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.