial, and not before time.

It is a first step: as Progress’ Robert Philpot has written, there is still a yawning gap when it comes to defining what Labour would do with public services. But the fundamental point, made by Hopi Sen in his Renewal essay during the summer, and refined by the pamphlet In The Black Labour, has hit home. What is Labour actually for, in times of austerity? A new model is surely required, if we are to avoid the public perception of attempting to defy economic gravity.

Although our prospects still look somewhat bleak as of today – some recent polls having been possibly the worst since the election – this important change is to be applauded for providing an honest, credible foundation for a program for 2015. There’s plenty for the coalition to screw up by then: what one of Cameron’s predecessors wryly termed “events, dear boy”, can easily intervene. And we have at last shown ourselves to have some seriousness about winning, perhaps even in time to turn this boat around by the next election.

But it’s a tall order. In his December interview with the FT, Miliband himself, to his credit, made a telling comment: “I always said it would be a long journey to be just a one-term opposition”.

A managing of expectations for posterity, if ever there was one.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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12 Responses to “Smart people learn from their enemies”

  1. BenM says:

    Hmm, don’t see much evidence of Osborne defying economic gravity.

    If anything the stuttering of engines and wobbling of the Austerity fuselage point to the whole thing coming crashing down around our ears.

    And ordinary working voters will be the victims.

    Victims of their own understandable lack of grasp of macro economics – cuts aren’t closing the deficit in this ongoing crisis as we are seeing – but victims nonetheless.

  2. figurewizard says:

    There is a lot that is right in this article but it does not mention one essential point, which is that the present leadership and front bench are all perceived to have been engaged to some extent in the policies that have created our present economic problems.

    Bank regulation was dire under Labour. Excluding the Bank of England from this has been shown to be a grave error of judgement. The FSA itself has offered its own mea culpa by admitting that the job was largely beyond the competence of its staff. As the auditors of the banks relied largely on the view of the FSA when it came to evaluating the assets in bank balance sheets, this was a fundamental cause behind the scale of tax payer support in order to avoid financial meltdown.

    The growth of tax revenues (income tax revenue up by 97%, NI by 104%) was ‘matched’ by growth of gross disposable income of 29%. Billions more was raised by selling our gold reserves at a colossal discount, G3 licenses and increased taxes on North Sea oil. The massive increase in PFI and the huge liabilities for the next thirty years that go with that was another (largely hidden at the time) source of yet more cash. Now however the question is being asked – Where has it all gone?

    The situation was made worse when Ed Milliband and Ed Balls launched into a campaign of greater not less borrowing despite the fact that people had by then become well aware of the size of the deficit and the consequently parlous state of the economy. Now for reasons that are not entirely clear, they appear to be retreating from this position.

    Labour needs new people on the front bench, who were not associated with any of these matters and new policies that are more in tune with what the majority of people are looking for the future. “Sorry we got it wrong – Vote for us” from those who were party to the instigation of these problems won’t do it.

  3. Madasafish says:

    And we have at last shown ourselves to have some seriousness about winning,

    One U turn does not make a sensible or credible policy.

    And frankly, the execution of that U turn suggests the authors of it did not have a clue how to present it in a way which made sense to the electorate – let alone their own members.

    ( Refer to the latest Opinion polls ).

    Basically the U turn said ” we got it wrong for the last year in Opposition” and by implication in the last 10 years of Labour Government. But frankly the presentation was such a dog’s breakfast, you had to read both Speeches from Balls and Miliband, and fill in the gaps to work out what they really meant.

    As politics is the art of presentation , presenting a change of policy is the most difficult thing to do. And it needs to be clear and simple to follow.

    Frankly, if I as a follower of politics was confused by it, what does the average voter going to make of it?

    If Labour were sensible, a change of leadership and Shadow Chancellor is required to emphasise the change. But the alternatives are just as appealing as the current incumbents.. so why bother?

    But I agree about “events”.. Don’t panic.. Just hope something turns up. History suggests it will not.

  4. swatantra says:

    Th fact is Britain is innatey a cnserative country thats why we’ve never had a revolution; the last was over 500 years ago, and we’re not due for another 500.
    Te reason we won in ’45 was beacuse the Tories meese up big time and led us into a War. Its only when Tories make a dogs breakfast of governing that Britain turns to Labour as happened in ’97. And, when Labour has a Leader that can play the Tories at their own game like Blair.
    So Labour is handicapped from the start and has to be twce as good as the Tories if it is ever to get a look in. But we do have a tendancy to shoot ourselves in the foot as happened in ’51 when Labour began fighting amongst itself and fell apart; and in 2010 when the same thing happened and exhaustion crept in and we had an unelectable leader.

  5. swatantra says:

    Luke Bozier is a disgrace.

  6. aragon says:

    I am amazed at your ability to get the lessons wrong.

    “The recent statements of both Miliband and Balls on the importance of fiscal probity have now broken with that denial, and not before time.”

    They have not ‘broken with that denial’ but shot themselves in the foot and conceded the economy to the Tories.

    What the electorate would like is a Labour policy on the economy, which is not Tory lite.

  7. Rob Marchant says:

    @BenM: It’s right that the Tory approach to the economy has not been the right one. However, you’re missing two points, I think: 1. the situation has worsened considerably over the last 12 months from external factors (weakness of US, euro crisis) which means that the best policy at the start is not necessarily the best policy at the end of those 12 months. 2. It’s a political issue as much as an economic one. We can sit there till we’re blue in the face saying we were right, but the plain fact is that they believe the Tories and not us. In short, whatever the rightness of our original “too far, too fast”, it hasn’t worked. In part they don’t believe us because we haven’t answered In The Black Labour’s central question: what is Labour going to do, given that there’s no money?

    @figurewizard: it’s true that there is some association of current figures with a lack of book-balancing during 2005-10, but the truth is a little less black and white, and this is an old debate we’ve had a number of times over the last 12 months. The short answer is that practically no governments over the last 30 years or so actually balanced the books. The first one that did was the first New Labour government 1997-2001. So yes and no.

    What the Tories have successfully done, however, is convinced people that their version is right, and we need to deal with that. This is the first step in recognising that new political, rather than economic, reality.

  8. Madasafish says:

    Labour needs some clear thinking on policies.. thinking divorced from any ties with the past. A form of policy think tank by people with political and economic nous – and of course sympathetic to Labour ideals.

    Basically none of the Shadow cabinet are suitable for the roles: most have too much invested in the past – reputations, friendships etc..

    As it is, Labour policy is basically following Tory policy and reacting – but very slolwy, with little forethought and no staregic dirrection..

  9. swatantra says:

    We aleady have the socialist Thnk Tanks; they’re called the Fabian Society and Compass. A lot of the speeches being made these days by Ed and Ed, and even Dave and Nick, have picked up ideas from these 2 Think Tanks. Some ideas have also been borrowed from The Co-operative Party and a few from Progress but not many, by all these leading politicians.

  10. Fat Bloke on Tour says:

    Rob M

    I fear you go too far.
    There is a need for a period of critical self reflection.
    There is no need for a prolonged period of self harm.

    You make the basic mistake about the Global Credit Crunch, it is all economic and politics must never get in the way of trying to produce a workable solution.

    GO aka Sniffy has tried to play politics and look what he has managed to do – he has totally derailed the recovery put in place by AD / GB and now we are looking at stagnation, unemployment and ever increasing projections of public debt into the medium term.

    Sniffy shouting the odds over cuts and public sector job losses is and was political.

    Sniffy shouting about benefits levels, child benefits and tax credits is political.
    It is dog boiling at its most obscene and most damaging.

    Consequently please aim you fire at those that deserve it the most.
    Neo Blairite point scoring just won’t wash any more.

  11. Rob Marchant says:

    @madasafish: “History suggests…” frankly, nothing of the sort: in fact, that anything can happen. John Major became PM, for heaven’s sake.

    @swatantra: largely correct that we haven’t historically done that well, during most of the 20th century, at least – that’s essentially the point of the article. However, we’re now in a new no-mans-land. I don’t think the Tories of old are back – yet. They’re not as self-assured as the old Tories, and could easily screw up still.

    @aragon: “I am amazed at your ability to get the lessons wrong”. Perhaps what you should have said was, “you seem to have an opinion which disagrees with mine”. Your opinion is not fact, it is just that – your opinion. Hand-waving assertions with no kind of supporting evidence.

  12. Rob Marchant says:

    @Fat Bloke: ah, don’t be mean to Labour, just criticise those nasty Tories. I also don’t really get your point about Osborne. This piece is about the Tories 1922-1997 and Labour: not the Tories now. I fear you’ve missed the point.

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