Dan Jarvis's speech was a step in the right-direction, but far more is neededby John McTernan / March 11, 2016 / Leave a comment
When I started writing speeches for Labour politicians I got a sound piece of advice from an old stager. He said that whenever I had a weak argument I didn’t need to strengthen my logic, I should simply attack Margaret Thatcher.
Once you understand this tactic—assertion in the place of argument—you can see it everywhere. The current fashion in the Labour Party is for modernisers to quote Keir Hardie. Rarely is the quotation memorable. Take the one Dan Jarvis used in his speech at the think tank Demos last Thursday: “Keir Hardie said that the British are a practical people, not given to chasing bubbles.”
The phrase itself came from a letter to Friedrich Engels explaining why the UK labour movement supported parliamentary routes to reform rather than revolutionary socialism. So Jarvis was using it out of context, but neither the context not the meaning are the point. The point is that he was using it as a kind of Labour Party “virtue signalling.”
Hardie is sentimentally believed to represent the true beating heart of the Labour Party, its soul and conscience. But it would be better to think of him instead as the founder of a party that had to endure 45 years and two world wars before it could form a majority government. He is the symbol of all that Labour is currently throwing away rather than an emblem of authenticity. Keir Hardie shouldn’t be quoted to make the speaker look good but to make the listener concerned.
Why does this matter? Because the Labour Party is facing the greatest crisis in its history and the only thing that will rescue is its leadership. The danger, as so often in any organisation, is that Labour is drawing the wrong lessons from defeat. Or in this case, defeats—the party lost to David Cameron last May and then to Jeremy Corbyn last September. The question of “what must be done” is often reduced to “who can we run?” That misses the point entirely. Politics requires a project before it needs a personality to lead a programme. The success of New Labour wasn’t down to one leader; it was the result of rethinking social democracy across the board. Tony Blair always said that the one benefit of opposition is that you have time to think.
Six months on there are signs of life: interesting speeches from Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna; Alison McGovern intellectually reinvigorating Progress, the Blairite think tank, and writing some of the most thoughtful reflections on what progressive politics must become to be relevant again. All important green shoots.
But the question remains: does the debate, and more importantly the insight and analysis, face up to the scale of the existential crisis facing Labour? It is not just that all the hard work of the mainstream moderates can be blown away by the throwaway remarks of the leadership. Take John McDonnell’s summary of his new fiscal and economic policy: “Socialism is about planning.” Where does one start? “Socialism”? You what? Or planning? Five Year Plans anyone? It is beyond parody.
To combat this kind of craziness Labour’s new thinking has to be fundamental and transformative. To judge just how far Labour needs to go it is worth returning to Dan Jarvis’s speech this week. It was good enough and bold enough to deserve scrutiny. As is he—given that he so clearly wants to be Leader of the Labour Party. Not, as Tony Blair once said of Gordon Brown, an ignoble ambition.
The best thing about the speech was its bold claim to reposition Labour as the party of work. This is the riposte to the ultra-leftism of Corbyn and McDonnell—Labour has never been a socialist party, though it always contains socialists. Labour has always been about work and rewarding those who work hard and play by the rules. Which is why it was odd that Jarvis did not address the issue of welfare which is intimately related to work, not just in reality but in the public mind. Until Labour is trusted on welfare it will never be electable.
And trust starts from where Rachel Reeves got to when she was Shadow Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions: “Nobody should be under any illusions that they are going to be able to live a life on benefits under a Labour government. If you can work you should be working, and under our compulsory jobs guarantee if you refuse that job you forgo your benefits, and that is really important.
“It is not an either/or question. We would be tougher [than the Conservatives on welfare]. If [claimants] don’t take [the offer of a job] they will forfeit their benefit. But there will also be the opportunities there under a Labour government.”
In contrast Jarvis only uses the word welfare in a sideswipe at George Osborne not creating a high wage, low welfare economy.
Nor does the speech’s boldness extend to acknowledging the extraordinary job creation record of the UK economy. If Labour is for work it should celebrate record levels of employment and then say that this great country could do so much better. This failure undermines credibility with the general public who do know that things have improved since the Global Financial Crisis. It is one thing to ignore real issues like welfare, it is quite another to try to persuade voters that they are wrong.
Labour’s dominant tone since 2010 has been miserabilism—telling people they live in a country in crisis. This is literally unbelievable because it is simply not true. Jarvis unfortunately captures the tone when he defines the role of the Labour Party: “But the purpose of my party, the Labour party, is to give a voice to those who have not yet seen their fair share of the rewards.”
This is simply not true. Or rather it is a definition of purpose that will condemn Labour to perpetual opposition. Defining your role in terms of the minority—however important—is a politics of impotence not of power. It is a strategy of daytime TV ambulance-chasing lawyers: “Not got your fair share? Dial 0800-LABOUR!” Power is a majoritarian, universalist project—everyone needs strong defence, good education, high-quality health care, opportunities for themselves and their families. Until Labour is able to celebrate the fulfilled lives that almost all voters live it will wake every morning thinking about what it should say rather than thinking about what it will do.
My point is that retaking a political party, reclaiming it and renewing it is a massive endeavour—and it is a collective one. With a crisis as profound as Labour’s a rethink as fundamental as the one New Labour undertook is needed. And every articulation of a problem has to be accompanied by a solution that surprises and inspires. Dan Jarvis raised many of the right questions, for which he should be congratulated. But the next challenge is to find answers that go beyond the conventional. The Tory Party’s existential crisis over Europe will mutate into a leadership election on 24th June. Labour has both the time and the opportunity—neither should be wasted.