Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Labour just isn't a serious party


The Tories are up to something. We do not as yet know exactly what that something is. What we do know is that it's inspired by right economic radicalism and that, traditionally, doesn't end well for those caught in the crossfire. If the Tories go for unilateralism in trade then it's curtains for British agriculture and without some regulatory cooperation then our services sectors find they're frozen out of their nearest foreign market. All manner of horrors await and now would be a good time to have an opposition party.

That means Labour has some decisions to make. Is it going to bleat on about Israel and gender pronouns or is it going to participate in real world politics of consequence to British voters? If Labour wants to become a government it has to start taking an interest in things it traditionally isn't interested in.

The thing about Brexit is it means the UK will now be taking on a whole raft of new responsibilities that come with being an independent state. We now have the task of forging our own independent foreign and trade policy and have to build our own regulatory capacity. This is not schools 'n' ospitals and it isn't babies and benefits. This is the stuff of statecraft that requires serious people capable of serious thinking and not reducing issues to cheap talking points.

And you know what else this stuff is? Boring. It's not in the least bit surprising that parliamentary scrutiny of the EU was minimal over the course of our membership and not surprising MPs were only too happy to delegate that difficult business to the EU. The only people bothering to pay attention to the EU in any serious way were the eurosceptics.

But you know who focuses on the boring things? Adults. Competent adults. And that's what we need now more than ever. We have a majority Tory government armed with some crackpot theories founded on obsolete assumptions and no discernible knowledge. It should be easier than ever to wrongfoot this government on details because we have a prime minister who simply doesn't do detail and a cabinet full of Brexiteer yes men whose grasp of the issues is flimsy at best. But the reason they can act with impunity is because Brexit is largely a Tory project that Labourites simply have no interest in.

Ultimately if Labour ever wants to be in government it has to show that it is competent in opposition - and to do so they will have to do some serious opposing by way of exposing the agenda and the ineptitude of the Tories and by having some viable alternative proposals. This is why any rejoining effort is a cop out. Arguing to put things back how they were (as impossible as that is) ignores the very real shift in the political dynamic here in the UK and in the EU. We have chosen a different path and now we set about defining it. The question for Labour is whether it wants a role in defining that future.

In respect of that, it's no good having focus groups to find out what voters want. That's just brand marketing. In this game it is for parties to set out their vision and persuade voters they should want it. Given the omnishambles the Tories are sure to deliver, Labour could inherit power just by way of showing they are a viable alternative.

That, though, is no easy feat for Labour. The raw material just isn't there. To have a command of these issues requires a glimmer of intellect and a sense of intellectual curiosity. But of the leadership contenders declared thus far you wonder how they even manage to dress themselves. You didn't have to like Tony Blair to at least recognise him as a serious politician but from this starting point I start to wonder if Labour can ever revive its status as a party of government.

If anything, the post-mortem of this election should be asking not why it did so badly, but how on earth it managed to do so well. No doubt the Brexit Party saved a few Labour deadbeats from the guillotine and the promise of a second referendum prevented the exodus to the Lib Dems, but with the question of our exit from the EU now settled, what can save it from oblivion now? Would it be better to just put it out of its misery?

That, though, is for Labour to decide. I only care insofar as I don't want an unopposed government. If Labour wants to survive it has to at least start from a position of sharing certain basic values with the wider public. They can make the case for liberal immigration and win the argument but not by assuming those who want managed immigration are in some way xenophobic. You can't represent the working class when ultimately you think working class values are backward and uncouth. You can't claim to stand up for British workers while siding with the EU in any negotiations.

Tony Blair understood that to take power you needed a vision but first to prove yourself in opposition. He looked like a prime minister long before he took power and in the run up to 1997 we all knew he would win. It was a combination of self assuredness and ruthless competence. It doesn't look like this iteration of Labour is capable of either. They're not interested in governing or opposing so for the time being, it looks like we're on our own.

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