It should attack the government's analysis, not its motivesby Philip Collins / October 15, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Labour Party likes opposition more than it dare admit. There is a protest reflex in Labour which relishes the business of being against. Government is a troublesome business which inevitably compromises the purity of belief. In opposition, which demands no actions and no decisions but only words, Labour can remain intellectually unsullied. It can complain and shout and feel better about itself. There was more than a sense, during the 2010 parliament, that Labour, especially on the NHS and on welfare, was relishing opposition far too much.
The Labour Party is now governed by the professional protestors in its midst. Jeremy Corbyn can hardly ever have addressed a meeting in which the audience did not already agree with him before he began. He has never before had to trouble himself with deeds or win an argument with colleagues or set a collective line. He has never, in short, worked in politics before. He has worked in protest, which is a different occupation. Even opposition, official opposition of the sort that the Labour Party is constitutionally obliged to conduct in parliament, is quite distinct from protest. When the conference season finishes and the dust settles on Corbyn’s extraordinary rise to prominence, he needs a strategy to oppose the government.
His natural inclination, and that of his closest consiglieres, will be to make exactly the error that Ed Miliband made before them. That is to characterise the government as expressly and malignantly ideological. This is so much the default assumption of Labour activists that it will be hard to resist. Hannah Arendt once said that the left always has a tendency to go for motive. It is the other side of the left’s self-righteousness. If I am morally upright and on the side of the angels, then you, my sworn opponent, must be morally dissolute and singing the Devil’s tunes.
Labour wasted a long time trying to pin ideological motivation on the Conservatives. They are shrinking the state with relish, privatising public services out of dismal conviction and impoverishing the least well-off out of class hatred. The trouble with this is that, not being anything like true enough, it sets a low bar for a government to jump over. David Cameron does not look or sound like a man consumed by belief, still less belief with deliberately nasty intentions. The ideological accusations warmed the Labour Party but never rang true. They also have the parallel disadvantage of saying to people who have just voted Conservative that they are bad people. When victory depends on winning back the affection of some of these people, it is hard to imagine a more counter-productive political strategy.