Exciting vision or doctor’s mandate? The problem for the centre-left

I wasn’t at the Progress Conference on Saturday. I’d promised my friends (and myself) a broadly non-political weekend after the past couple of months. But it seems that at least parts of the Conference were in ‘tell hard truths to our own side’ mode. In particular, Stephen Bush’s speech has attracted much comment:

There’s clearly plenty of truth in this. It is indeed wearing to hear social democrats talking about being divisive as if that were the issue. Quite clearly it isn’t. The issue is that we dislike Corbynite politics and want something different. Some allowance needs to be made for moderates’ exhaustion from trying to hold the hard left off. But to return Labour to its mainstream tradition, you need to persuade and inspire people who currently like Corbyn. Alternatively, you need to get people in to outnumber them. And no, Labour moderates can’t easily shout about electability in our current state.

But I’d make two main points in return. First, the Corbynite left can cross lines social democrats can’t. I’m not calling for a naive form of ‘straight-talking, honest politics’. (Bush is quite right there. Note to self: stop doing it.) But it’s hard to counter an entire prospectus based on the pretence that middle-class corporatism equals redistribution, sums we know don’t add up and a foreign policy which sells parochialism as ‘peace’ once people have bought into it.

If people believe fantasies, they’ll always sound better than messy trade-offs. In that case, how do you pit realism against the big lie mode of politics and win? I’m sure a sufficiently charismatic and inspiring leader could do a great deal to address that. And no doubt much more can be done to frame the issues differently. It’s still a huge problem.

The second problem is the unappealing truth of where we find ourselves. The UK faces several crises which we need to address, with limited state bandwidth to devote to them. Fortunately for all of us, I have neither any prospect of becoming Prime Minister nor any desire to try. But were I in charge, I have a rough idea of what I’d prioritise.

I’d need to find a substantial amount of money just to keep core bits of the public realm from falling over. The NHS, social care, councils, welfare and the justice system desperately need cash. To be clear, the cash injection wouldn’t even be to make things (much) better: it’d mostly be to stop them from getting worse. As we’re talking tens of billions of pounds of current, not capital, spending (and we’d better have some room for manoeuvre to prop the economy up if Brexit goes disastrously wrong), this means broadly-based tax rises. By all means try to hit the very rich too. But there’s a reason social democratic paragons have higher VAT than we do, not just higher top rates of income tax.

I would, of course, try to minimise the damage from Brexit. This means delivering the softest version compatible with electoral acquiescence and political reality. Unfortunately, a Brexit with a severely constrained trade policy and free movement probably won’t stick. If that’s true, it gets worse. The least-worst Brexit is different in Great Britain and Northern Ireland — but the consequences of substantial differentiation between the two are unacceptable. And it may well be that neither of these least-worst options can be agreed. Whatever the result, the question is how much worse off we end up — not what we gain.

I’d also look to our east and west and conclude we as Europeans were dangerously exposed. We have a currently indifferent hegemon across the Atlantic and a dangerous revanchist at the other end of the North European Plain. Democratic Europe should be planning for a real security crisis in which Washington abandons it. It shows little sign of doing so. The UK is of course one of Europe’s best defence and security performers. That doesn’t make it anywhere near good enough, and the 2% of GDP floor has ceased to be high enough. Unfortunately, we are in no position to advise others on pan-European policy and expect to be listened to. But Europe needs to make a start. To get anywhere, the UK will need to commit serious additional resources of its own.

I am well aware both that climate change is rapidly reaching a tipping point, if it hasn’t already, and that the UK can do little on its own to turn things around. We’ve long since reached the point where we need to talk frankly about adaptation and mitigation. This includes our responsibilities to the wider world, most of which got much less than we did out of the emissions which created the crisis. By all means try to push the wider world towards keeping climate change in bounds. But don’t bet the mortgage on the wider world responding.

I’d look to bolster our institutions and our constitutional safeguards. When the extremes seem on the rise and more and more politicians seem happy to pull threads out of our liberal democratic fabric, this is now urgent. There are many possible ways to do this. We could have a stronger and more democratic second chamber, no longer vulnerable to prime ministerial packing or easy charges of illegitimacy. It could have a power of veto over amending certain key statutes. (Better yet, we might try to require a parliamentary super-majority of some sort to do so.) Ideally the Commons’ voting system would make it harder for one party to control it, if reform could pass a referendum. (It wouldn’t. I know better than to try to hold one now.) But frankly, even a reliable defence of the roles of the BBC and the judiciary would be a start.

And finally — the one potentially cheery thing on the list — I’d want to start doing something about the housing crisis. That might mean planning reform, dropping the ‘every sperm is sacred’ approach to every acre of the Green Belt (can we all please note the M25 is in the Green Belt and stop confusing it with AONBs, by the way?), major capital investment in housebuilding (a much better use for public money than renationalising water and creating public option energy companies), untying local authorities’ hands and a dash of statist ‘use it or lose it’ when it comes to land banking. We could even tie a land value tax (or a property tax of some kind) to providing ongoing revenue for housebuilding.

The problem is obvious. This is a daunting list, quite possibly more than any government can realistically manage in five years while keeping everything else ticking over. It’s also a pretty cheerless prospectus, with one significant but deeply divisive exception. (Let’s not kid ourselves that the voters are going to hear ‘property tax’ and think ‘a home for my kids’.) Essentially, it amounts to ‘stop things from falling over, implement a bad decision tolerably and try to protect ourselves in a dangerous world’. But right now, I honestly think a sensible government needs to play doctor more than visionary.

Clearly, Labour members and quite a few British voters want to be inspired. Unfortunately, damage limitation doesn’t have much of a heroic arc. I’m not sure the centre-left has often, if ever, managed to win a doctor’s mandate. And I’m not sure there’s an obvious way to square the circle. Can the centre-left make making the best of things sound hopeful?

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 8 May 2018.


NATO: on solidarity

Labour is collectivist by instinct and culture. Founded by the trade unions, it could hardly be otherwise. The welfare state the Attlee Government did so much to build was founded on collective insurance. Labour has stood in solidarity with oppressed groups, minority communities, countries under attack and many others in the past.

Collective security is solidarity by another name. It’s wholly fitting, therefore, that the Attlee Government took the United Kingdom into NATO as a founding member. As the Cold War deepened, western Europe needed the United States to guarantee its security. Not all NATO’s members were always democratic, but it nonetheless bound free Europe to the US. Since then, it has formed the bedrock of British defence policy. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty provides almost our ultimate insurance – our fallback in an existential crisis.

When the Iron Curtain lifted and the Soviet Union fell, new eastern European democracies wanted to join NATO. Given their history, it’s hardly surprising. On a continent where collective security lost its meaning, Chamberlain and Daladier browbeat Edvard Beneš into signing away the Sudetenland in September 1938. Czechoslovakia was dismembered by Hitler the following March. A Franco-British guarantee meant nothing. In September 1939, Britain and France did honour their guarantee to Poland. Poland still suffered years of unspeakable horror. In 1945, eastern Europe came under Soviet control: the ‘people’s democracies’ only fell in 1989. Again, the West stood aside. You might say the West had little alternative in 1945-8: it’s a sobering and unedifying story nonetheless.

That so many of those countries have now joined the community of Western democracies is a cause for celebration. Churchill’s ‘capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe’ no longer languish behind an Iron Curtain, but have joined with their sisters to their west. NATO has provided the anchoring for a community of states linked by law to grow together.

The last Labour Government was a good friend to eastern Europe – championing its right to a place in the Western world. And until now, no Labour leader has ever wavered in their support for the Atlantic Alliance. Michael Foot opposed nuclear weapons, but he kept Labour pledged to NATO. Jeremy Corbyn’s ambivalence at present and in public, and his hostility in the past and probably in private, is unique. His opposition to NATO deployment in eastern Europe as a deterrent to a revanchist Russia is deeply misguided. His refusal to say he would defend NATO allies under attack is profoundly dangerous.

In 2017, eastern Europeans have good cause to value their NATO membership. In February 2014, Russia and Estonia signed an (admittedly unratified) agreement finalising their border. In March, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea because Ukraine wanted to sign a deal with the European Union. Both countries have large Russian minorities. Both once formed part of the USSR. Granted, Ukraine is central to Russia’s sense of self in a way which doesn’t hold true for the Baltics (of course, this doesn’t make its aggression any better). But another crucial difference is the guarantee under Article 5.

It would be unwise enough in normal circumstances to disdain our current insurance policy with no alternative in mind. In these abnormal ones, it is almost farcical in its foolishness. In 2014, a great power annexed a neighbour’s territory on the continent of Europe for the first time since 1945. Its leader is hostile to the liberal international order on which the UK relies, and nothing in his history suggests ‘relationship resets’ or a pacifying stance will appease him. It has links to far right (and radical left) parties in democratic Europe. It props up a toxic but anti-Western regime in Syria. It interfered in the US presidential election and may have even affected the outcome.

Thanks in no small part to the US election, NATO has rarely faced greater threats from within. In eight days’ time, a man whose commitment to European security is questionable will become President of the United States. That Donald Trump and Theresa May agreed on the importance of NATO in a telephone call is of limited comfort, even if he meant what he said. Credibility means everything in deterrence: it matters that Trump once said he wouldn’t mind too much if NATO dissolved, not just whether he continues saying such things as President. This is exactly the moment at which European governments must try to ensure NATO does not wither on the vine. It’s also a moment when NATO’s word must be seen to be its bond. I struggle to imagine a worse time to argue for undermining its shared deterrence strategy in Europe.

History makes clear that Britain cannot ignore the rest of Europe, that its security is bound up with its continent. Brexit does not change the essential fact, however much Nigel Farage might like it to. If the US disengages, Europeans will need to look to our own security: the UK has no opt-out. But in any event, it would be profoundly wrong to let Putin dictate policy in eastern Europe – and even more so to regard any NATO ally as somehow dispensable. I see nothing left-wing about old-style spheres of influence. I see nothing progressive in ignoring eastern Europeans’ right to choose their own destinies. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania became liberal democracies by their own free choice. They are our allies. They deserve better than to be treated as our buffer states.

Collective security is vital for democratic Europe. It has not faced such severe threats from without for many years. It has rarely, if ever, seemed more besieged from within. Britain could never separate itself from the fallout if it broke down. And even if it could, it would be an appalling act to abandon our friends and allies to Vladimir Putin. No true progressive should countenance it.