The true question of both recent leadership elections has been “Do we pander to populism in order to seek power and repair the damage, or do we work in opposition to change what is popular so that we can be elected to repair the damage?” The irony is the latter winning argument is a populism of its own. But, now that this decision has been made and as Labour (hopefully) now turns its eyes outward to its true enemy (the Tory Party and Tory Policy), it’s worth reflecting on the hold that enemy has on the electorate. It is difficult to remember that the reason that the Tories are in power is not that Labour did or did not do something, but because a bunch of people voted Conservative.
I think is a real blind spot to the left and that Labour has not been very good at talking about what is wrong with the Tories. As eloquent as all factions within the Labour family are at describing what Labour should be, could be, and is, it has had very little to say about its opponent for a while. Even conceding that Corbyn, in the words of Owen Smith, has managed to “bring Labour back to its radical roots”, the discourse has primarily been about what Labour could be doing better for as long as I’ve been paying attention and, I’d be willing to bet, since 1997.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with having a positive vision. The trouble is, if the electorate don’t trust you for toffee, it means very little. Miliband offered a very clear and comprehensive vision of what Labour would do differently. This was rejected at the ballot because Labour were not trusted both on the economy and with the SNP. And, yet, the plans for future from all parts of the left, including myself, have been about how a new positive vision can be brought about to get people excited and vote Labour. After every defeat, Labour has looked within rather than without. The left is in trauma and, as part of that, we’re absolutely obsessed with ourselves, on how we can recover from the damage the Tories have done us. But, it is time to start blaming the Conservatives.
Now, in an important sense, it’s not true to say Labour doesn’t talk about the bad things the Tories do. But, when it does, it presumes a lot about its audience. Most importantly, it presumes that it is obvious that the effects of Tory policy are caused by Tory policy and that it is commonly understood what the government is, what it is for, and what it can do. I won’t claim I can speak for normal people who don’t obsess about politics like me, but I really don’t think they can point to the difference between successive governments. My suspicion is that, to them, policy and government are less than a mystery, a natural phenomenon that does not actually impact their daily lives. Government is simultaneously seen as a source of poorly implemented bad ideas and contradictorily something with little agency and limited scope.
To take a particular case, lets look at Sports Direct. Everyone who reads anything about what that company has done to its employees will agree it is completely immoral. But, the blame gets misplaced. We can blame the CEO as the adjacent cause, but any drop in working conditions is ultimately and completely a failure of the state. It is the Tory’s fault. Capitalists are a known quantity. Their behaviour is well-catelogued and predictable. If a CEO can get away with exploiting their workforce (i.e. if avoiding getting caught is cheaper than just complying with the law), they will. It is the state’s job to prevent that from happening.
But, the one agency that no one really blames for Sports Direct is the Tories. Technically, the Conservatives have not done anything. They can honestly say that what happened in that company is not their fault, and morally condemn it. This is because their crime is one of omission; they are responsible for their inaction, not action. This is a really tricky point to make to someone who is not well read in politics. If you haven’t really got a good concept of what governments are and what they can do, you are never going to blame the government for a private sector outrage. You wouldn’t even blame the private sector itself, but blame the individual responsible, and then tut when he gets away with it, because that’s how things work [in the free market]. The Tories have privatised blame.
Labour gets into trouble here. If it attacks the Tories for lack of regulation, this is not understood and easily deflected. If it attacks the CEO, it is labelled anti-business. If Labour manages to drag itself through these obstacles, it is then hit with “Why didn’t you do something about it when you were in charge?” This objection says more than it seems. It really means “Politics obviously can’t make the world better, or else you would have done it last time you were in office.” The people may find a Labour leader “well meaning”, “honest” and “good hearted” but all this means is “naive”.
This is real reason that the Tories are in government. Shrinking the state also shrinks the concept of state. As such, it becomes less and less comprehensible would even have within its remit the problems created by the current administration. Brexit will and has already exacerbate this. The naive “client” attitude that common sense has to politicians with vague and empty slogans like “They work for us!” and “Not in my name!” proved itself in that referendum. The referendum humbled and humiliated the state; Her Majesty’s Government just had its arse handed to it by the people it is supposed to be leading. If Corbynism is going to work, if Labour is going to win a general election by challenging this ignorance rather than manipulating it, it needs to go back to basics.