Two days before the 1983 election, and resigned to the inevitable, Neil Kinnock sought the only solace available to losers.
Labour was about to be buried in a Conservative landslide but at least it was in the right. It had stuck to its principles, come what may.
In a speech in Bridgend, he intoned: “If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary; I warn you not to be young; I warn you not to fall ill; and I warn you not to grow old.”
Progressives will have one of two takes on these words. Either you cherish them as a comfort during the brittle winter of Thatcherism or you lament that the poetry of second place is moving but ultimately futile. Kinnock was after all one of the men who had clung to the very leftist dogma which had made Labour unelectable. His words were fine but they did not keep a single pit open, a single worker off the dole, or a single community from social collapse.
The temptation to maudlin piety dogs the Labour Party to this day and was on display in the fractured and fractious response to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. Welfare reform isn’t just about politics, it’s about people, but it’s also about politics and how people think about politics.
The Conservative legislation, which will see a further £12bn in cuts to the social safety net, faced its second reading in Parliament on Monday night. Labour offered a reasoned amendment designed to halt the Bill, which was handily defeated, then whipped its MPs to abstain on the vote. However, 48 Labour MPs defied the whip and voted against the Bill.
This represents a serious reversal for acting leader Harriet Harman and her efforts to force her colleagues to confront the causes of their defeat in May’s general election. Her strategy seems to have been that Labour avoid being painted as “the party of welfare” by voting against the Bill. Instead, it would attack the proposals at committee stage and roll out compelling case studies to put a human face on the cuts. By doing so, public and civic society opinion could be leveraged to force the government to drop the harshest parts of the legislation.
Hardly inspiring stuff but the Tories did win the election. They have a majority and unless enough of their MPs rebel and all the opposition parties agree, they will get what they want more often than not. That’s democracy for you.
Forty-eight MPs opted for the Kinnock approach. They, like many Labour supporters, are hurting at the thought of their party sitting on its hands while the poor come under fire. Labour ought to take a moral stand on the welfare bill. It wouldn’t change anything but itfeels like the right thing to do. Forcing the government to concede parts of its flagship legislation would mark a victory but it doesn’t feel good. This is virtue politics run amok.
By breaking ranks, the rebels have made it all the more difficult to weaken the Bill at committee stage. When there’s a choice between writing a “Labour civil war” story and writing a “social impact of public policy” story, lobby correspondents will always plump for a good internal rammy. Labour needs to understand that as well as right and wrong there is also winning and losing. Ethical principles are important but politics is not a theology seminar; the object is to beat your opponents, not get into Heaven before them.
This is a microcosm of the leadership election. Activists favour candidates who appeal to their moral vanity but shun the one contender who wants to take morality out of it. The Tories and those who voted for them are not wicked, Liz Kendall says. They simply think differently. Labour must win them over by a combination of changing their minds and meeting them half way.
The Conservatives will be watching all this with quiet glee, knowing better than to interrupt an opponent in the middle of a mistake. The SNP on the other hand are crowing. They voted against the Bill and would have done so even if it included sacks of gold and free pogo sticks for every child of woman born. Their aim is to drive a further wedge between Scotland and England and every vote is another opportunity to stoke resentment.
The Nationalists, social democrats at time of writing, demand to know what has happened to Labour’s moral compass. The SNP knows something about this. You don’t abstain on cuts. You redirect them to college places and council services used by the poor. The SNP takes both sides of the Kinnock dilemma, talking syrupy socialism at Westminster while governing from the low-tax, pro-business centre at Holyrood.
When Labour comes down from its high horse, it might care to explain why it keeps being outflanked on the left by a party that makes New Labour look like Bolivarian revolutionaries. Fair enough, the Nationalists have some strategic nous and have spent eight years toying with Scottish Labour like a kitten with a ball of string.
But this is a proper, grown-up, UK political party we’re talking about here. The Labour Party. The people who hounded John Major into his political grave, put the Tories out of commission for 13 years, and convinced Middle England to vote for massive wealth redistribution. How is it possible that this party finds itself outwitted by a parliamentary group that boasts as its elder statesmen Angus MacNeil and Pete Wishart?
Labour is pinned down on either side by the forces of nationalism. The SNP says only it has Scotland’s values at heart while the Tories seek to position themselves as the guardians of English fair play and common sense. Tilt north and left and Labour pushes away Middle England, edge south and centre and it alienates Scotland. This will only become more apparent as this Parliament progresses and with it will come the realisation that Labour’s position is even more perilous than many appreciate right now. The Labour Party is not simply fighting to get back into power, it is fighting for its life.
Nationalists are the deadliest enemy in politics. They are canny, slippery, and far-sighted. The ends not only justify the means, they are all that ultimately matter. Nationalists have no need of reason for they have a cause; unhelpful facts aren’t really facts at all because they frustrate the cause. “Power hunger tempered by self-deception” can be overcome but Labour has to get smart – and fast.
We said at the outset that welfare is about people and it is. George Osborne’s cuts to tax credits are designed not simply to reduce the welfare bill or encourage more people into work. They are a calculation that Labour can be baited into opposing welfare cuts and thus look spendthrift and out of step with public opinion. The working poor will pay the price of his gamesmanship.
Welfare reform is an important, even noble, task. The welfare state is a safety net, not an alternative lifestyle, and it should strive to give all those who are capable the dignity of work and self-sufficiency. But there is prudence and then there is mean-spirited cynicism and a Chancellor who came to office promising to “share the proceeds of growth” is now busily assigning misery for political gain.
I’m reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s riposte to Denis Healey during a spiky exchange in the Commons: “Some Chancellors are macroeconomic. Other Chancellors are fiscal. This one is just plain cheap.”
Originally published on STV News.