“Reassurance Labour” and post-Blair social democracy

Globally, the centre-left is enduring a period of public weariness and dissatisfaction. In Australia, a relatively unpopular government battles on against a red-blooded Opposition Leader, with the spectre of a leadership context lingering unerringly in the background. Between Kevin and Tony, there’s not much free air for Julia to articulate what she is about and why she deserves more time. In the United States, the ramshackle cavalcade of the Republican presidential primaries rolls on. As we collectively chortle at the successive victories of the likes of Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, dividing the centre-right, we also quietly question whether Barack Obama will be able to ride home this November on the same wave of good will and anti-Bush sentiment that served to swell his support in 2008. Across Europe, the political cartography doesn’t lie: in 23 of the 27 EU nations (24 if you include the six party (!) coalition in Belgium), the centre-left does not control the government.

A couple of weeks ago, David Miliband, former foreign minister and the exiled elder brother of Labour Opposition Leader Ed, contributed a rambling “vision” piece on social democracy to the New Statesman. It’s the kind of piece that was self-evidently designed to be high-minded without being too controversial, to try and add something to the debate without undermining his brother, or being so practical as to indulge in any policy specifics. It would have floated by altogether, unremarked and soap bubble-like, if Miliband had not taken the opportunity to take a heavily padded pot-shot at former Deputy Leader Roy Hattersley and his recent piece [PDF] with Kevin Hickson for The Political Quarterly:

He is convinced that there exists an obvious instrument for putting social democracy into practice – the central national state, whose strength has been underestimated, he argues, in a rush of market fundamentalism on both left and right. His fundamental point is this: that Labour in the past 20 years has been scared off the most potent vehicle for the expression of its values, and in the process has come to be seen as ineffective as well as unprincipled.

For some, this will be seductive. It is what I shall call Reassurance Labour. Reassurance about our purpose, our relevance, our position, even our morals. Reassurance Labour feels good. But feeling good is not the same as doing good – and it gets in the way when it stops us rethinking our ideas to meet the challenges of the time. And now is a time for restless rethinking, not reassurance.

“Reassurance Labour”, in short, is just the latest rhetorical salvo in the ongoing war between the hardminded, working-class socialists of the 1970’s and early 1980’s and the so-called “Third Way” Blairism of more recent years. Historically, the centre-left has sought to make its values manifest through the wilful manipulation of the gears and levers of the state, with the national government perceived as being the preeminent mechanism through which this can be achieved. Since then, the world has changed, but how much has it really changed? Miliband clearly feels that any renewed embrace of this top-down approach would be misguided, despite the strong emotional connection that most people on the left have with the proactive welfare states of yesteryear.

The Australian political scene seems to be operating in a slightly different world to the one where this debate is blundering on, in part perhaps because Labor is currently focused less on any grand thematic vision for the future than keeping its head above water in the run up to the next election. Government – particularly when you’re struggling in the polls – will do that to you. Looking back over the last few years, however, one gets the sense that the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments have dipped quite a bit into “Reassurance Labour” economics, pursuing interventionist tax policies on climate change and mining, and betting the farm on the success of the National Broadband Network project. In the current climate of fiscal uncertainty, after all, nothing says political conviction quite like pumping tens of billions of dollars of public money into a nationwide infrastructure project. It’s a bold policy, and it is quite difficult to imagine a UK government of either political stripe dancing down a similar path in the current climate.

I am unsure about whether this implies the Australian bodypolitik is somewhere ahead or somewhere behind the debate going on in the UK, but one thing is certain: nobody can in practical terms define themselves as being simply “pro-state” or “pro-market” anymore. Governments are increasingly being pushed towards the middle ground by market entities and forces with more unhinged pulling power than themselves, and indeed by pockets of the impotent shouty filling the space vacated by mass political parties and organised participatory democracy.

Despite his departure from the scene, we are all still living in what we might one day call the Blair era – named not for any whizz-bang political dynamic dreamt up by Tony Blair and crew, mind, but the prickly, atomised, tabloid-oriented political environment that created and crowned him.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

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