Friday, 18 May 2012

In Defence of New Labour, Electoralism and Focus Groups

One of the more encouraging initiatives in modernising the ALP party organisation is Labor Voice, the new Centre Left Journal "of ideas and discussion". As you'll see from the piece below that I contributed to Volume 2 of Voice, I've long thought that the Labor Right hasn't publicly argued the principled case for electoralism as the core strategy of the progressive movement. In this regard, a journal that encourages those on the right of the ALP to publicly articulate what they stand for and the principles under-pinning this world view has the potential to add a lot to the quality of the policy and political discourse within Labor. 

I was particularly pleased to be able to contribute an article that pays homage to one of the great champions of centre-left politics that I had the privilege to know personally, the late Philip Gould. Philip was probably the best advocate of the electoralist mission of Labour politics and I've long through that his work deserves to be more broadly read and understood in Australia. The parallels between Gould's work with the British Labour Party of the 1980s and the political situation currently confronting the ALP are difficult to miss....

The Reckoning of a Hollowman -  Labor Voice Vol 2. 2012

A Hollow Man died in London last year.  Philip Gould, the Labour Party pollster and key architect of Tony Blair's "New Labour", was told in September 2011 that he would die of oesophageal cancer within three months. With morbid accuracy, he died in the first week of November.

It is a strange burden to be forced to examine one’s mortality this way.  The inevitability of the outcome removes the incentive for self-delusion; the half-true self-justifications that we cling to in order to live with ourselves. There is little choice but to honestly assess the value of one's life.
In response to his prognosis, Gould took stock. As an inveterate political communicator, he did so publicly. 

He told The Guardian:  
“The moment you enter the death phase it is a different place. It's more intense, more extraordinary, much more powerful…. When I thought maybe I've just got a few weeks, I thought ‘God this is what they mean by the reckoning. I've got to sort all this stuff out in days. Is it possible to sort out all those things in your past that you'd prefer not to have done’?"
It is fashionable to view political professionals, particularly those working for the major political parties, as soulless beings engaged in inherently immoral work. Those on the left are the subject of particular derision and are generally assumed to be cravenly and routinely sublimating what political beliefs they do hold in a meaningless and never ending pursuit of government. Working Dog Productions perfectly synthesised this attitude when it named its satire of modern Australian politics, “The Hollow Men” after T.S. Elliot’s despairing lament for the lost souls of Europe’s inter-war years.

Gould was a particular target for this kind of moral disapproval. While Blair’s Press Secretary, Alastair Campbell was a more prominent hate figure amongst the media for his supposed role in installing ‘spin’ at the heart of the democratic discourse, Gould was accused of a far greater sin than mere rough political practice. Gould’s purported sin was of leading the entire Labour Party into a collective act of apostasy against progressive ideology. As the man who pioneered the regular use of polling and focus groups by the Labour Party, for many in the UK progressive movement he was considered the patient zero of The Hollow Man disease.  So, faced with the searing honestly of self-reflection in the face of inescapable death, what was the product of Gould’s reckoning?

Gould did not repent and seek forgiveness of those who long accused him of selling out the party and its ideology. Gould was not a death bed convert to the righteousness of the causes of the hard left ideologues who he fought in the name of Labour ‘modernisation’ throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Instead, Gould spent last months and weeks of his life revising and expanding his New Labour history and campaigning manifesto, “The Unfinished Revolution”. In doing so, he produced what is probably the greatest modern articulation of the philosophical case for the pursuit of the progressive cause through the democratic process. It is a compelling justification of the moral value of a life’s work.

“The Unfinished Revolution” begins with a Labour Party that had turned in on itself and away from the country that it was seeking to govern. The UK was changing. Throughout the 70s and 80s, the ‘working class’ upon whose votes the Labour Governments of Attlee and Wilson were founded was shrinking in absolute  terms and in its place, an expanded middle class was emerging. This new middle class was not hostile to the goals of the progressive cause. Indeed, their basic ambition of seeking a better life for themselves and their children than that experienced by their parents is at the core of the progressive vision. The new middle class was however less ideological than the working class it was superseding and had aspirations that were greater than the more immediate, traditional Labour policy objectives; it was for this emerging demographic that the term ‘aspirational class’ was first used. Gould was born of this aspirational class and grew up watching the Labour party first abandon it, and then become actively hostile to its hopes and interests. With the shrinking electoral clout of the working class, he understood from early in his career that this was a recipe for electoral isolation.

The nadir of Gould’s career came in the wake of Labour’s infamous 1983 election loss under Michael Foot. Labour had gone into the election with a 700 page manifesto promising unilateral nuclear disarmament, immediate withdrawal from the European Common Market, the nationalisation of the 25 largest companies in the UK and across the board increases in taxation – in some instances pushing marginal rates to 93%. Critics derided it as ‘the longest suicide note in history’ and as a result, Labour’s (already depleted) vote fell by almost 10% to 27.6%. Labour avoided being overtaken by the SDP-Liberal Alliance as the major party of the left in the UK by only 2 percentage points.

The result galvanised Gould’s approach to the progressive cause. He observed:
“Labour (in the 1980s) had not merely stopped listening or lost touch: it had declared political war on the values, instincts and ethics of the great majority of decent, hard-working voters. Where were the policies for my old school-friends – now with families and homes of their own – in a manifesto advocating increased taxes, immediate withdrawal from the EEC, unilateral disarmament, a massive extension of public ownership and exchange and import controls?”
Gould viewed this electoral surrender as a moral failing on the part of the Labour party. He believed that Labor’s ideological self-obsession and electoral self-banishment were a betrayal of the very people the party was setting out to protect:
“The party I loved instinctively was to betray the (middle classes), its natural supporters: ordinary people with suburban dreams who worked hard to improve their homes and their lives; to get gradually better cars, washing machines and televisions; to go on holiday in Spain rather than Bournemouth. These people wanted sensible, moderate policies which conformed to their understanding and their daily lives. Labour became a party enslaved by dogma: .. . It abandoned the centre ground of British politics and camped out on the margins, forlorn and useless, offering a miasma of extremism, dogmatism, intolerance and wilful elitism which put the hopes and dreams of ordinary people last.
I felt humiliated by these (election) defeats, but it wasn’t me that was hurt: it was the millions of ordinary working people who deserved a better life, but who were repeatedly let down by progressive parties which campaigned poorly and did not seem to think that it mattered.”
This was the context for Gould’s championing of focus groups.  He wanted Labour to listen to the people and hear how they, and the UK more generally, had changed since the 1950s. Gould insisted that Labour must focus its attentions first on the voting public, not on its own Talmudic ideological debates. For him, the fount of political wisdom was not to be found in the dogma of ideology, but in the minds of the people. Vox populi, vox dei; the voice of the people is the voice of God.

From this perspective, focus groups were not a shameful thing to be furtively held in the darkened backrooms of a political party, they were the equivalent of opening the windows of a shut in Labour party and letting the sun shine in on the atrophied strategic thinking of those cloistered inside.

Gould didn’t fetish-ise focus groups and he was well aware of their quantitative limitations. He would have thought the Australian mythos of ‘focus group driven politics’ laughably reductive. For him, the strength of focus groups wasn’t that they told you ‘what voters wanted to hear’, rather that they revealed the complexity of public opinion:
“Although their scientific validity is less than that of an opinion poll, they are in a sense truer because you can talk to people as they really are, not as abstractions captured in a single moment. You gain access to real people with ideas and opinions that connect both to the past and to the future, who do not care much or at all about politics, and who think at one and the same time at many different levels. The complexity of public opinion reflects the complexity of politics; people have paradoxical views and opinions that cannot be reduced to easy choices or one-dimensional solutions.. a focus group is a place where you can dig beneath the surface and feel the forces gathering below.”
Gould also recognised that there were dangers associated with the pendulum swinging too far away from principle and towards populist driven policy making. However his fundamental point was that there is nothing morally impure about listening to the electorate, rather, in a democractic system of Government it was a moral imperative. Gould explained the balancing act thus:
“Focus groups do not of necessity involve dilution of principle or compromise – to say that implies that the voters are fools, which they are not. They want politicians who are tough, honest and courageous, and who govern with principle… But they also want to be heard. Of course, governing with principle and yet in a continuous dialogue with the voters is complicated. But modern politics is complicated. The electorate is more demanding and is right to be so. It is up to us to meet the new challenge.”
This was Gould’s ultimate goal, to give Labour the tools it needed to respond to this challenge and to become an outward looking vehicle for achieving democratic progressive change. History shows that he succeeded beyond his wildest political fantasies.  Between 1983 and 1997, when the Blair Government was triumphantly elected, Labour increased its net Parliamentary representation by 323 seats, turning a 144 seat loss into a 179 seat majority. The vast bulk of this increase in support came from the middle classes that it had been Gould’s mission to re-engage and that sustained more than a decade of Labour Government.
The importance of building the foundations for long-term government was Gould’s second great passion and the source of the title of his book. Gould understood, as the ideological zealots to his left did not, that achieving lasting change in a modern democracy requires time to build support not just in the progressive movement, but also in the broader community. Gould saw Labour’s task as not just winning elections, but ‘winning centuries’:
“This is the test by which the New Labour government should be judged. .. If a progressive coalition can govern Britain for a majority of the time then more poverty will be removed and more real change implemented than could ever be achieved by short, sharp, occasional spasms of radicalism. Lasting change can only happen over time, as part of a progressive project for government. .. We need a new long-term radicalism, to ensure that progressive instincts become rooted in the institutions of the nation, just as conservative instincts were in the past.”
A decade of New Labour government shows the fruits of Gould’s approach. Between 1997 and 2008, Labour changed the terms of the political debate in the United Kingdom. The political centre shifted decisively to the Left. On issues like the NHS, the minimum wage, anti-poverty programs, climate change policy and gay rights, the Tories were forced to adopt positions that a decade before would have been unimaginable. No Tory leader would risk entering an election on a platform of dismantling the NHS, as John Major did in 1997. In a non-trivial sense, the forced evolution of the Tories from the party of Margaret Thatcher to the party of David Cameron was one of the most enduring achievements of New Labour. It was New Labour’s patient management of reform and its enduring electoral success that created a political environment in which a subsequent Tory government was prevented from rolling back the bulk of the Labour policy agenda.

It was while observing these early years of the Cameron Government that Gould sat down to record the reckoning of his political career. Reading the expanded sections of “The Unfinished Revolution”, Gould’s anxiety that the lessons of Labour’s period in opposition in the 1980s and 90s are not forgotten as the party begins its first spell in opposition in the 21st century. Gould, the great political listener, is asking for the MPs and advisors who are currently in the position that he was in 20 years ago to listen to his life’s political experience:
"I have written this analysis now because I believe I have a responsibility to do so, and because this is a part of the story not yet told. It was written initially for the next generation of Labour (and not so Labour) supporters who grew up with New Labour but who may not feel they fully understand it, and may perhaps have lost faith in it. It is, I suppose, a letter from my generation to theirs. I want people to know what has been achieved, and what can be achieved again. The revolution is never finished."
The product of Gould’s life reckoning deserves to be widely read and reflected on by those on the centre left in Australia. All too frequently, those who locate themselves on the right wing of the Labor Party, being biased towards practical thought rather than ideological introspection to begin with, abandon the debate over the philosophical meaning of the progressive movement to those on our left. This failure to articulate what we really stand for is what leaves us open to the "Hollowman" charge. “The Unfinished Revolution” rebuts this charge by articulating what we all instinctively understand: that clinging to ideology both blinds us to the realities of policy making in an ever changing world and betrays the political mission of the progressive cause. More than this though, Gould makes it clear that despite the derision and moral judgement that is frequently heaped upon us, the centre left’s approach policy and politics is not a function of our moral failings, but of our moral maturity. While his death it a tragic loss for the progressive movement the world over, it is satisfying to think that he was able to contemplate the end of his life confident in the contribution he made to the cause and knowing that he has left a rich legacy of political insight for the generations who follow him.

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