In the four decades I have spent following politics, one thing I have learned is that, when all else fails, it is worth telling the truth.
This is not meant to be a slick or flippant remark; rather it recognises something fundamental about opposition politics in particular. Governments can sway voters through deeds as well as words. Oppositions have only words. If those words are mealy-mouthed or dishonest or insincere, voters will find you out. Tactically and strategically, then, Labour’s fightback must be rooted in courage and honesty. Here are six truths that I believe Labour needs to recognise.
- Keynes was right. Governments must support the economy and boost demand when growth has stalled. I agree with Ed Balls when he says that the priority must be jobs rather than pay. Labour should be arguing for job-intensive government spending over the next year or two, such as house-building and road-mending, rather than tax cuts. The time to impose sustained cuts is when the economy is growing strongly again. That is how to reduce the deficit without strangling output or forcing up unemployment.
- In the longer term, however, social democracy faces a deeper problem. Universal welfare and universal services are becoming unaffordable – that is, it has become impossible to win an election by arguing for the levels of taxes needed to sustain generous universalism. My priority is to build the NHS and state schools into world-class services, and to help pay for this by means-testing more cash and near-cash benefits. It is absurd that I, a well-off man in his sixties, should continue to receive my £200 winter fuel allowance each November and a freeFreedomPass.Benefits should be targeted at those who really need them.
- The left needs a theory of production. It used to have one. It believed that if we nationalised every industry, we would have a more prosperous and contented nation. We know better now: capitalism is the only show in town. We talk about ‘restraining’ and ‘using’ capitalism, about taxing it and bearing down on undeserved bonuses. But where is the left’s plan for making business more productive? The question that the poet Roy Campbell asked a century ago about moderation needs to be asked about the left’s approach to capitalism: ‘I see the bridle and the bit, but where’s the bloody horse?’ Imagine that today there is, somewhere, a British version of the young Steve Jobs or the young Bill Gates. Every time the shadow cabinet considers a new policy for business, it should ask itself: how would the policy help to develop a British Apple or a British Microsoft?
- Immigration is overwhelmingly a blessing. It brings to these shores new ideas, new enthusiasm and entrepreneurial talent. Those who say immigration does harm, or imply that there is a problem by setting artificial curbs on the numbers coming to Britain are historically wrong, culturally wrong, economically wrong and morally wrong. I know the polls frighten politicians by showing that immigration is unpopular. But Labour will never win votes by compromising on immigration – the right will always outbid us. We do stand some chance of winning over some votes by being honest and courageous.
- The European Union is also good forBritain. Again, Labour should not be cowed by the euroscepticism that YouGov and other pollsters repeatedly portray. They should proudly assert what they know to be true: that Britain can do nothing about climate change or tax havens or the global rules for trade except as an active member of the EU; and that were we to leave it, the rules of the single market would evolve, affecting every British exporter or goods and services, but we would have no power to influence those rules. To start edging away, or to stand in a minority of one to 26 on the EU’s financial rules, is to putBritain’s future prosperity in jeopardy.
- The Conservatives are NOT stupid, malicious or dishonest. They believe that what they are doing is best forBritain. There are big arguments to be had with them about deficit-reduction, welfare, business, immigration andEurope; but the starting point for engaging with them should be that they are intelligent, well-meaning and honest. To descend to partisan abuse demeans the left without damaging the right.
Asserting those truths is a necessary first step in recovering credibility and the respect of the party – and perhaps the left’s self-respect. Labour needs to be pro-Keynes, pro-means-testing, pro-capitalism, pro-immigration, pro-Europe and pro-respectful politics.
Remember that the word ‘socialism’ was first used in the 1820s. It was designed to attack the power and rural riches of the aristocracy and the landed gentry, and to support the spread of wealth through manufacturing and through financial institutions with diverse owners – a.k.a. banks. Only when Marx came along and distorted our language and our thinking did the meaning of ‘socialism’ change to the creed of nationalisation and state control. Today we have largely extruded Marxist ideas from our thinking, and thank goodness. The time has come to discard this last linguist relic and reclaim socialism for the type of dynamic but responsible capitalism that we seek to build.