In a mixed LRB review of Christian Caryl’s book ‘Strange Rebels: 1979 and the birth of the 21st century’, David Runciman makes a point about the circuitous route of change:
‘The world that fell apart at the end of the 1970s had begun to unravel much earlier in the decade, in the succession of crises that included the demise of Bretton Woods, the Arab-Israeli war, the subsequent oil shocks and a world wide recession. That confused and confusing period turned out to be the dawn of neoliberalism, though it wasn’t until much later that it became clear what had happened’.
He goes on to say
‘Now that neoliberal order is stumbling through its own succession of crises. We are barely five years into the unravelling, if that is what is taking place’.
This analysis sheds some historical light on whether Ed Miliband’s return to statist social democracy will prove to be a wise move.
There are two core assertions lying behind the Miliband programme: the first is that capitalism needs to be rebalanced from big business to small, from producer to consumer and from shareholder to worker. The second – implicitly – is that in a global competitive economy this rebalancing can be achieved by the state without major malign side effects.
The first assertion is the easier to sustain, indeed would be shared by people across the political spectrum. In many ways big business has not come up with the goods; in investment, responsible tax payment, resource use, fair remuneration. In key sectors – most notably finance, energy and water - it is clear there has been systemic ’rent seeking’ (using market position to make money without adding value).
Whether the failings of big capitalism are enough to overcome public scepticism about the state, about Labour and about its leader is another matter, but here again it is worth quoting Runciman on the origins of neoliberal political hegemony:
‘The real story of the late 1970s in the democratic West is that people were tired of political and industrial strife and were willing to try something different, however uncomfortable. It wasn’t a revolution: more a collective shrug’
If we replace 1970s with 2010s and the words ‘political and industrial strife’ with ‘falling living standards and high unemployment’ the case can be made that while only a minority of voters share the enthusiasm of the left for Miliband’s speech, it might yet prove to be a successful gamble. Certainly, the Conservatives now face the challenge of attacking Labour’s policies without looking like they are defending unpopular corporate interests.
It is one of our many cognitive frailties that we tend to focus on unusual events rather than recognising longer term trends. The credit crunch and the resulting economic crisis was, of course, critical but the underlying trend is the thirty year neoliberal experiment in the West running out of road, assailed by its own internal tensions and populist critiques from both the right and left.
Whatever his other failings, Labour’s leader is not unrealistic: he does not think he can single handedly move the centre of political gravity to the left. Instead – and this realistically is all the boldness we can hope for from democratic politicians – he has made a judgment about where the future centre might be and taken the gamble to go there ahead of the electorate (and most of the media).
Whether or not it succeeds, this was then a historically significant speech. However, the pleasure that Miliband’s team gets from reading the reaction of the left may need to be qualified by a final extract from David Runciman:
‘What we are waiting for is a counter-counter revolution, led by progressives who have learnt the lessons from the age of neoliberalism and are unafraid to use its instruments to overthrow them….Someone will get there in the end and maybe by the end of the decade…..but it is unlikely to be anyone near a position of power right now’.
Two themes occurring separately and together in weekend media commentary were the state of politics and the state of Ed Miliband. In relation to the former, commentators have quoted the Hansard Society’s annual survey of political engagement showing the lowest recorded figure for the percentage of the public saying they are interested in politics (42%). In relation to the latter the so called ‘summer of silence’ and the resulting sniping from various Party figures is being worked up into a silly seasons leadership crisis.
For what it’s worth, my own take on the electoral picture is that very little of significance has changed. The predominant public feeling remains ‘none of the above’ and there is little or no sign of either of the two parties making any significant incursions into the territory of the other.
True, when confirmation came of economic growth, Labour looked wrong footed (itself a bizarre message failure) but Miliband’s focus on living standards is wise given that most families will be worse off in 2015 than 2010. And while the Labour leader’s personal ratings are grisly, in the face of UKIP pressures and the unrepresentative nature of their own activist base, the Conservatives are running the risk of seeming to abandon the middle ground.
For two years I have been telling anyone willing to listen to ‘buy Cleggs’. Whatever the Lib Dem poll ratings indicate, their incumbency skills mean they are unlikely to lose many seats in 2015. Given that ruling parties rarely if ever increase their share of the vote at subsequent elections (sorry Dave) and that leaders rarely if ever fully recover once the electorate judge them not up to the job (sorry Ed) the likelihood is that the voters will plump for a centre right Coalition or a centre left Coalition rather than choose a clear winner.
All of which leaves me saying this year exactly as I did last. There is a crying need for one of the party leaders to use the new political season and their conference speech to disrupt the miserable stasis that is English politics. Without such boldness it is difficult to see any of the parties making much headroom in the next election. Yet, all the signs are that none of them has the capacity or motiation to find either a message or a way of communicating it which lifts them above the fray and makes a connection with the 58% and rising who think politics is less important than the price of fish.
Given that nothing has changed and that nothing seems likely to change, it is reasonable to ask why I bother writing about it. The spur was a clever piece in the Observer yesterday by Catherine Bennett. Bennett identifies a syndrome which she terms ‘I only had the prawn cocktail’, referring to those people who refuse to share the bill after a meal out on the grounds that they ate less than other people.
She quotes arguments that only graduates should shoulder the bill for higher education, only train users should be expected to stump up for subsidising railways and only parents should pay for childcare subsidies. The details of the argument can be contested – in each of these three cases it is still the case that the taxpayer at large contributes substantially – but the deeper point concerns the apparent inability of politicians to summon up a case for the common good.
Yet without some account of the common good and, what is more, an account which sees that good extending into our responsibilities to the future, democracy is nothing more than exactly what its critics have always warned of: an ugly and unequal fight of self-interested causes to rig the game, articulate grievances and mobilise populist indignation. Indeed, it is interesting that the policy which has the greatest credibility among voters (even if they don’t always like the consequences) – austerity - is the one which is most often couched in terms of social responsibility as well as voter self-interest.
The tragedy in Egypt is an extreme case but it shows the frailty of democracy in the absence of some notion of shared national interest and common good. We aren’t on the road to Cairo, nowhere near it, but unless our leading politicians try to aim higher not only will the greatest ambition of the parties be partial victory in a game of ‘who’s least worst’ but we will soon be recalling that 42% figure with fond nostalgia.
I wrote in my last post about the need for leaders to name, own and manage the feelings of vulnerability and self pity which tend to lurk deep in the organisational psyche. Now I want to touch on another underrated leadership virtue: stoicism.
I will use a thought experiment about Labour leader Ed Miliband to illustrate my point. If nothing else my account may be a little bit more original that the crashingly predictable right and left responses to Labour’s travails among today’s op ed pieces.
On one account Miliband is now well and truly hoist by his own petard. He stood and won against his brother despite David being more popular with the voters. ( It is an interesting aspect of modern party leadership that ‘likability to the Party’ is on the ‘essential characteristics’ list of the person specification while ‘likability to the public’ is merely on the ‘desirable’ list; perhaps it was ever thus.)
Since his election as leader Miliband’s problem with public credibility has persisted and, if anything, deepened, even when he has performed well. But now the platform on which the Labour Party elected him has been well and truly dismantled.
Ed beat David because he was more left wing (less Blairite), he was more personable (many found David rather aloof) and because he had the backing of the trade unions. Now Miliband sounds centrist on public spending, immigration and welfare, he seems to be realising you can’t be a credible leader without taking on troublesome former allies and his relationship with the most powerful trade union is in tatters.
However, some people interpret the last three years differently. In this account the inevitable point of inflection between what what most Labour Party and trade union activists tend to want and what voters will support could not have happened before now without either civil war in the Party or a victory for an unelectable leftism. It is worth noting that political parties are rarely very attractive beasts in the years after losing power. Whatever its problems, Ed Miliband’s 2013 Labour is in a better shape than William Hague’s Conservatives in 2000 or Michael Foot in 1982.
It is, of course, impossible to verify the second interpretation as it relies on a counter factual hypothesis (Labour would have imploded without Miliband’s willingness to tack left, turn a blind eye to the shenanigans in his Party and tolerate a wide tent). It is not as if Miliband could have been elected in if he had told his Party his secret plan. It is possible that a future memoir by the Labour leader or one of his advisors will claim there was a unfolding strategy, but how would we know that this wasn’t simply a post hoc rationalisation? (The proliferation of self serving autobiographies is in part a sign of a declining capacity for stoicism in our political class.)
Things are anyway rarely that linear. More likely Ed Miliband simply felt he was the right person to take over in 2010, that he would be the right person to compete in 2015, but that the route between the two was bound to be bumpy and circuitous. The judgement of history will largely depend on the outcome of the next general election. But even then we will never know whether Labour would have won/lost whoever was its leader.
The point is not restricted to politics; leaders need a capacity for stoicism. You cannot dip your hand in the same stream twice. Important things rarely look the same in hindsight as they do in the present moment. The question of whether Ed Miliband is a blundering opportunist driven by ambition or a shrewd pragmatist driven by principle is unlikely ever to receive an answer to which everyone can agree.
Being popular is rarely the same as being wise. Ultimately, self justification is a poor use of time, effort and headspace. Stoicism is a virtue to be sought in leaders, but by its nature we will never really know when it is being exercised.
Apart from agreeing that their leader has now proven himself one of the greatest orators since Cicero, another question upon which there would surely have been universal agreement at Labour conference would be ‘Obama or Romney?’. Yet despite the antipathy of the ‘People’s Party’ to all things Republican this week has seen an interesting parallel between Mr Miliband and Mr Romney.
Despite the rise of extremism in many troubled parts of Europe, it remains the case that elections are won in the middle ground. However, it is in the nature of political parties – something exacerbated by their shrinking base – that they contain a preponderance of hard liners and true believers. Every leader who wants to win power has therefore to somehow juggle the Party’s desire for ideological purity with their need to show the public, first, that they are moderate and, second, that when it comes to a choice they will put the needs of their country as a whole ahead of the aspirations of Party activists.
In this trade off a critical variable is the desire for, and likelihood of, electoral victory. So, in relation to the former, it took Labour four defeats and the Conservatives three before Party activists were willing to give their leader sufficient freedom of manoeuvre to appeal directly to the centre ground. But whatever the appetite to win, if a leader doesn’t look like he has much chance of victory he has less authority and fewer grounds upon which to force compromise on the Party.
As someone who sees a willingness to tackle Party prejudices not as only as a critical leadership attribute but vital to good government, I tend to agree with those commentators who give Ed Miliband’s speech a less than complete endorsement, despite its impressive delivery. Labour’s leader did a great job in inspiring his Party but he also left the door open for the Conservatives next week to say that while the Labour and LibDem leaders focussed on making their Parties feel good, they alone are willing to do the unpopular work necessary to make the country succeed.
But the electoral timetable provides a defence of Miliband’s approach. After all he has two more conferences and nearly three more years before the next election. He can reasonably argue that his Party is now so united and so in love with him that he has provided the best possible foundation to move on to the next and most difficult part of his process; gaining his Party’s agreement to an austerity manifesto. In making such an argument Miliband can point across the Atlantic.
Until his resounding success in Wednesday’s first Presidential debate Romney was repeatedly vacillating between what he needed to say to have a chance of winning and what the Republican party would allow him to say. The pressure from the Tea Party, and its fellow travellers, for ideological purity more than balanced the desire to win, especially as opinion polls showed winning to be unlikely. But on Wednesday Romney became a contender and within 48 hours he is signalling a move to the centre ground by apologising for the impression given by his disparaging comments about the 47% of Americans who don’t pay income tax.
Whatever one’s preference for the outcome of the Presidential election, it would surely be much better for America if its election were a genuine debate about policy rather than a polarised slanging match. Similarly, it would probably a good thing if the next UK election is fought between credible alternatives (something which has been the exception rather than the norm over the last thirty years).
I doubt whether Ed and Mitt will be having a congratulatory ‘phone
conversation this weekend, but when it comes to their own leadership challenge, they might find they have surprising amount in common.
Perhaps no six words have done as much damage to sensible policy making as these: ‘beer and sandwiches at Number Ten’. Not only does the phrase encapsulate an idea of social partnership as a cosy labour movement cabal, but as it was coined in the seventies (ironically, as an attack by Labour’s Harold Wilson on Downing Street meetings hosted by Conservative PM Edward Heath) it is also linked to a time of trade unions overreaching their legitimacy and ultimately creating the context for Margaret Thatcher to hasten their long decline.
Whether we use the label social partnership, industrial partnership or corporatism, the UK’s aversion to this way of governing policy and organisations has held pretty firm ever since – which is a pity. For not only have just such arrangements survived and indeed thrived in other countries (most notably Germany) but there are strong reasons to believe that some form of modern partnership is exactly what we need right now.
In part this is because at times of adversity we need to find ways to share out and legitimise hard choices, but it is also in line with the steadily growing enthusiasm among some Coalition ministers for a form of industrial policy, an enthusiasm which was evident again today in Vince Cable’s speech. A third ingredient may be a general shift in boardrooms away from free market fundamentalism, as witnessed this morning by news that Barclays plans to get out of the tax ‘structuring’ business. I even think the great British public – most of whom were either not alive for, or don’t remember, the Social Contract of the mid 1970s – would be receptive to the idea that Government could work with business and employee organisations to develop a plan for long term economic renewal, and that all companies (not just a few mutuals) should be encouraged to engage employees as partners in shared enterprise.
The barrier to this possibility getting a serious airing takes me to the one of the problems with political authority, which I may touch on in my RSA annual lecture tomorrow. David Cameron may share his party’s long running hostility to any sniff of corporatism, but were he to float such an idea, even in the most modest of terms, he would no doubt be shot down in flames by true blue forces in his own party and among the opinion formers of the Telegraph, Spectator and Conservative Home. I suspect many in the public would admire the PM if he reached out beyond his natural supporters (this was after all the style of his early leadership) but, as last week’s reshuffle suggested, this is not a fight he relishes right now.
For Ed Miliband the problem is that industrial partnership is only possible with intelligent, moderate and authoritative trade union leaders and if such beasts exist they are doing a great job of hiding it. The TUC is the closest we have to the kind of trade union organisation which could participate usefully in developing a tripartite industrial strategy but the Congress has always been weak in comparison to its largest members, something which trade union consolidation has only exacerbated. Miliband could, of course, call for trade union leaders to wake up, smell the coffee and act in the interests of the country and their members, not just an activist core. Again the voters would probably be impressed but, like Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband probably doesn’t have the appetite or security for this kind of battle with his ‘allies’.
There are, of course, perfectly intellectually robust arguments against any form of corporatism, but perhaps the most urgent reason at least to discuss some new economic partnership is the sense in post- Olympic Britain (grab it now, it won’t last long) that we can still be a nation which pulls together. That the narrow and rigid base of our major political parties makes such a debate so unlikely is not unconnected to the reasons public faith in politicians is at an all-time low.