Freed from the constraints of the government benches, Labour has the space to transform itself to suit the new circumstances facing Britain today. The party last did this successfully during the ‘90s, when Tony Blair adapted Labour to fit in with a world view where the market was king and the individual trumped society. His fundamental flaw once in power, however, was to entrench this distinctly Tory narrative rather than develop a fresh one that laid out how a fair, free, and equal society could be achieved.
Ed Miliband would do well not to repeat this mistake. The task he faces is to renew the party without detaching it from the cares and concerns of the people. The end goal is to win back the five million votes the party lost since 2010. Does this require a shift to the left or the right? At a fringe event hosted by Liberal Conspiracy and chaired by Rowenna Davis, this was the question posed to a panel composed of MPs, trade unionists, and special advisers.
The consensus opinion was, predictably, that a lurch to the left or the right would damage Labour’s election hopes. If a party moves across the ideological spectrum too far and too fast, voters become disillusioned and confused about what its members stand for. Something like this explains why Labour fragmented in 1983, and perhaps also why so many supporters deserted the party after 1997.
However, this logic does not rule out a gradual and measured move into once abandoned ideologies. In fact, the language peddled by Rachel Reeves and Luciana Berger- present at the Liberal Conspiracy debate- and other MPs at conference suggests that Labour is covertly attempting to shift the consensus leftwards back to its socialist home.
Let’s look beyond the rhetoric and get at the substance of what Labour’s proposing. ‘Predistribution’: a means of placing controls and limitations on the free market. ‘Active industrial policy’: code for a centrally planned economy where the state selects the industries that are our best bet for growth and prosperity. Labour is reviving socialist ideas and cloaking them in the language of prudence and practicality. As the party has turned away from the neoliberal doctrine that so epically failed to bring prosperity, happiness, and equality to the lives of the majority, it has predictably- and rightly- once again embraced the ideology of socialism to capture the electorate’s imagination.
The fact that the 2012 party feels compelled to disguise its leftward shuffle behind a wall of jargon is no great surprise. Labour still treats socialism as a dirty word, tainted by the failures of the 1980s. However, Rachel Reeves gave the game away in the debate when she said:
“An incoming Labour government has to look much more fundamentally at how the economy works in the first place so that it actually delivers for ordinary working people.”
Any classical liberal worth his salt would argue that it is not the government’s role to determine how the market distributes its resources at source. Most party loyalists at the high point of New Labour would have probably said the same.
However, right now Labour is saying that is exactly what the government should do. While the impenetrable language makes Ed’s latest agenda open to ridicule, it at least serves to soften the impact of policy ideas that have the potential to take us rapidly down the leftward path. Yet there will come a point when the country wakes up to the fact that Labour is trying to bring socialism back into fashion. When this happens, the party will have to either embrace this socialist turn or reject it. Let’s hope we have the courage to stand by our beliefs; beliefs that can win the country back for the people.
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians Blog