Thursday, 24 January 2013

Political dilemmas: even harder than you may think

One reason this blog fell into disuse in the autumn of 2010 was that I had formerly employed it to pontificate quite a bit about politics. But it’s not been a good last few years for politics... and I’ve lost a bit of fight for the subject (for which, inter alia, I like to blame Ed Miliband.) That said, in the autumn of 2010 I also got onto Twitter, and became accustomed every morning to reading political opinions, long and short, with which I agreed, and found to be more robustly and eloquently expressed than my own. (And I didn't even have to pay for them - talk about a guilty pleasure.)

The stuff I don’t agree with, meanwhile, I find I mostly haven’t the will to tackle. I was a bit nettled last week, though, by this New Statesman piece from Rafael Behr – and not, you understand, solely on account of the gruesome photo that tops it off.

It gets underway well enough, seeming to be a piece on Labour ‘recoiling from the whole spectacle of government on a shoestring’ – a problem on which Hopi Sen has been doing some hard thinking for a while. Behr further ventures that the British public ‘do seem grimly reconciled to the idea that politics, which used to be about favours bestowed from the Exchequer, is now about pain selectively inflicted’ – a debatable point, but one that Janan Ganesh also makes quite a lot.

However this is what Behr’s piece winds round to (with my emphases):

"There is a caricature of Labour’s public-sector debate that pits the frugal, reforming idolators of Tony Blair against spendthrift, reactionary disciples of Brown. The distinction is increasingly meaningless. Orthodox Blairites are a rare and neutered breed and even they accept that Balls, for all that the Tories paint him as Brownism incarnate, is wedded to budget discipline. The real tension is both subtler and more profound. It is between the need to defend Labour’s legacy of investment in public services and the impulse to imagine different ways of effecting social change. It is the dilemma of how to rehabilitate the abstract principle that government can be the citizen’s friend while also attacking the current government as a menace to society. It is the battle between Brown and Blue shades of Labour which remains unresolved, because Ed Miliband is personally steeped in both."

You could nearly imagine Miliband a brooding colossus, astride two great clashing ideas... In fact what Behr describes at the end there is not a ‘dilemma’, not by any definition. A dilemma is a choice between two more or less equally undesirable options: it’s what politics is mostly made out of. But for Labour it is a perfectly pleasant and natural thing – the usual day’s work – to offer itself as the citizen’s good angel, while pointing out that the other lot all have horns on their heads.

I suppose if you accept Ed Ball’s conversion to fiscal toughness, and also feel that his 5-point plan for growth is what the Coalition really should have been doing since 2010, then you could also take a view that Labour has progressed from its recent and rather backward stint in government (and from its nominal leader in that ‘moment’) and is now in ‘profound’ contemplation, even if only about new ways to keep on saying the things it's always liked to say. But if the unfinished Thoughts of Chairman Brown and the pamphlets of Blue Labour are really all that Ed Miliband has to mull over for inspiration then I can't see that this current version of The Party is engaged in any kind of dialectical process at all.

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