Philip Gould: An Unfinished Life | Our kind of politicsOctober 9th, 2012
Philip Gould: An Unfinished Life | Published by Palgrave Macmillan
Chapter 5 | David Miliband: Our kind of politics
The last time I saw Philip was a couple of weeks before he died. He was in his favourite place for thinking and talking, on the green sofa on the first floor of his house, his by now very thin legs wrapped around each other, his body arching back and then thrust forward to make a point, his feet resting on the coffee table in front of him. He was philosophical, funny, passionate, pragmatic – all the things that made him a wonderful friend and colleague.
We had been having these kinds of conversations for 16 or 17 years. As always, his remarkably fertile mind was scanning the intellectual, economic, social as well as political horizon. We covered life, death, children, the NHS, Britain, America, the Middle East. He wanted me to know that he had thought through his funeral, and had meticulously planned his gravesite in Highgate Cemetry. And of course we talked about people too.
For Philip, the personal was political in a profound way. His own upbringing – suburban Sidcup, his Dutch mother, failing the 11-plus, Sussex University in the 1960s, professional success through hard work – was his political compass. He saw this first of all in terms of class. The people he met, the sons and daughters of skilled working class or lower middle class parents, were his weathervane. And a clue to his success as a political consultant was that this group was from the 1960s to the 1990s the rising class in British life – rising in terms of numbers, education and influence.
Philip’s background was not the same as mine. My family was more middle class; also I had lived in Leeds for four formative years of my life and had a perspective from outside the South. My background was more policy; his more presentation. We were born in different generations. We came at problems from different angles. We didn’t agree on everything. But our passions met – a hatred of losing elections to the Tories, a belief in the power of education to help people realise their potential, a commitment to linking politics to ideas.
Towards the end of the meeting, Philip stopped short and said: “You know, there’s never been a better time for our kind of politics”. It felt like an injunction to action as well as a statement of belief. So his comment is the focus of this essay. In particular what he meant by ‘our kind of politics’ – and what kind of progressive politics that is right for the times. After all, the European left has been distinguished for losing elections not winning them in the last few years.
Philip was sometimes criticised for a focus on political tactics. He did pioneer for Labour a seriousness of purpose when it came to listening to the electorate. One of the biggest divisions in politics is between people who blame the voters when they lose elections, and politicians who blame themselves. Philip never blamed the voters. He respected voters enough really to try to understand their views. He was not ashamed of focus groups. He saw this as part of democracy. When people said they cared about immigration, or welfare fraud, or crime, he said he wanted to understand their concern, even when he disagreed – sometimes violently – with their views.
He also wanted to know about people’s lives. The great sociologist Professor Zygmunt Bauman talks about a big shift in advanced industrialised societies. It starts with the 19th and 20th century notion of communities or countries as ‘societies of producers’, where identity was profoundly shaped by work, and the social life and family life as well as the economic life that was bound up in it. This is the world that reached its political apogee after the 1945 election. But Bauman argues that today the societies of producers have been fragmented or destroyed. So we have become ‘societies of consumers’, where the shaping of identity comes from a far wider range of sources which are chosen by individuals.
Philip wanted politicians to understand these kind of changes. He thought political tactics needed to emerge from an understanding of society, not vice versa. He also knew that our agenda needed to fight behind enemy lines, and not just on our home territory. He knew, for example, there is nothing Conservatives hate more than having to defend their record on crime. And there is nothing they like more than upstaging us on the fight against inequality – just remember how the 1992 Budget with its new 20p rate of income tax completely scuppered Labour’s claim to be the party of the poor and the middle.
Strategy and Meaning
But our kind of politics is not primarily about tactics. It is about strategy and meaning. ‘Our kind of politics’, in Philip’s mind, was never meant to be sectarian. But neither was it inchoate. It came together after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. In Britain it meant a version of progressive politics which bridged historic divides in progressive politics – divides which had kept us out of power and handed large parts of the 20th century to the Tories.
The first great divide is between people who consider themselves (small l) liberals and those who see themselves as social democrats or socialists. The former put the premium on individual freedom in a market economy; the latter on collective action to achieve social justice. When it works well progressive politics brings these people together – to outlaw discrimination on ground of colour or creed and thereby promote equality, or to create a welfare state that protects people when they are sick or unemployed and thereby retain their dignity and economic liberty. But the two strands of thoughts are different, and not always consistent.
In Britain these two parts of the progressive tradition have found their primary home in two different parties – Labour and Liberal. The net result was to let the Tories in for 75 of the last 110 years. In the 1980s it almost destroyed the Labour Party. In truth, the liberal-communitarian axis crosses the left-right axis in politics. Philip was on the communitarian left when it came to crime and welfare, on the liberal centre when it came to economics, and the liberal left when it came to personal social mores and political reform.
So there is complexity in the relationship of liberals to social democrats. Keir Hardie wouldn’t have been surprised that Nick Clegg and his colleagues have bought into Tory economics with zeal and enthusiasm; after all he left the Liberal Party because he despaired of it helping working people. But the truth is that a Labour Party that positions itself in the left-authoritarian box of centralised and statist machine politics does not do justice to itself, or give itself the chance of winning elections.
This is as much about culture as policy, and the way we see political change. This is the second great divide.
It concerns politics as a Parliamentary process and politics as mass movement. The two should go together. At their best they do. But the dominant impression from the 20th century is that Parliamentarians have found it difficult to connect their work to mass movements – after all parties have a small percentage of the population as members – and those outside have been disappointed by achievements in Parliament.
It is ironic that my dad should have written a book called ‘Parliamentary Socialism’. People often say that his book was about the failure of Labour to be as left wing as it should be. They often ask what he would have thought of his sons being to the right of him. But the book is not simply a call for Labour to move to the left. The first line is actually about the divorce between Parliamentary activity and the development of a movement outside: “Of all political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic – not about socialism, but about the Parliamentary system”. His denunciation of ‘Labourism’ was as much about the narrow interpretation of political change as it was about its position on the left-right spectrum
The truth is that good organisation is necessary to get elected. But the metaphor of the machine summons up an image of cogs. When people are seen as cogs it produces unhealthy results. And attempts to secure lasting change without popular consent and participation are doomed to failure. Machine politics in the Labour Party has been used as much to throttle the movement and win internal battles as win election of Labour to majority in Parliament.
My view, I think Philip’s view, is that in the modern age of mass and personalised communication and choice, you cannot have an effective election winning machine without a living, breathing movement for change. The lack of the openness and dialogue inherent in this vision crippled Labour in the later Blair and Brown years. The failure to reform the party after 1997 was an enduring problem for the task of ‘renewal’.
The third great divide is related to the first two, but is distinct. It concerns idealism and realism. This divide has been the bane of the history of the Labour Party.
Anyone who joins the Labour Party, and the vast majority of the people who vote for it, know that in some deep way they are making a commitment not just to their own betterment but also to a better society.
The struggle for the minimum wage is a good example of the struggle between idealism and realism throughout Labour’s history. It was a founding demand of the Labour Representation Committee. It was opposed for large parts of the 20th century by the trade union movement who wanted to maintain a commitment to free collective bargaining – which delivered more to some parts of organised working people, but left others, disorganised, to be exploited. It was the subject of a demonising campaign by the Tories before 1997 – neutered by the decision to put the setting of the rate in the hands of the independent Low Pay Commission. And now, with idealism and realism combined, the Tories who opposed it for 100 years keep saying how much they support it.
The idealism means that no one in the Labour Party is ever satisfied – after all the 1945 Labour government was denounced for timidity. It’s not a bad thing to always want more. It fuels ambition and hope. But the other side of the coin – the betrayal thesis that is rolled out for internal party reasons after every defeat to suggest that the problem was an abandonment of the true faith – is corrosive. It produces scepticism and cynicism.
The truth is that idealism is the oxygen of politics, but realism is its anchor. You need both. Voters, especially poorer ones, cannot afford to let go of reality. They need to pay the bills. But without the vision for a different future, cynicism sets in.
Labour wins when offers both. The 1945 manifesto offered the vision of a green and pleasant land, tempered by the realities of a war torn economy, and administered by people who had proved their ability (and patriotism) under the stress of war. The 1964 election campaign offered a new boost to the economy through science not through nationalisation, overseen by skilled technocrats. In 1997 Labour offered ‘a start not a revolution’, driven forward by a post-war baby boom generation. And in each case the offer was about more than policy. It was about culture and ethos. In 1945 it was about a new start – and no return to the 1930s. In 1964 it was about meritocracy. In 1997 it was about openness and social justice.
These three divides explain a lot about the frustration of politics, and the new beginning that Labour embraced after 1994. But there is something else. Our kind of politics didn’t fit into a neat left/right categorisation.
The left in the party has over the years stood for nationalisation, for public spending, for women’s rights, for unilateral nuclear disarmament, for reforming the state, for equality which was read as equality of outcome. The right has stood for social conservatism, for Atlanticism, for bring anti European (under Gaitskell) and for being pro European (under John Smith), for the minimum wage, for fiscal prudence and for equality as read as equality of opportunity.
The Labour Party I joined in the 1980s presented every member with a false choice: on the one hand stood Militant and Tony Benn, and on the other the right wing machine. Neither did justice to my kind of politics. I want to be for equal rights and for fiscal responsibility; for reforming the state and for being pro European; for equal opportunity in and of itself, and as essential to address inequalities of outcome.
We need our kind of politics now to avoid a false choice of left and right in the party. It is a third way within the party: not the posturing of the left nor the conservatism of the right. And that is the position from where Labour’s renewal is coming today. You see it, for example, from leaders in local government who are working to do better for their communities with less money to spend. Each requires us to find the sweet spot of politics that is beyond left and right in the party, and thereby unites the majority of the party. It is the kind of politics that Ed has promised for a future Labour government.
The Economic Crisis as Turning Point
That strategic positioning now needs to be applied in highly distinctive circumstances. The financial crisis of 2007/8 in western industrialised economies cost thousands of billions of dollars and thousands and thousands. It was a massive market failure, and a massive regulatory failure. It was the acute symptom of a chronic shift in the balance of economic power around the world. You cannot have the worst economic crisis in eighty years and expect politics to carry on as before.
China is creating a new economy the size of Greece every twelve and a half weeks, and an economy the size of Spain every 16 months. The four BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are creating new economic wealth the size of Italy – the 8th largest economy in the world and the 4th largest population in Europe – every year. UN estimates are that 50 million people a year from Asia will join the global middle class (incomes $6-18000 a year) every year – precisely at the time when the growth of the western middle class has gone into reverse.
In truth neither left nor right of the political spectrum has yet shown the strategic intellectual imagination to respond to this shock to the system. The right has reached for austerity – a pre Keynesian fetish for shrinking government spending whatever the circumstances. The left has struggled to turn anger into answers.
For the left, the danger is a scissors effect which if we are not careful will slice us in half. Austerity economics and austerity politics are pulling in different directions – when in the 1990s economics and politics pointed in the same direction. Warmed up 1990s social democracy will not provide a strategy for government in these circumstances.
The economics calls for short term expansion and medium term contraction, but the politics in Europe at least is biased towards the opposite . The economics calls for tighter international coordination, yet the politics is rebelling against governance that is less accountable and further away. The economics calls for more open flows of labour, not least to cope with Europe’s demographic challenge, yet the politics is more nativist than internationalist. The economics says job growth (not productivity growth) is going to be in predominantly public sectors of health, care and education, but the politics of taxation makes expansion difficult. The economics says ‘the world is flat’, but the politics is more and more local – witness the debate in Scotland about going independent.
Perhaps the toughest tension is the following. The economics calls for new public investment focussed on developing new economic capacity, from green energy to new sciences, and demography demands a focus on new social needs, like eldercare. But the politics of tough times make it especially hard to shift away from longstanding programmes that support the poor, the old or the sick (about half of total UK public spending). This is especially tough for the centre-left. On the one hand we need and want to do justice to the legacy of 20th century achievement, above all the achievement of the post war Keynesian welfare state, where Government took responsibility through fiscal policy for levels of demand and employment in the economy, and through public services and the welfare state for making life civilised and worthy of a relatively rich country. In my constituency I know how much difference these gains still make to people’s lives.
At the same time, we know that there are new needs as well as new pressures. These come from demography, the resource crunch, stagnating living standards, changing family structures, migration. We simply cannot fund 35 year retirements out of funds designed for an average of 15 years. We cannot sustain childcare and eldercare and health care and education out of a revenue base designed for two of the four. In policy terms we believe the changes in the past were right, but know that new needs cannot just be piled on old structures of funding and delivery. In political terms, we need the support of those in the bottom third of the income distribution who are the main beneficiaries of the welfare state, while recognising that social and economic change means that no longer creates a winning coalition. As Peter Kellner brutally points out: in the 1950s, most people were not taxpayers, but now they are.
I therefore think Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are right to emphasise the need to return to prudence in fiscal policy. Credibility is easy to lose and hard to regain. We have some very difficult choices ahead about how to balance the poverty of those short changed in the Tory years with the need to invest in wealth creating potential of the economy in the future. The crash, and more particularly the sovereign debt crisis, has raised the bar for fiscal policy.
The challenge we face is intellectual and political. Intellectual about how state, market and citizen relate to each other in western societies suffering unprecedented economic challenge; political about how centre-left parties fashion national stories in a context of fragmented societies. The financial crisis has blown a massive hole in the right’s thesis about efficient markets. The sovereign debt crisis has resurrected the 1970s debate about the fiscal crisis of the state. The combination has left the electorate turning away from mainstream parties of centre right and centre left.
Labour cannot be Conservative
My perspective is that Labour cannot afford to be the conservative party – defending the status quo without a big agenda for the future. Sure Blue Labour is right to warn against believing that all change is progressive. It isn’t when it strips out human values in the name of progress. The centre-left succeeds when it acts in concert with the most dynamic currents in economy and society in the name of advancing human values.
In the modern world, all over the world, that revolves around three sets of issues – all of them taking on new meaning after the crash.
The first is about how to protect people – and how people can protect each other – from modern risks. I am thinking of economic and financial risks, but also wider. This debate can take you into economic protectionism – but I think that is the wrong response. Instead I think it is about pooling insurance against risk in a way that includes the whole of society; establishing a strategic view of government that is not cluttered by confusion between ends and means; and I think the Labour leadership are right to seek to develop, popularise and own an agenda of responsible capitalism – responsible because it seeks to curb unaccountable power, capitalism because it is serious about wealth creation. There are a number of critical issues on the latter, from training to industrial policy, but we also need to get ahead of the curve on issues like ownership. I don’t mean the balance of public and private ownership; the Ownership Commission makes the point that the balance within private ownership – where the plc is the super dominant form – is wrong, leaving our economy far less balanced and resilient than our competitors.
The second is how to strengthen community in an age of massive change. This raises tough issues notably about migration which loomed large in our election and even larger in France. But it also asks questions about the fundamental social bargain and its legitimacy – which as we saw in the 2011 riots is fragile and brittle.
Both these sets of issues have been getting a good political airing. But the third hasn’t. It is about how people can have more control over their own lives. While there has been a lot of talk about the radical wave of democratisation that has been seen in the Middle East, there has not been much reflection on the sense of disempowerment that people feel in western countries – not just from the political process, but from key decisions that affect their lives, in public services and beyond.
This sense of disempowerment is economic – on issues from debt to training to pensions. It applies to social policy – for example on issues of crime, where victims continue to feel the system doesn’t listen. It is a real issue in public services – not least because the more parents and patients are involved in education and health the more successful and productive the services are, and austerity means that there is a squeeze on this kind of outreach. It is painfully true in welfare policy where national rules and complex lives rub up against each other every day. It is true in housing policy, where anyone outside the charmed circle of home ownership is left feeling they have to make do. It comes through strongly on employment policy – where young people not destined for university especially feel that there are neither the options nor the information for them to take charge of their lives. And it is true of politics too, where the majority of voters feel that the political system doesn’t work for them.
This sense of disempowerment sits alongside the reality that a more educated and informed citizenry in a more informed society will demand more say over the things that matter to them. The failure of politics, left and right, to speak to this concern, explains a lot about the wide sense of disappointment and disillusion that people have about politics. So the renewal of the centre left has to speak to the redistribution of power.
It is amazing really that the agendas of ‘public service reform’ or ‘welfare reform’ should have been so divorced from issues of governmental reform. But if you think about it, an under-reformed central government is unlikely to be a credible reformer of education or health or the welfare state. In England, London has gained a mayor, and hopefully other cities will have one too. But this can only be the start of how we address the political aspects of the English question (a necessary but not sufficient condition of addressing the social questions).
If you take the redistribution of power as your starting point, you develop an agenda that goes way beyond the reform of government – important though that is. If cities were in charge of shaping welfare to work policy for the young unemployed, you would see local coalitions of public, private and voluntary sectors coming together to address what is now seen as a national crisis. As Graeme Cooke has argued in an IPPR pamphlet, since DWP housing benefit policy drives housing expenditure, it is small wonder we don’t have a successful housing policy. If parents cannot turn to a local schools commissioner when they feel there is no choice of school for their child, then equity and efficiency are breached. If you recognise that the future sustainability of the health service depends on its integration with social care, then the route to better service and more efficient working by both the health service and local authorities comes into view.
Any future Labour government is going to have to do different with less if it is to tackle the inequities and insecurities that affect modern Britain. The reality of austerity needs to be our spur to radicalism not to reaction. A good test for policy is whether it puts the power of people alongside the specialism and innovation of professionals and the leadership of government. One of my favourite examples is personalised budgets for disabled people. It is radical in the best sense of the word. That really is our kind of politics.
I am writing this on the train from Newcastle to London, on the way to the interment of Philip’s ashes. I think he would have been energised but also challenged by this agenda. The old certainties of the return from political oblivion in the 1990s were not an answer for all time. They need to be renewed.
Philip was concerned that as the world became more open and connected – more democratic – conventional politics was losing its followers. He called this the ‘empty stadium’ problem. He was right.
This is a remarkable era of democratisation in economic and political (and personal) relationships. Power is shifting from organisations, governments and businesses, to individuals better educated, better informed, better connected and better empowered than ever before. I call this the ‘civilian surge’.
Yet it makes representative democracy feel frustrating and clunky at best and useless and corrupt worst. Differential turnouts – in Britain, over 75 per cent for the middle and upper class, just over 55 per cent for those at the bottom – are only one aspect of the how political disaffection affects most those who can afford it least.
This means the political model for Labour – its coalition, its way of operating – needs to be comprehensively rethought. Society is too fragmented and politics too dynamic for the model of centralised government ‘delivery’ to a passive population to have real traction on the inequalities and insecurities that people face. But so too is machine politics utterly inadequate to the electoral and policy challenges we face.
If you think about our recent history, this point becomes obvious. Our problems in the last Parliament were not that we were too far ahead of the electorate when it came to economic and political reform, but that we were left behind. We were too late to an active industrial policy, as good times even after the dot com bubble burst in 2000/2001 blinded us to the fact that we did not have a good system. In the end we were perceived to lack clear direction on issues like crime or education. And tactical machine politics seemed to take over. In this way we invited a backlash, and got one.
I think a lot of the reason comes from the failure to reform the party by opening up its structures. We got cut off from the voters after the 2001 election, even though we won in 2005. I made a speech in 2004 saying that a defeat for the Tories in 2005 would change politics for a long time, by defeating a philosophy not just a party. The result was in fact a warning to both parties – that unless they changed they would be in trouble. But that third victory was better understood by the Tories than by us. The Tories heeded the warning; we didn’t. They turned outwards; we turned inwards.
Our kind of politics means seeking out the most dynamic currents in society, and seeking to give them a rocket boost. It means identifying the grain of change – whoever is in government – and seeking to shape it in the service of progressive values. That requires a party open to and connected with the diverse communities it seeks to serve.
It is a huge sadness that Philip is not here to meet this challenge with us. But our kind of politics – his kind of politics – is above all about being ready to rethink in the face of changing facts. That is a vital legacy in the years ahead.