Whither the Labour opposition? Part 2 of an open letter to The Leader
If the Labour Party is going to make a healthy recovery in time for the next election (which, despite the CameroClegg’s pronouncements about a fixed term, may turn out to be much less than five years away), we all need to recognise and admit that the coalition government has got off to a cracking start. Cameron and Clegg and most of their teams give a strong impression, on television and in their press interviews and articles, of being sensible and likeable, even progressive. The coalition’s programme includes a goodly number of items which many Labour supporters (including probably a majority of Labour MPs in the last parliament, even perhaps a majority of Labour ministers, and certainly including me) were desperate for our Labour government to adopt. Who knows how much better Labour might have fared had the then leadership listened to the many Labour voices calling for a return to humane and liberal policies, and the rolling back of the oppressive and authoritarian measures which disfigured the records of successive Labour home secretaries?
It’s too late now to lament what our Labour government could so easily have done better. Now we are suffering the shaming experience of being outflanked on the left by the first relatively enlightened Tory leader in years, and by LibDem ministers who really do seem to be exercising a benign, liberalising influence on their unexpected bedfellows. Of course it’s still early, honeymoon days, but it would be rash to assume that it can’t last. Even when the Osborne axe begins to fall on ordinary people’s standards of living and on the services they depend on, don’t forget the capacity of the British people for masochism in a crisis, if the measures to tackle it are persuasively presented as necessary and reasonably fair. “Blood, toil, tears and sweat,” remember? Labour can’t afford to appear to want the coalition’s campaign to get Britain out of its financial crisis to fail. Great care is needed in selecting individual measures that deserve to be opposed, and even then only constructively. Overall support for the government’s efforts must be the order of the day, if the Loyal Opposition is not to be dismissed as irresponsible, feckless, needlessly negative and old hat.
What other lessons should we learn from this impressive beginning to the coalition’s period of office? First, we must avoid like Swine Flu any impression that Labour opposes the liberalising measures promised by the coalition, such as the abandonment of identity cards and their supporting monster database, and virtually all the other reforming measures promised in the coalition’s agreed programme under the heading “Civil Liberties”. It’s essential that the whole of the parliamentary Labour party should vote enthusiastically for almost all these measures, whatever the idiot media might say about U-turns: if ever there was a time for some Labour U-turns, this is it. We should all heed the warm welcome given to the coalition’s programme for the repair of our civil liberties by no less a person than Juliet Lyon, the director of the Prison Reform Trust and secretary general of Penal Reform International. Any former Labour home secretaries tempted to try to defend their dismal legacies, or to oppose coalition action to reverse them, should be firmly silenced both by yourself as interim Leader and by all the candidates for the substantive leadership. (Two important exceptions to this general rule are discussed later.)
Secondly, the coalition’s period in office seems to have been marked so far by a new atmosphere of cooperation and mutual respect in the political arena. Old-fashioned knee-jerk newspaper columnists such as Simon Hoggart have been lamenting the absence of noisy bear-baiting from prime minister’s questions; the rest of us rejoice at it. PMQs should never again be allowed to deteriorate into a juvenile Punch-and-Judy show for the delectation of the stupider luminaries of the commentariat. It’s up to the Labour front bench and all Labour back-benchers to see that this new and constructive atmosphere is sustained. Many of us devoutly hope you in particular will use all your influence as Leader to enforce sensible, adult behaviour on the pack behind you, praising the government when it does well (as it currently seems to be doing) and offering collaboration whenever possible, not opposing for the sake of opposition. This is an essential ingredient in the task of winning back a degree of public respect for politicians in general and for the Labour Party in particular.
In my first letter on 19 May I respectfully suggested two golden rules to guide the Labour Party’s behaviour and goals in opposition, and discussed how the first of them might usefully be implemented. Here are some further thoughts about the second golden rule, which you’ll remember was:
Radically overhaul every aspect of the late Labour government’s policies, brutally slaughtering sacred cows, and boldly thinking the hitherto unthinkable. In the words of Danton: De l’audace, et encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace! Avoid like the Black Death any impression that if and when Labour is re-elected you will simply take up where the Blair and Brown governments left off. If that’s how it looks, you won’t be returned to the government benches for a generation, and you won’t deserve to be.
Labour in office from 1997 to 2010 had many really substantial achievements to its credit, mainly ones that no Conservative government would ever have matched. The rescue of the National Health Service and state education from the years of Tory government neglect were certainly among the proudest of these. Perhaps though the greatest were the raft of measures to reduce poverty, both at home and globally. The Tories taunt us for allowing the gap between the richest and the poorest to widen during Labour’s time in office, and it’s dismaying that it did. But that doesn’t mean that the poor got poorer: the figures show that the poor became less poor but the rich got richer at a much faster rate, and that without Labour’s campaign against poverty in the UK the poor would have been further impoverished and the gap would have been even wider. Those who dispute this can be referred to the analysis by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies, Poverty and inequality in the UK: 2010 (pdf).
Similarly, Labour’s record on aid for development and poverty reduction overseas has won world-wide respect and indeed has been explicitly praised by the Conservatives and LibDems who have promised to continue where Labour left off. Labour is entitled to claim credit for these and many other achievements and to spend its time in opposition planning how to make its promotion of development and poverty reduction even more effective when returned to office. Meanwhile the opposition should clearly support the coalition government as long as it continues to work towards the goals set by Labour in office. Andrew Mitchell as Secretary for Overseas Development will need lots of all-party support if he is to preserve the programmes and objectives of development and aid established by Labour against the inevitable assaults of the Tory neanderthals when the going starts to get rough.
There are however two areas of Labour’s legacy where a clean policy break is absolutely essential: Iraq plus Afghanistan, and civil liberties.
On the latter, I have already suggested earlier in this letter the need for Labour to support wholeheartedly the liberalising reform measures now promised by the coalition. If this is interpreted gloatingly by the government and the right-wing media as a repudiation of a sizeable chunk of Labour’s record in office, so much the better. There are, though, two important areas of civil liberties where Labour in opposition should tenaciously defend its record: Freedom of Information (whose scope the coalition promises to enlarge, hopefully with Labour’s cheerful support), and the Human Rights Act, on which coalition intentions remain obscure. Here Labour should defend the existing Act, ensuring that any ‘British Bill of Rights’ designed to add to or replace it doesn’t erode existing rights, and above all that any new legislation doesn’t commit the egregious error of appearing to make our fundamental rights dependent or conditional on observance of ‘responsibilities’ as defined by the state. That poisonous and misguided doctrine has been used in our lifetimes to justify some of the worst repression inflicted on tens of thousands of victims by Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and assorted lesser villains. It may well become necessary to face down the Murdoch press and the Daily Telegraph, as well as the puritans of the Tory right, on this issue.
Now to the difficult subject of Blair’s Wars. There’s no need to spell out to you, dear Harriet, the reasons for the dismay and anger felt by thousands of Labour Party members and supporters over the disastrous decisions made by the Blair government over Iraq, including what many of us firmly believe to have been the lies told to justify them. Some of us also recognise that despite the strident supporting role adopted by Tony Blair in regard to the NATO attack on Yugoslavia over Kosovo in 1999, that attack was equally illegal under international law, equally unjustified, equally unnecessary, equally unsuccessful and equally fraudulently explained in attempted justification to the British people and to the world. There’s no point in the opposition reopening that argument now, but it would be prudent for opposition spokespersons to resist any temptation to boast of success for either the Kosovo or the Iraq conflicts, or to attempt to defend the ways in which the Labour government sought to justify either war.
Two of the candidates for the Labour leadership have already, at the time of writing, acknowledged that Iraq was a “mistake”. There’s no need for a formal apology by the Labour opposition for Iraq (or for Kosovo): indeed, an explicit apology would be widely scorned as a hypocritical gesture, cynically designed to win back votes. But there should be no disguising the fact that Britain’s role in the Iraq war was an aberration which with hindsight should never have happened. The eventual report of the Chilcot Inquiry into Iraq and the lessons to be learned from it may well turn out to be bitter medicine for Labour: all the more reason to be seen to be willing to swallow it with good grace.
The positive way to signal a radical change of policy on the resort to military force, implying (but not necessarily stating explicitly) a promise never to repeat the Iraq criminal blunder, would be to declare formally that no future Labour government will ever again send British forces into action overseas unless (a) in response to an armed attack on sovereign British territory (as permitted under the UN Charter) or else (b) to participate in peace-keeping or peace-making operations expressly authorised by the United Nations Security Council. Labour would also do well publicly to endorse the present coalition defence secretary’s useful reminder that in any case Britain is not a “global policeman” — and should never again try to act as if it were. He who “punches above his weight” tends to end up on the canvas.
And that leads us to perhaps the most difficult current policy dilemma facing the government — but also facing the opposition. There is an immediate requirement for Labour to reformulate its policy on Afghanistan. It has become increasingly difficult for ordinary sensible and responsible people, especially perhaps Labour people, to see what useful purpose is now being served by our military presence in Afghanistan; indeed, it’s increasingly obvious that western military intervention is now doing more harm than good. It’s time to withdraw British forces from Afghanistan as soon as logistically possible, and Labour needs to say so, now, loud and clear.
Labour need not do an 180-degree about-turn and pronounce the whole Afghanistan operation a mistake. The early withdrawal of all British forces from Afghanistan would clearly not entail the withdrawal of the entire US-led NATO force from the country. There are plenty of other NATO countries which have not yet made a military contribution on anything like the scale of Britain’s, and it’s time for some of them to take our place. We can be proud of what our servicemen and women have done there: no-one has to call it a failure or say that those who died or were wounded in combat suffered in vain. We have done our stint and it’s time for someone else to take our place.
Accordingly, Labour should call for the withdrawal of all UK military forces from Afghanistan over a period of the next 12 months, allowing time for NATO to replace them from another member country or else to revise its strategy to minimise the effects of our departure. We could offer to maintain and reinforce our development aid presence and commitment for as long as it is demonstrably able to achieve positive results (but no longer). If the Labour opposition were very soon to adopt this policy, it might even be quite welcome to the coalition government. It would demonstrate Labour’s responsible attitude if the Labour opposition were to offer to discuss its intentions privately with the government before announcing it, in order to minimise any damage to the morale of our forces or any boost to the Taliban or al-Qaeda. But Labour dug Britain into this hole, no doubt with the best of intentions: it’s now up to Labour to say that it’s time to stop digging. Almost the entire country, and much of the military, would heave a huge sigh of relief.
This is one area where Labour can rightfully resume its proper place to the left of the coalition partners. Another is the future of Trident — not just of this particular weapon and its replacement, but the whole issue of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. No-one has the slightest idea whom the UK deterrent is supposed to deter. No nuclear weapon can blunt the threat from international terrorism. No country poses a nuclear threat to Britain, nor is any country at all likely to do so. Our deterrent is not ‘independent’, despite the label often tied to it: we depend on the Americans to keep it active and could never use it without US approval. Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, Canada — none has a nuclear deterrent, none seeks one, and none is less secure than Britain. The argument that it’s impossible to predict what threats might arise in future, and so it’s just as well to go on spending billions on keeping our deterrent just in case, is fundamentally fatuous: it could be used to justify any kind of lunatic expenditure designed to protect us against every conceivable — or inconceivable — risk (don’t we need a programme to save us from being hit by an asteroid?). Maintaining the nuclear deterrent grossly distorts our defence spending and involves huge expenditure that we can’t afford. It gives our ministers delusions of grandeur, tempting them to behave as if Britain were still a global great power, instead of pursuing policies that are proportionate to our real position in the world. Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament, which would have been unacceptably risky during the cold war, is now a policy whose time has come. Labour should not be afraid to adopt it.
So for the immediate future the motto needs to be: support wherever you can; oppose where you must. Better to collaborate than to obstruct. Defend those elements of Labour’s legacy of which we can be justifiably proud: support the reversal of everything that shames us. Treat Labour’s adversaries with respect; behave like adults. Remember that the coalition government has an electoral mandate to address Britain’s crisis in the ways it promised, and that Labour has no mandate to try and prevent it. Britain’s recovery is as much in Labour’s interest as it is in the government’s, and most of all it is in the interests of the British people. Labour must be seen to be playing its part in helping to promote it.
For the longer term future, this is an unrepeatable opportunity for Labour to reclaim its old radicalism as the party which represents the poor and vulnerable against the rich and privileged, as the champion of fundamental human rights, as an internationalist party whose policies are firmly rooted in respect for the United Nations Charter. Above all it must once again be the party which recognises and uses the power of the state to achieve by universal collective action what can never be achieved by individuals acting privately. Without the state, the Big Society is a delusion. Labour should now resume its place as the party of the positive state.
PS: Was the Labour government serious about abolishing FM radio in favour of DAB? Making us all abandon our hifi tuners and portable FM radios and car radios and replace them all with those pale brown boxes with their primitive, virtually unworkable controls? What kind of lunacy is that? Let’s for heaven’s sake abandon the whole crazy project (and invite the government to call it off before they think of it themselves), with a craven apology to the radio-listening public, perhaps using the Fergie defence — we must have had a lot to drink before adopting this proposal and we “weren’t in our right place”.
Yours sincerely (and hopefully),