An Unnecessary Role

embracing false choices

What the cleverest man in the world has to teach the Labour Party

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After a few days of utter stupidity that in years to come will probably recounted in breathless Rawnsleyesque prose as ‘the weekend that made a leader’, Ed Miliband finally made a speech that begins to articulate a policy vision and speak to the people I was brought up to believe the Labour Party represents.

I thought the speech better written than some of his previous ones and the presentation less stilted than usual, although the ‘normal people’ segment was every spinner’s worst nightmare. It brought to mind the cringe-inducing 2010 manifesto rally where an audience of bussed-in hacks booed the media who then proceeded to give the event the shortest of shrift in the evening bulletins. Nonetheless, I think the messages will play well, will give the party confidence and, ultimately, point towards the right set of policies.

That’s not really what I wanted to post about today though. I have just finished reading The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen, a mind-bendingly bright economist at George Mason University. This profile gives some hint of what an astonishing polymath he is, a man who has read every major work of Western literature, consumes books like you or I would read the Metro on the way to work, and is capable of dashing off a post about his favourite things from Hungary which dwells on how tough it is to choose his favourite conductor. We are, with the best will in the world, an awful long way from Ed Miliband.

The central thesis of the book is that the world has just reached the end of an unprecedented period of growth caused by society reaping the benefits of the ‘low hanging fruit’ of technological, scientific and medical discoveries that have, in more recent years, become far more scarce. It is fantastically readable, especially for the non-specialist, and makes a compelling argument that the world must now prepare for a period where growth will not inevitably return to the economic cycle. The financial crisis, in this reading, is a symptom of a more profound problem with the global economy and of our inability to spot it. As Cowen puts it:

We thought we were richer than we were.

I am still trying to process what this all means for the way I view some of the political challenges we face, but Cowen’s view of American politics struck a chord. He views the American political system as, at present, incapable of facing up to the Great Stagnation. The political dialogue in America is traditionally one between a left that pursues social democratic aims by using the proceeds of growth to expand government, and a conservative right that seeks to restrain that growth in order to protect traditional institutions and mores. With no growth for each side to define itself by, the positions are effectively reversed.

“The reality is that members of the American left have, whether they like it or not, become the new conservatives. At least in economic policy, they are usually the defenders of the status quo. In contrast, some of the so-called “conservatives” are the radicals seeking major change.”

I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as a rather neat way of highlighting one of the Labour Party’s key ideological dilemmas. In a world of economic crisis we are faced with a radical government born of two parties with a zealous approach to reforming public services and reducing the size and cost of the state. We, too often, have retreated to a position where it is easy for us to be accused of wishing to preserving in aspic institutions like the welfare state and the NHS. Labour is too often the party of entrenched public sector interests, of resistance to innovation in public service delivery. Meanwhile, thinkers and commentators seek to actively redefine the party as a conservative force under the dubious guise of Blue Labour.

And yet the core mission of the Labour Party is a desire to change society in order that it better represents the aspirations of its ordinary citizens, to put power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many and not the few, as someone once said. Here we must depart from Cowen, who is, by nature and ideology, suspicious of the capacity of government to drive social change. He believes that it is only when the low-hanging fruit emerge again that the social democratic left will be able to pursue this mission once more, a fundamentally empty quest at the mercy of global economic movement.

I don’t believe that is true. Whether we are in the midst of a Great Stagnation, or whether its because of the radical reshaping of the state the government is carrying out, the Labour Party must be able to operate as a political force in tough times as well as prosperous ones. It must demonstrate that not only does it have a radical mission but also that it has an innovative approach to achieving its goals. Anna Turley of Progloc said in the Observer this weekend that:

Ed should look to where Labour is redefining itself – in local government. Councils are building co-operative models in social care and housing, transforming the way the state and local people work together.

The cooperative council model being pursued in Lambeth gives the lie that public service innovation is only being practised in Conservative authorities. It is just one example of where Labour people, left almost to their own devices in local government, are pursuing different approaches to the business of politics and policy. A Labour Party platform that articulates a core mission that can be delivered through these policies is one that can meet the challenges of the future, stagnant or otherwise.

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Written by samelliot

June 14, 2011 at 9:30 am

Posted in Labour

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