14 February 2020

Labour’s original sin


The Labour Party loves a hoary old cliche and the hoariest of them all is that the party is “a moral crusade or it is nothing”. It comes, ironically enough, from one of only three men ever to win a Labour majority, Harold Wilson. Ironic because it captures perfectly the self-regarding moralism that means Labour, all things being equal, tend to lose.

Exhibit A this week is Lord Ashcroft’s report diagnosing Labour’s crushing General Election loss. There is, to put it mildly, rather a lot of evidence contained therein, but as one example take the five main reasons for defeat according to Labour members.

Number one is Brexit – no argument there. Reasons two, three and four however, are somewhat more problematic. Reason two pins it all on unfair media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn. Reason three, on the voters for believing Conservative “lies”. Reason four meanwhile, suggests people simply “didn’t understand” what a Tory government would mean. That is to say, three different variations on the theme of the voters are stupid. And reason number five? Oh, that dispenses with even that nicety and simply labels them “bigots”. It therefore seems that Labour members believe the British people to be either stupid or immoral. Take your pick.

Just think for a moment about how much energy is required to maintain such a tin-eared worldview. Social media echo chambers help no doubt but the world must creep in. It is not possible, surely, that views about the inadequacy of Jeremy Corbyn, or Labour’s mind-boggling spending promises, its anti-semitism crisis, its scattergun manifesto, or the other countless problems documented in Ashcroft’s report, have somehow avoided the ears of Labour members. No, they have heard alright, its just that granting such arguments the credence of good faith would come dangerously close to threatening an entire world view. For what it would mean is that people of sound mind and good character had rejected the self-evident moral superiority of the crusading Labour Party. And that, comrade, simply cannot be true.

Maybe I am making too much of this. Would not Tory members also see their political positions as morally correct? Perhaps. But progressive politics does seem driven by a moral urgency that one typically finds lacking on the right. This may be replicated in voters too – the pollster Ben Page recently caused a stir with data that showed remain voters to be far more intolerant of differing views on a range of political questions, from climate change to same sex marriage and Brexit. True, leave and remain are not the most helpful proxies here yet it does not take a huge leap of imagination to wonder if this intolerance bedevils Labour too. After all, the party does not seem to have a particularly healthy respect for dissenting views within, even if – to the outside world – its factional disputes often appear to be little more than dancing on a pin.

No, I would argue that Labour’s sanctimonious moralising, its determination to frame political choices as a Manichean clash between good and evil, is its original political sin. It drives the party’s vituperative factionalism, holding back compromise. It prevents a clear-sighted analysis of the party’s failings at moments like this. But most of all it poisons the well of trust needed for legitimate political disagreement in a pluralist society. Politics is inherently moral, there is no avoiding it entirely.

Yet to continually frame things in such stark terms, to witter on endlessly about ‘Labour values’ as if nobody else has values, is to subconsciously remove the scope for disagreement between moral equals. You don’t just disagree, you look down.

Every time you hear a former Labour voter say – as they do time and again in the Ashcroft report – how the party no longer listens to people like them, this is what they mean. It may even be what people mean when they get angry about the metropolitan elite, or Labour being too middle class. To be sure, Labour is too metropolitan and middle class, but that doesn’t seem to quite explain why people with that view would plump for Boris Johnson instead. Likewise, why Evangelical farmers in Kansas might turn, in anti-elite mode, to a vulgar irreligious Billionaire from New York City.

The great historic success of the Conservative Party is to wear its moral principles lightly; to present its ideology as pragmatism. On the other hand, Harold Wilson was right about Labour – it is, in the eyes of its membership especially, a moral crusade. And that is why it so often finds itself on a road towards nothing.

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Alan Lockey is a former adviser to a Labour MP