This was first posted on http://www.samizdatpost.com/ in October of this year.
In a wholly unforgettable party conference season, Ed Miliband took plaudits for his speech to the Labour Party faithful. Disinterested in the majority of the electorate who seek a brotherly exchange at the top of the Labour Party, he bravely delivered a speech without notes or autocue. That the delivery rather than the content was the subject of debate goes some way to explain the problems with the political age we live in. Sadly, for those on the left, the content represented more of the same: an argument framed by Miliband’s willingness to give into pressure from the right.
This is, of course, far from surprising from a Labour leader. In a key speech on his road to political domination, Tony Blair took the stage at his party conference in Blackpool in 1996 to affirm, “the outstanding British quality is courage – not just physical bravery but the courage to think anew…to innovate while others conform”. It is a sad truth, for those who sought respite from the predatory neo-liberalism of the Tory years, that Blair was lion-like in his courage toward making the Labour Party anew but, by failing to replicate this bravery when taking on the right-wing machine, he failed miserably to create the “new dawn” he spoke of in his 1997 victory speech.
The issue for those who find no home for their social democratic leanings in the Labour Party is that this cowardice comes in an age of opportunity; the world over, the left is taking the argument to the right, and winning. With a media intent on convincing us that we need to shoot burglars, fear Islam and ostracise benefit recipients, this is no easy task but we only need to take a look across the Atlantic for inspiration.
It’s sure to be a subject of much debate in the years to come, but the landmark healthcare legislation signed into law in March 2010 by President Obama surely ranks among the most formidable expansions of the welfare safety net in any western democracy. What may be forgotten, and certainly has been forgotten by Miliband and Labour, is that this came despite public scepticism toward both the law and the President himself. On the day the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was signed, only 43% of Americans approved of the job President Obama was doing – a figure lower than any other since his inauguration. In regard to the ACA, only 41% of the public backed it and Senators refered to an atmosphere akin to that of the Salem witch trials among those protesting outside Congress. Obama, determined to move towards universal coverage, was risking his political future and investing political capital in a project that could have led to his political demise. But, rather than buckle, he carried on because “every once in a while a moment comes where you have a chance to vindicate all those hopes that you had about yourself, about this country. This is one of those moments”. His faith that, in time, he could appeal to the greater good of the electorate and cut through the mendacity of the right has paid off as Republicans are now refusing to promise a full repeal of the law.
On this side of the ocean there’s a dearth of such bravery. Liam Byrne, shadow minister for welfare, speaks regularly of lack of “widespread support” for social security. Miliband rails against government cuts but pointedly refuses to roll them back if he takes office and is happy to play into the anti-Union narrative of the right-wing press
The issue with so much of modern conservative doctrine is that it exists parallel to conventional wisdom, historical evidence and, most importantly, the cast-iron facts. Whether it is George Osborne seeking to promote the same culture of deregulation which brought about the economic collapse of 2008 or the American right calling into question the jobs figures and polling numbers of impartial organisations, there is an arrogance which means the right believe they know best.
Is it not, however, a bigger crime to hide from the same wisdom, evidence and facts, because the public are not yet convinced? Miliband, and his party, have for too long lacked the courage to enter the fray of public debate. Liam Byrne is not wrong when he notes that the public is far from enthusiastic about benefit claimants. His crime is to play to the cynicism rather than remind the public that this safety net makes us civilized and represents an investment in people who will play a role in the future. In an age of pointing to “random” people in audiences to back up political points he could talk of one single-mother who received benefits for years before becoming the author of the best-selling book series of all time. J.K. Rowling, a Labour Party donor, would surely be keen to play the role!
And let’s not just focus on benefits. On the economy, he has Nobel Prize winning economists, who predicted the economic collapse in the first place, on his side. He can point to South Korea and how capital-spending projects has lifted demand and kept the country out of recession. The next time the Unions come under attack for slowing growth, remind the attackers that US states with strong Union rights have workers earning more than those in states lacking strong labour laws. When we are told the rich will flee if we raise taxes, point to France where President Hollande has introduced a wealth tax which has not triggered any such exodus.
What use, though, is precedent and evidence when Labour have been so poor on offence – only 13% of their own voters know that this government are actually increasing the national debt. To allow the government to get away with increasing the debt when their savage cuts are predicated on doing exactly the opposite is to miss an open goal.
With great opportunity comes great danger: buying into the notion that getting rid of the national debt is the panacea to our economic ills will permanently place our political discourse right of centre. We cannot afford to go the way of US congressional politics where to be left of centre is to be shushed, where a belief that the government should provide healthcare for every citizen is seen as a Marxist obsession. The cow towing has to stop here; the stakes are too high and the alternative too bleak. Obama reminded us when he passed his landmark bill that a lack of faith in the character of the country is for the other side, – “It’s easy to succumb to the sense of cynicism about what’s possible in this country.” For Ed Miliband, and Labour as the biggest party of the centre-left, it’s time to stand tall.