This is quite a long piece about politics, that I suspect no one will like. I have said before that I depart from my comfort zone of macroeconomics when I think an important point is being missed from the public debate. In this case the second sentence may follow from the first.
What should the strategy be for the great majority of Labour MPs who did not vote for Jeremy Corbyn (ABC=anyone but Corbyn)? They can continue to expound their misery to receptive political journalists. They can continue to stand aghast at the dislike that some now in power hold for their predecessors. But for a group that has lost two crucial elections within the space of a few months, they really need a more positive focus.
Tony Payne, director of SPERI at Sheffield University, has a suggestion which I think has a great deal of merit. They should “come to terms fully, properly and honestly with Labour’s record in government under Blair and Brown between 1997 and 2010”. This is not in some kind of masochistic, ‘what we got wrong’ kind of exercise, but rather to recognise what that Labour government got right. I was part of a group of academics that looked at economic policy under Labour, and the sense I got was that there were an awful lot of positives to note. But in looking at the negatives, one point that should be recognised is that these (e.g. Iraq, not enough banking regulation, perhaps not enough local support for inward migration) did not come from any tendency to be too populist. Instead rather the opposite.
I’ll come back to that in a second, but actually I decided to write this in response to another post by Tony Payne, which could perhaps be described as a lament for the centre-left. You can get the flavour from this passage:
“what underpins and ultimately characterises centrist politics (whether in its left or right variant) is a rejection of what I see as the easy moral simplicities of populist politics in favour of the complex, awkward and often unsatisfying and unsatisfactory world of governing, of trying to find the best way through the most difficult problems, even if that involves compromise. The latter is of course the dirtiest of words in the lexicon of the populist left (and right).”
I think that speaks to where a lot of the ABCs are right now. They say we tried to be sensible in the face of difficult problems, but we were outflanked on both sides by the moral simplicities of populist politics. I suspect (and to be fair Tony Payne does not make this link) it also passes as some sort of explanation as to why ABC lost two elections. They were the realists who lost out to the idealists and populists. As an explanation I think it is completely inadequate, and to be frank comes close to denial.
Let me take my own subject as an example, partly because austerity is also central to much else. In the end what quite a few of the ABCs wanted to do was to junk the complex and perhaps awkward truths of how to run a sensible fiscal policy in favour of the populist politics of talking about the nation’s credit card. Osborne’s fiscal charter is not supported by a single economist I know, but many of the ABC’s have advocated supporting it. In this case what those ABCs have been doing is adopting - or at least flirting with - populist politics, but the popular politics of the right rather than the left.
That in turns comes from what seems to be the dominant mantra of the ABCs, which is that only they are serious about trying to win elections. That is why, we are told, they have to adopt the populist policies of the other side, because only that way can they win. Notice first how different this is from the noble Weberian concept of the centre that Tony Payne puts forward. Notice second that these populist policies seem to come from the right rather than the left: whenever there is a populist policy from the left (like renationalising rail), then it becomes time to cast aside populism and be ‘sensible’.
I have struggled to understand what is going on here. But the thought that I keep coming back to is regulatory capture. This is the idea that the regulators of an industry become captured by the industry itself: by its objectives, values and methods. In some cases the reason for capture is straightforward (revolving doors), but in some cases it reflects the fact that regulators cannot match their industry in terms of knowledge and analysis. My idea is that in this case instead of an industry you have a Westminster discourse which, under the coalition, was dominated by the thinking of the centre-right. Most Labour MPs simply didn’t have the time or resources to find alternatives to this, and gradually became hostage to this discourse. As Paul Krugman might say, after a time all they hear are the views of Very Serious People.
Part of this Westminster discourse involves the tactic of exclusion for individuals and ideas that are deemed to be outlandish. (Outside the Overton window, if you like.) I have experienced that on a personal level recently: imagine a biologist being told that they would be ‘branded’ if they gave technical advice to a major political party!? Rather more important it leads some politicians on the centre left with strong skills and expertise reluctant to sit at the same table as those in their own party with more radical views, even when those holding more radical views have every incentive to seek compromise. You have to ask who benefits from this.
It is often said in politics that voters vote for and against incumbents, not oppositions. I doubt very much if Labour party members voted for Corbyn because they had suddenly become converted wholesale to a Bennite type platform. Instead they voted against what the parliamentary party had become. I think recognising their responsibility for their own failure is the first step to recovery. I said that the ABCs would do well to follow Tony Payne’s advice and focus on what the Labour government did right. One of those things was the regime of tax credits, which cut poverty and made it easier for people to work. They might then reflect on the reasoning, forces and processes that led so many of them this July to abstain on the bill that cut those credits.
The centre left needs to retrace its steps as a first stage to recovery, and learn from the many things it got right when in government. In the UK and elsewhere in Europe it is important this happens sooner rather than later. Hopefully in doing this it will rediscover positive virtues and ideals that go beyond simply a negation of populism. I strongly suspect a strong political centre (left or right) is vital for good governance, and that both the UK and Europe is suffering from its absence.