A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sorry will not save us

My friend Jessica Asato of Progress has an interesting post on Labourlist saying that Labour should apologise for a range of policy mistakes (http://www.labourlist.org/why-labour-should-apologise-jessica-asato) and that this might help us win the coming General Election.

I beg to differ.

As regular readers will know, I like to look for excuses to quote Morrissey lyrics, so here goes:

"Sorry Doesn't Help
Sorries pour out of you
All wide-eyed simple smiles
certain to see you through
like a QC full of fake humility
you say:"Oh, please forgive..."
you say:"Oh, live and let live..."
but sorry doesn't help us
and sorry will not save us"

So why won't sorry save Labour?

1) We won't be able to agree on what to say sorry for. Jess picks three issues: over kow-towing to finance, Iraq and lack of constitutional reform. I kind of agree with her about the first, if she means that we didn't prioritise regrowing Britain's manufacturing base, but expecting a PM who was Chancellor for ten years to apologise for policies that gave us ten years of economic growth is not a starter, and whilst I accept Labour should have regulated the City more tightly I'm not going to sign up to anything that implies culpability for the current financial crisis, which was caused by sub-prime mortgage lending in America and nothing to do with UK policies. On the second, there are still a great many of us who think Iraq was the right thing to do and that nit-picking about the decision-making process or conflicting legal advice is the last resort of people who have lost a moral argument. On the third, I'm a great enthusiast for proportional representation, devolution to regions and to councils, and a wholly elected House of Lords. But me and Jess are in a minority on this - most Labour MPs and most of our Cabinet are constitutional conservatives. So trying to choose things to apologise for would split the Party.

2) Voters want positive reasons to vote for a Party, not a public reminder of things they disagreed with in the past. We have enough positive things to say about our record and about our vision. We need to get the narrative of the election focused on those, not stuck in the divisions of the past.

3) The issues Jess picked are not actually that resonant with most voters. We won in 2005 when Iraq was a far more resonant issue, despite losing a large lump of Muslim, student and urban liberal votes to the Lib Dems. Now Iraq is ancient history for most voters, and the groups who went AWOL in 2005 are mainly back on board but we've lost a whole bunch of other voters for whom the economy is the main issue. Constitutional reform is of great interest to people like me and Jess who live in London N post codes but of virtually no interest to either our core vote or the swing voters who decide elections.

4) I'm a great advocate of saying "sorry" in politics if you are an individual politician who has made a mistake or changed your judgement on an issue. But for an entire Party to issue a collective mea culpa for judgements that were collectively arrived at after extensive debate is basically to say to the electorate "we're so useless even we can't defend our record. Please kick us even harder on polling day. And you can never trust our judgement again because we can't even trust ourselves to get the big issues right."

5) It's fine for individual MPs and PPCs to distance themselves from unpopular party decisions if they had the moral courage to rebel in the first place. I have no problem with John Denham, who resigned as a minister over Iraq, saying "told you so" or asking his Southampton electors to take his personal stance into consideration. In 2005 I ran as a PPC explicitly condemning two of the three most contentious Labour flagship policies: top-up tuition fees and foundation hospitals. But the party as a whole backing a line, then discovering post hoc it was unpopular or flawed and applying a retrospective u-turn isn't likely to make voters sympathetic - they'll just think we are two-faced and go whichever way the wind blows.

6) The James Crabtree piece that Jess cites claims Cameron has apologised for the past mistakes of the Tories. In fact he hasn't. He's changed the Tory position on some iconic issues but the fundamentals of their economic approach are those of hardline Thatcherism and he has not said anything to indicate contrition for the record of the Thatcher and Major governments.

7) Why focus on one or two things the public didn't like at the expense of the 98% of our record that has been great? There are enough people outside the Labour Party and on our daft wing (Compass et al) highlighting perceived Labour failures without party moderates joining in. We should adopt the slogan (and attitude) of the Swedish Social Democrats which saw them repeatedly returned to power: "Proud but not satisfied".

If we are going to win this year it will be because we, Labour's "true believers", do what our Australian counterparts did to win a fourth term against the odds in 1993, and what Harry Truman did to win a fifth term for the Democrats in 1948: keep our heads high, keep fighting, don't apologise for anything, don't accept the right's narrative about our record, and stick a banner in the ground for our people to rally round.

If we lose then we can either spend four years navel-gazing and debating "where did it all go wrong", which is a strategy guaranteed to split the party and lead us to adopt electorally unpopular policies to make ourselves feel better; or we can establish a narrative that Labour's time in power was great for the party, great for the country, and the sooner we get these Tories kicked out and carry on where we left off, the better.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a lot I agree with in the above, though it sometimes reads as rather doctrinaire and inflexible.

I am not against politicians admitting they make mistakes and while I agree with you on Iraq the issue of whether or not mistakes were made in regulation of financial services is hardly in dispute: and I think it is possible to say we made mistakes here without it sounding weak or giving ground to the Tories.

Your comment about Keating - that we need to follow his example - is correct. But we have to do that to the max - no half measures. sadly time is running out on that score and the party would rather go as sheep to the slaughter than do the hard things needed to give it a chance.

3:33 pm, December 20, 2009

Blogger Silent Hunter said...

My God Luke!

You really are deluded if you think that Labour have nothing to apologise for.

How about all the SLEAZE & CORRUPTION?

Ring any bells with you?

3:35 pm, December 20, 2009

Blogger Left Lib said...

Whilst it is true that the recession is largely made in the US, the Labour government are also responsible for adhering to the same "light touch" regulation that caused a boom built on unsustainable debt.
Other countries in Europe did not make the same mistake to the same extent, and whilst they experienced less growth as a result, they are now coming out of the recession quicker than the UK is.
So Labour should be blamed for the recession.

4:54 pm, December 20, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

LeftLib, the recession was deeper in Germany. How does that fit with your analysis? Could it be you are talking crap? Imagine that from a Liberal.

5:15 pm, December 20, 2009

Anonymous Julian Ware-Lane said...

Good post that I agree with in principle (although unlike Luke I thought the Iraq War was a mistake). I think we have many reasons to be proud of the last dozen years and we do not do enough to celebrate and advertise these.

I think Jessica would do to well to re-read that list of 50 achievements of this Labour government.

5:43 pm, December 20, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The model for the securitisation of sub-prime mortgages was pioneered and marketed in the UK, a financial initiative which that Klutz you call leader celebrated as something approaching genius, not least because he was pissing up the wall the turn to be had on any transaction.

It is a move which we now know has bankrupted the country.

Sorry wasn't a viable defence at Nurembourg. And extolling your achievements is going to prove equally as useless.

The game's up. Pity that you can't be taken out and summarily shot.

5:49 pm, December 20, 2009

Anonymous Peter Doyle said...

I think by and large you must be right Luke.

Genuine contrition is always welcome and it is the best starting point to rebuilding relationships. But to mean anything it has to be personal and heartfelt. That's why corporate or collective apologies rarely strike a chord with the public and at worse appear to be number one on a list of crisis PR actions to be ticked off.

In a sense, Jessica Assato has identified the fundamental flaw in her argument by juxtaposing the apology with winning the General Election. Even if it were possible or desirable to agree a list of decisions which now require an apology a cynical public will interpret a show of contrition as desperate, politically motivated and untrue. As the man from Kerry said to the traveller looking for directions: "well I wouldn't start from here..."

I would argue that there is a fundamental underlying problem that at some point politicians will have to address for the future health of our democracy. The problem lies in the rather immature relationship between representational democracy and the electorate. As an electorate we're susceptible to politicians accentuating the positive, we place a premium on strong, certain leadership, we value optimisim and the man with the plan. Rather like Mrs Thatcher, we like people who bring us solutions, not problems. But not every problem is easily solved, sometimes the solutions will be unpopular especially if we the electorate are part of the problem -- say, for example, behaviour which exacerbates climate change.

And, of course, sometimes what seems like it might be a solution turns out to be a mistake. That is inevitable and there is nothing on God's green Earth to say that political parties, politicians, advisors or civil servants are immune from that. But even so politicians, their parties, the media and we, the electorate are all complicit to a greater or lesser degree in maintaining this illusion...until it goes wrong, then we start searching for the next guy with the answers and the corrosive process begins again.

The answer to the issue Jessica Assato highlights is simply a more honest dialogue between us and our elected representatives. If we think we're electing infallible saints then we're going to be sadly disappointed again and again. Our politicians need to avoid taking on God's mantle. Really. No one should seriously believe one party let alone one individual politician has all the answers so why on Earth perpetuate that myth?

It's about time that we, the electorate, took some responsiblity for this process. After all we're the people who cast the votes or worse sit on our hands. We can help change our lives and our communities by getting more involved and, in so doing, help our elected representatives make better decisions and effect lasting change.

One way for politicians to help is to start saying occasionally to the electorate "Hey, you know what, we got that one wrong" or "We think we have an answer, you won't like it, but its got to be done".

Sorry won't do it, but honesty will.

6:06 pm, December 20, 2009

Blogger DeeDee99 said...

Sorry won't do you any good at all. A large proportion of the electorate is determined to punish Labour for the past 12 years .. all those middle class people who thought they were electing a slightly left of centre party which would run the economy sensibly and not bump up taxes have had enough.

98% of what Labour has done hasn't been great.

50% of it has been catastrophic; 30% has been bad; 10% was a complete waste of time and a further 10% was OK. You failed. Don't bother apologising - we're not listening anymore.

6:08 pm, December 20, 2009

Blogger DeeDee99 said...

Perhaps you could try apologising in advance .... for this 'nice little earner' Labour is planning ...


7:00 pm, December 20, 2009

Blogger Neil80 said...

Your reasons for not saying sorry are sound, unless it's part of a major re-branding it will just be electoral suicide.

Can I pull you up on 2 issues however:

First you invoke the Swedish Social Democrats. Ironically this is what many on the left wish the Labour party of today was more like. Good quality universalist services and a great childcare set up.

Secondly you talk about policies which are electorally popular. Yes, this is a consideration but, please - priority number 1 has to be getting policy to work - the nitty gritty of implimenting and evaluating. We need a vision, what do we want society to be like and we need to be sure that policy then does the job we want.

Labour can win the election with the right strategy, not much time but it needs to focus on the Tories weakpoints and labours strongpoints.

7:12 pm, December 20, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

British Airways: Defend the right to strike

On the decision of one judge and at the behest of British Airways bosses, the workers of Britain and their trade unions have been told that the democratic right to strike has been cancelled.
This "disgraceful legal judgment" as the union Unite correctly called it, makes voting in any union ballot almost irrelevant if it does not suit the wishes of the bosses and their friends in the judiciary. Any strike can be declared 'illegal'.
Every commentator has admitted that the so-called ballot irregularities would not have made a blind bit of difference to the outcome of the strike ballot. Unless the whole trade union movement faces up to what is required then the unions face the danger of being put back in legal terms to the infamous Taff Vale judgment of 1906 which made unions liable for commercial damages following the effect of any strikes they organised.
This is a 'dictatorship of the bosses' that must be fought against. If Unite does not defy the law on this occasion but instead simply organises a re-ballot then who can say that the bosses won't find other 'irregularities' in the new ballot? The BA bosses wanted this judgment not only to stop the strike action but also to determine that it won't happen when it is most inconvenient to them, ie at Christmas time.
Unite should be prepared to defy the law by going ahead with the action, and by calling on all their members in BA to come out on strike for a least a day in a massive demo at Heathrow against the bosses' law. If the courts then come for the union's funds

11:14 pm, December 20, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unite should be prepared to defy the law by going ahead with the action, and by calling on all their members in BA to come out on strike for a least a day in a massive demo at Heathrow against the bosses' law. If the courts then come for the union's funds then the whole of the trade union movement should come to Unite's aid in defence of democratic rights and the trade unions.
The bosses have, by this judgement, declared war on the whole trade union movement, so it is incumbent on the TUC to lead the struggle in defence of workers' democratic rights and organise a national demonstration as soon as possible around the slogan of defending the right to strike. This show of strength could be the first step in preparing, if necessary, for a one day general strike of the entire trade union movement.
As a minimum reaction to this whole disgraceful process, Unite should immediately stop paying any more money to the Labour Party, as the Labour government continues to support the anti-union laws.
The court judgment came a day after bosses of the Scottish airline Flyglobespan threw 800 workers on the stones as their company collapsed. Seeing the court injunction obtained by BA, there will be massive anger from workers across Britain that their votes can count for nothing and the vote of one judge can overturn the votes of thousands of cabin crew.

11:18 pm, December 20, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, well, of course, this is just the sort blinkered philistine pig ignorance I've come to expect from you non-creative garbage. You sit there on your loathsome, spotty behinds squeezing blackheads, not caring a tinker's cuss about the struggling artist. (shouting) You excrement! You lousy hypocritical whining toadies with your lousy colour TV sets and your Tony Jacklin golf clubs and your bleeding masonic handshakes! You wouldn't let me join, would you, you blackballing bastards. Well I wouldn't become a freemason now if you went down on your lousy, stinking, purulent knees and begged me.

1:13 am, December 21, 2009

Anonymous Clapton Ali said...

Luke writes: "2) Voters want positive reasons to vote for a Party ... "

What happened to the theory that opposition parties don't win elections, it is governments that lose them?

As for saying sorry, personally I would like to see the current administration apologise for its failure to effectively tackle poverty and for contributing towards an increase in social division. Under this Labour Government the rich have got richer (thanks to a buoyant economy) and the poor have got poorer (thanks to greater taxation, higher prices and relatively lower benefits).

An apology and a promise to try better next time might provide an incentive to vote Labour.

Luke's arrogant and robotic mantra that Labour should remain full of "pride" and claim a 98 per cent success rate will irritate and goad many voters to look elsewhere, anywhere, but NOT to Labour.

7:13 am, December 21, 2009

Blogger Billy Blofeld said...

"I'm not going to sign up to anything that implies culpability for the current financial crisis, which was caused by sub-prime mortgage lending in America and nothing to do with UK policies."

Now that was funny.

Whilst Gordon isn't wholly to blame, he does have a lot of blood on his hands.

Gordon should be in court for financial and economic negligence.

7:37 am, December 21, 2009

Blogger Newmania said...

I'm not going to sign up to anything that implies culpability for the current financial crisis, which was caused by sub-prime mortgage lending in America and nothing to do with UK policies.

What balls it was caused by a credit bubble ,well several really ,and its effects here are far worse because we overspent. The terrifying state of the Nations purse is Brown`s faul.

Interesting that a Labour member wants a system that would make a Labour government impossible .

10:28 am, December 21, 2009

Anonymous Stan Rosenthal said...

Spot on, Luke. Mea culpa is simply a way of conceding ground to the enemy. The voters don't give you credit for it.

Rather they take the attitude that if you got it wrong before why should we trust you again - unless someone promises to put more cash in their pockets, of course.

5:13 pm, December 21, 2009

Blogger Anon E Mouse said...

Stan Rosenthal - "The enemy"?

I think you may be taking politics too seriously dude!

Lighten up...

Luke - How about apologising in advance for the NI (tax) hike in April next year...

8:27 am, December 22, 2009

Anonymous Jules said...

I'm sorry, but did you say "great for the country" in that last paragraph. I know that you're a loyal Labour supporter, but have you seen how much debt the country has been left with, and do you know how long it's going to take to pay off??

2:46 pm, December 22, 2009

Anonymous Clapton Ali said...

... and maybe apologise for above inflation rise in postage stamps. Of course the increase won't affect MPs (who get free postage) and most white collar workers, who get to use their mailing facilities in their offices. It will mainly affect children, elderly people, the unemployed and workless disabled people.

No loss there then, eh Luke?

2:50 pm, December 22, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your mate Morrissey also said he no longer recognised this country due to the uncontrolled mass immigration promoted by New Labour.
Saying sorry to all those builders,plumbers,electricians et al that have seen their standard of living slashed due to mass immigration wouldn't go amiss.

amgry voter

12:23 pm, December 26, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

'We won't be able to agree on what to say sorry for'

Just say sorry for the awful mess of the past 12 years?

angry voter

12:08 am, December 27, 2009


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