The Troubles Facing Labour Moderates

Pursuing a left-wing agenda in a mainstream political party is so difficult in the United Kingdom that a flawless political strategy is necessary to make sure a really embarrassing defeat, like in 1983, doesn’t occur. When the leader of the party is incompetent, like Jeremy Corbyn, it is next to impossible. Simply put for Labour to win an election on a left-wing platform it must have one of the greatest political leaders of all time captaining the boat through the inevitable storm that waiting for them. Labour moderates ought to have a really job easy in comparison, present an alternative and sensible path to power while waiting for the left wingers in the party to implode.

Labour moderates have had more than their fair share of plights as well. The truth is they are responsible for their plight, they are responsible for Labour’s plight, they are responsible for the dissatisfaction with centre-left politics in general, they are responsible for Labour’s demolition in Scotland, they are partially responsible for what happened in 2008 and they are responsible for the dim-witted philosophy behind the desire for power and management. Underlying all this is the manner in which they have pursued a centrist agenda. It’s not the pursuit of centrism itself which is their problem, but how they have gone about. When moderates realise why this is the case, they’ll have somewhere to start in building up a Labour party that has a long-term future in 21st century British politics.

Moderates have this insistence in the necessity for a centrist agenda to achieve winning the next, or any for that matter, election. Even though this isn’t necessarily true (cf. Margaret Thatcher’s reign of power),  in most cases it is. However, it is folly to think of the centre as a place you want to go. Great politician’s know that the centre isn’t a place you go towards, but one you pull towards yourself. Labour moderates ought not to be seeking out the political centre, which is already occupied by the Conservatives, but changing it to suit the ideals of the left and Labour. Shaping the political zeitgeist is only possible if you know the art of influencing the centre ground to come closer to you, while knowing which policies you have to meet half way with those you wish to substantiate your centre ground.

There have been a number of reasons why Labour have failed to attract the centre to it. It has failed to communicate a coherent vision that empathises with your average voter demonstrating that Labour do in fact share their concerns, even if they don’t agree with the instinctive action the public would want implemented to solve them. It has been incompetent in governing throughout the country. Safe competent government is a notion the electorate don’t associate with the Labour party. Incompetence is the reason the nation as a whole doesn’t trust Labour with the leverages of power, it is why Labour got annihilated in Scotland.  They never looked after their allies enough in the good times so in  the bad times they’ve changed their allegiances, whether that be to Jeremy Corbyn, UKIP, the Greens or the Conservatives.

How do the Labour moderates turn this around to make Labour an electable party again? First they must identify with left-wing principles again of liberty, equality and social justice. Second they must realise they were in fact right to embrace markets, but the type of the markets they embraced were not necessarily compatible with left-wing principles. The necessity for modernisation within the Labour party during the 80s and 90s is a statement not worth undermining. That doesn’t mean it is the end goal of the modernisation project though. Third they should find a way to reconcile all these points. Alienating your core support for long periods of time only hurts the health of the Labour party in the long-term, even if it greatly helps in the short and medium term when facing the travails of government.

Let’s take the first two together. My analysis rests upon the assumption that markets ought not be an anathema to the left. New Labour was right to criticise the anti-market tendencies of those on the hard left of the party. New Labour thought this could be accomplished by trying to make Thatcherite capitalism more humanistic by providing basic welfare to the unemployed, those in low paid work, to children and to the disabled. By making capitalism compatible with the philosophy of humanism, New Labour hoped to have found a way to reconcile left-wing principles with the economic realities that the left needed to address.

What New Labour got wrong is for the desire to humanise capitalism, rather than humanising markets. Markets in themselves are neutral to the concerns of the agents operating within them. Economists value markets though because on average the utility of market agents both in terms of welfare and liberty are expanded. But markets needn’t be capitalism. Capitalism as an ideology also makes an assumption about how companies ought to be organised (the essential role of investors) and what the nature of property rights are (in particular a very strong form of private property). Such assumptions though are not even supported empirically as being necessary for the existence of a functioning market, in our market economies many different form of ownership structures exist such as cooperatives and they succeed very well.

Why is this important? The assumption I made above particularly about property rights heavily favours a market based upon right-wing principles, rather than left-wing principles.  New Labour’s humanising of capitalism ended up painting over the cracks rather than truly trying to make society more equal. Social mobility in the UK is in a worse state now than during anytime during the 80s. In a more equal society, defined as equality of opportunity, this shouldn’t be the case. Simply blaming the Conservatives doesn’t cut it. There was talk during Miliband’s reign as leader of utilise policies that predistribute wealth, rather than redistribute wealth. Nothing has come of it though.

John Maynard Keynes once said:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.

Labour moderates have espoused pragmatism for so long that they have becomes Keynes’ practical men. This has blinded them to alternative ways of seeing things, ways that if spun correctly could very well move the centre ground towards the left.

The trouble the moderates have though is that isn’t clear which thinkers offer a holistic philosophy and programme which is both pro-market and egalitarian. This is the result of the stagnation of the intellectual left which it would be unfair to hold the Labour moderates responsible for. Most MPs are lawyers, not economists and most certainly not political philosophers. So how can we expect this off Labour MPs? We can’t expect it, but the political outlook in the short, medium and long term for Labour is so bleak that it is demanded of them. MPs need to go out of their comfort zone and confront long held beliefs if they are to stop digging Labour into its grave.

Take Piketty’s Capital which asserts the need to implement a global wealth tax to tackle inequality. Piketty is in fact a supporter of egalitarian capitalism, or egalitarian markets, not a socialist like Jeremy Corbyn or Owen Jones.  The empirical research in Capital is to be highly commended, but it is thoroughly impractical. How are you going to implement a global wealth tax? Who’s going to do it? The UN? The US? The UK? Wont influencing the tax rate turn into some geopolitical game to see which superpower has the biggest mojo when it comes to promoting their national interests? Thomas Piketty attempt to provide a solution to his analysis on the source of inequality is an example of the failure of mainstream left-wing thinkers to give an alternative to what we have which is workable.

In turn that means heterodox groups are flourishing. We have advocates of Modern Monetary Theory, such as Steve Keen, who flat out rejects the economics of austerity as being wrong. Austerian economics simply doesn’t understand how money is created (mainly through lending from private banks) and that the worth of currency is guaranteed by the state. Georgists support the introduction of a land value tax  to promote land justice and tackle the UK’s housing problem, particularly in London. Most Georgists tend to be on a progressive-libertarian spectrum, some like Michael Hudson are progressives while Fred Foldvary is a geolibertarian. We then have your more traditional socialists who have nostalgia for the post-war consensus. Finally we have mutualism, or a form of left-libertarianism which supports both market and socialist economy all in one. All these ideologies are radical, with the first two and last one having the advantage of being compatible with free market enterprise.

In their current form, these ideologies will be too radical for the general populace to accept. The role of the centre-left, or radical centrists, is to take the really good ones and moderate the ideas so they become acceptable to the populace then ensure the centre grounds moves towards promoting those ideas. Some of these ideas, such as Georgism and mutualism, have support among those on the right of the spectrum as well. Milton Friedman thought that a land value tax would be the least bad tax. Red Tories have supported consumer-owned cooperatives in the past, the Conservative-Liberal Coalition government oversaw the mass mutualisation of some public services. Even though these groups have not necessarily taken on board the ideology of Georgism and Mutualism as a whole, they have taken on board some of the general premises which is the least the centre-left should be doing. Leave it for the left to move the centre-left more to the left to move the centre even further towards left that it once was. New Labour ironically did that with Thatcherism when it supported a mass privatisation of public services.

As this piece has argued though, taking ideas from other ideologies simply isn’t enough. A coherent set of principles must underlie why you chose those ideas. This is to allow a coherent narrative and picture to be established. Empathising with the electorate is necessary, but in order for you to persuade them of your perspective. It’s time for Labour moderates to ditch the moderate label and espouse something closer between the centre-left and radical centrism. A party on the left side of the spectrum shouldn’t behave as if it is a small-c conservative party, but should be radical in its own right. It’s the centrists jobs to find out where that lies on the political map.

Gareth Mawer
I consider myself a left libertarian committed to promoting the philosophy of liberty, even though I do not always support proposals that are normally considered libertarian. Georgism and mutualism have had profound influences over my beliefs, though I'm not afraid to digress from them were necessary. My mains interests are politics, economics and philosophy.