There is a cynical view that party conferences are so much hot air – three weeks in which the party faithful essentially look inwards, with little that is relevant to the need of the wider world. That may be true at times, but this years conference season – and the events that have immediately followed it – have been crucially important. More clearly than at any time since the Blair years, we have been presented by two radically different political visions – not just in policy but in language. Both parties have made explicit their agendas in a way that compels those on the left in particular to think carefully and clearly about what sort of politics they want to undertake in the period before the 2015 election, and beyond. For me, it has been crucial in terms of deciding where my political loyalties lie and what, practically, I can do to further the things in which I believe.
From the Conservative Party – both from the conference and in the Ministerial reshuffle that followed – we have seen a decisive and explicit shift to the right. The distinctive policies on which the Tories will fight the election include:
- The axing of housing benefit and JSA for the under-25s;
- A commitment to run a budget surplus by the end of the next Parliament, with no further tax increases;
- A commitment to introduce a tax break of up to £3.64 per week for married couples in order to demonstrate that the institution of marriage is valued;
- The repeal of the Human Rights Act.
It’s an agenda that reflects two conflicting pressures; the appeal of UKIP to the older, more traditionalist members of the party and the economic triumphalism of the new neoliberal Right – and that has been reflected in the recent Ministerial reshuffle. As an agenda it is wholly ideological – nowhere more so than in the commitment to run a budget surplus, a terrifying piece of economic fundamentalism that will make the present austerity look like a feeble trial run. It’s an unachievable target; the swingeing cuts needed to achieve it will simply depress the economy further, creating a vicious downward spiral of the sort that Greece is experiencing now. The analogy that keeps coming to my mind is Churchill’s determination to stick to the Gold Standard in the 1920s; a piece of ideological willy-waving that cost Britain dear, and justified in much the same sort of language – and with many of the same beneficiaries – as George Osborne’s policy today. Match this to the sheer viciousness of the benefit changes for the under 25’s – a scenario in which those who have worked and paid tax for a third of their lives will potentially be denied benefits if they lose their jobs, underpinned by the imbecilic assumption that these adults can simply move back in with their parents (who, if they are in social housing, will have been clobbered by the bedroom tax when their offspring moved out). I find it difficult to find words adequately to describe the combination of ignorance, stupidity and sheer malicious spite that these proposals represent. For anyone who considers themselves as on the left – indeed who belongs to any political tradition in which generosity and groundedness play a part – the imperative of opposing this toxic political brew as effectively as one can is overwhelming.
Labour’s conference was very different. I’ve already blogged my thoughts on how the language of Labour is changing. In contrast to the defeatism of the Blair years, we are seeing a confident restatement of social democratic values. It’s not – yet – as left as it can sometimes sound (and certainly nowhere near as left as a seriously spooked Tory commentariat is trying to portray it) ; but the announcement of a freeze on energy prices by a Labour Government is a watershed, a sign that Labour is once again prepared to use the power of the state to intervene in a failing market in the public interest. Labour appears at last to be rediscovering the courageous state; and the language is once again reflecting the values that made Labour the natural party of political progressives; optimistic, inclusive and ethical. The language of shirkers, strivers and hard-working families was conspicuously – and in my view commendably – absent from this year’s conference; a sign that Labour is learning to be itself again. It is talking about the effects of austerity, the fall in real wages, soaring prices of basic necessities, the cruelties visited on the poorest and most vulnerable; language that was absent in the Blair years but implies a reconnection with the people that Labour has traditionally represented. Of course there is still a long way to go; Labour is still committed to public expenditure in its first year that is founded on George Osborne’s SR2013 settlement, but Ed Balls’ speech, as I blogged at the time, contained the first signs of a shift away from this position. Small steps, but this commitment was always founded on a political rather than an economic judgement. As Labour in general – and as Ed Miliband’s leadership in particular – gain in confidence, this will surely change. Speaking personally, at the start of the Labour conference I rather cheekily blogged a piece in which I set out what I hoped to see from Ed Balls’ conference speech as shadow chancellor; what surprised and delighted me was less the content – the specific measures I mentioned went far beyond what Ed Balls was ever going to announce – but the way in which I saw my language mirrored back at me from both Balls’ and Ed Miliband’s speeches; a sense of recognition that was powerful, unexpected and deeply thought-provoking.
I was also struck by the way in which Ed Miliband stood up to the Daily Mail’s vile bullying, through its attacks on his father. Whereas, not so long ago, Labour leaders appeased the tabloid press, here was a Labour leader making a firm, principled and popular stand. Here was a leader who the Tories were desperate to portray as weak, showing principle and guts – as he did over Syria, expunging much of the toxic legacy of Blair and Iraq. And now, in shuffling his shadow team, the removal from key portfolios of shadow Ministers like Stephen Twigg and above all Liam Byrne – neither of whom really seemed to get what opposition was about and in the latter case were quite willing to parrot the cruel language of individual fecklessness in a time of collective economic failure – has shown him to be a strong and decisive leader. The Tories were desperate to claim that Attlee was weak too – the Ed Miliband who has emerged over the past three months or so has shown an almost Attlee-esque sureness of touch, and Cameron is no Winston Churchill. As the Tory Party conference showed, it is Ed Miliband who is driving the agenda now.
In other words, the political divide between the main parties is clearer than it has been for a long time – and it seems to me that the Labour Party is moving back towards where it should be – back to a position where it is the natural home of those who believe in progressive politics. It is beginning to speak once again for its natural supporters, people from whom it – and the political system generally – has turned away from in the last twenty years; people who need to be reconnected to the political mainstream if we are to have anything resembling a functioning democracy. Unlike the Conservative party, conducting an angry and pointless shouting match with itself, Labour appears to be looking outward once again. The language and narratives appear more grounded than for many years; and Labour is speaking the language of solidarity and collective provision once again. Labour is coming home again and I found myself thinking – this is the politics that I want to be part of.
Speaking personally once again, I was briefly a member of the Labour Party in the late 1990s. It was not a pleasant experience; factional, excluding, more concerned with settling internal scores than in effecting political change. And Brighton Labour has a less than enviable track record; often motivated by factional spite against the Green Party while failing to ask the obvious question of whose political failures allowed the Green Party to establish its hold in the city in the first place. I have seen enough to be confident that much has changed. But in a sense that’s not the point. The point is what the Conservative Party (and the Liberal Democrats who sustain them in office) have become, and the absolute urgency of removing them from office in 2015 – and, at a national level, Labour is the only party that can do that. At one level, simply getting rid of the bastards is worth a fiver a month of anybody’s money.
I was until the summer a member of the Green Party – leaving in bafflement and disgust not just at the record of the Green administration here in Brighton, and bemusement at some of the Green Party’s political methods and its ambiguous relationship to power, but also asking big questions about whether a small, fringe Party could ever be an agent of real political change under our electoral system. Put simply, given that all politics is about compromise – is one more likely to be able to make a difference as a member of a small, outlying party or one that has a real prospect of forming a Government at the next election? Obviously that larger party has to reflect personal values – but as the Tory Party has degenerated further and further into Poujadism, in flight from evidence and logic, the urgency of the situation has changed. And I found that there are plenty of people in Labour who share my own political beliefs – in sustainability, equality, and in complete opposition to the ideology of austerity. An old friend of mine described life on the Labour left as being one of permanent disappointment punctuated by intense episodes of fury; perhaps that’s a risk that I’m prepared to take.
It’s also complicated by the fact that I am an elector in Brighton Pavilion, whose MP, Caroline Lucas, has been an outspoken opponent of austerity – often outflanking Labour on the left. Why take a political decision that, should I become politically active, would involve my campaigning against her? Part of the answer lies in the fact that Labour has in Purna Sen adopted a really remarkable candidate with a track record of real achievement, but also in the wider context of 2015. If a Labour government is returned with a small majority (quite a likely scenario I’d have thought) then the election of an independent-minded Labour MP looks just as rational a response to austerity in a changing Labour Party as electing an MP operating outside the mainstream system. Once again, the question is whether change is better effected by working within an established system or outside it – given the urgency of defeating the Tory/Liberal Democrat agenda. There are fundamental questions here about what politics is for, and what are the best means to the ends of defeating austerity. There is still a risk – a huge risk – that Labour will blow it and return to old Blairite ways as the election approaches. I am acutely aware that one of the first things a new Labour MP will be required to do is to vote for a Budget that will test whether Labour is willing to put SR2013 behind it. But the events of the past three months suggest that the game is changing, and that within Labour opponents of the practice and mindset of austerity are beginning to win the argument.
So I have taken the plunge and, after a gap of nearly fifteen years, rejoined the Labour Party. Not an easy decision, and one that is unillusioned. I have been very critical of Labour, both locally and nationally, in the past. I’m not going to tone down my beliefs at all; I still believe – and will continue to argue the case – that Labour’s economic policy needs to be much bolder, that workfare is both a disgrace and economically illiterate, that we have a huge democratic deficit that Westminster politicians on the whole are widening rather than closing, that our urban environments need to be made more liveable with priority given to cyclists and pedestrians – and that Park and Ride is the wrong transport policy for Brighton and Hove. And as an admirer of Ralph Miliband’s writing, I know that effective opposition to austerity is about more than the Parliamentarianism of mainstream Labour politics – alliances on the left must be forged to defeat this thing, and being in a political party is only one part of the opposition to austerity.
But the Labour Party appears – at last – to be coming home and rediscovering its roots; especially its optimism and faith that there really is an evidenced alternative to the nightmare of austerity. And for all my misgivings over Labour’s record, for all the frustrations of the Blair years, and for all the question marks over Labour’s track record in my home city of Brighton and Hove, ultimately I have concluded that this is something of which – in whatever small way – I want to be part.