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.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Politics and morality

"The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing" (Harold Wilson, 1961)

"Ours is a moral cause ... I speak of a new moral purpose" (Tony Blair, 1999)

All the commenters seem to be praising my friend Peter Watt's post - http://labour-uncut.co.uk/2010/12/02/6080/ that says we are wrong to cast moral judgements at our opponents.

I'm at severe risk of coming across as up myself but I have to say I disagree. I have met Tories who are pursuing their political beliefs because of a moral framework just as strong as any socialist's guides them. I have also met Tories (and in some cases held down personal friendships with them whilst hating their politics) whose guiding framework has no basis in morality but is purely about financial self-interest and class self-interest and prejudices based on complete ignorance about how the poor live or what a trade union is for. I've met Lib Dems who are guided by high-minded ideals about community representation, and I've met Lib Dems who are just opportunists who fancied the status of being a councillor and saw that party as the best vehicle to it.

I believe we must not dehumanise our opponents and must accept that some of them are making bad choices despite good motives (no one would question for instance that IDS genuinely wants to do something for the poor).

But I don't think we should flinch from making relative moral comparisons about whether the impact of policies and beliefs is good or evil. Policies that make poor people poorer are morally wrong, as are policies that reduce the provision of vital public services. If a fundamentally good person implements them that makes it even more of a tragedy. I don't have any qualms about feeling morally superior to people who are reducing the budget of the council I serve on, which provides services to some of the most deprived communities in London, by £60 million in one year. They ought not to be able to sleep at night.

I get the impression Peter sees the contest between political parties as one between the purveyors of different mixes of essentially value-free policies, and that you pick the one that gives you the best results. Of course, that's partially true, but it's not the whole picture.

Political parties are also vehicles for the promotion of ideologies. Sometimes the ideology they are vehicles for can appear extremely pragmatic but that's deceptive - for instance far from just being an agglomeration of carefully targeted policies Blairism was actually driven by the Christian Socialist religious convictions of Tony Blair, filtered through some extremely ideological revisionist social democrat allies (some of them like John Reid actually applying Marxist analysis to arrive at centrist conclusions). That clash of ideologies is essentially a clash of political faiths and hence debating the relative morality of your party and its programme versus the others is intrinsic to it. The minute you stop believing there's a moral superiority to your position you are probably on the path to political agnosticism.

Political parties are also vehicles for the aggregation and promotion of common economic and social interests in society. The left - the Labour Party - was created to advance the political power and economic share of the cake of the poorer, the working, part of society. The right - the Conservatives exist largely in response to this historic challenge to preserve the status quo in terms of where power and wealth sit in society i.e. with capital. The Liberals have the luxury of picking which side they are on and when they actually get the choice have plumped to the right other than in the 1970s Lib/Lab pact. The need to get an electoral plurality and a parliamentary majority in order to do anything to promote those class interests of course means that both Labour and the Tories have had to become people's parties that promote policies that have a broad national attractiveness rather than just a class one - or rather we have to take a broad definition of what constitutes the class we represent. When we fail to do that we lose elections but when we succeed, as under Blair, where we successfully articulated that we were for the many, not the few, we win. But it doesn't take away from what our core representational mission is - advancing the interests of the less well-off in society.

Given that I don't think it is a disputed fact that Labour represents the less well-off in society more than the Tories (and the Lib Dems) do (look at the list of seats we represent and the demographic structure of our vote, or our organic link to trade unions, or even the accents of our MPs) and that our policies are being proven to have benefited the less well-off more than Coalition ones do, a moral conclusion is fairly inescapable. To not think that the representative party of the less well-off is morally superior to the party representing the interests of entrenched privilege, you would have to think that inequality was not a moral question (and that Robin Hood was a baddie). Which of course is what the Tories do think. Their moderates think you have to balance inequality and market forces because whilst a bit more equality might be nice it might ruin the functioning of the market. Their extremists (who I've regularly debated with) think inequality is positively good because it leads to a more productive economy, and indeed that the poor in an unequal society deserve it because they are people of less merit in various different ways, and er... anyway it's their money so why should they share it with scroungers (this was pretty much the argument put to me by an otherwise charming Tory this morning).

I'm worried that Peter has been conned into thinking the Tories are well-meaning but wrong-headed. Some indeed are. But some are actually bad people who believe bad things.

The problem with trying to compete with them on a purely retail basis - we have more competent and charismatic politicians and better policies - is that when one day you don't have as competent or charismatic candidates or you get out-bid on policies, it doesn't leave you much of a base to fall back on. It's the ideological mission of Labour, and the class representational mission, that mean there are still thousands of people who will campaign for us even in the bleakest times.

For me the most attractive thing about Tony Blair - exemplified when he took the unpopular decision to liberate Iraq - was that his politics were based on a moral code. He was better able to take on his opponents across the political spectrum because he was certain about what he believed.

The parties are not all the same and they are not morally equivalent. I believe that moderate social democracy is a moral superior way of running a country to laissez faire capitalism. If I didn't believe that I'd be a swing voter not a Labour activist. We need to convert more people to that certainty of belief, not just accept an age of ideological shopping around. It's bizarre that at a time when religious faith is regaining ground globally and in the UK, we shouldn't be seeking to evangelise about our secular social democratic worldview.

The Coalition has created the moral gap between the parties by pursuing extreme policies. If they were a centrist government we would have no grounds for, as Peter puts it, casting "high-minded aspersions on their morality and humanity". They chose to open themselves up to these attacks. No one made them do it. They made moral choices and they chose bad policies.

I want the attractive policies and the popular candidates as part of the mix that wins Labour elections but I want those policies to be shaped and those candidates to be motivated by ideology, a clear sense of what social and economic class we are primarily here to represent, and yes morality. Politics has to be about something more than a retail competition for votes. If that's all it is then why not quit the field and lets the supermarket chains develop political products and run for office?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blair was a right wing religious fundamentalist imperialist upper class Twat!

10:12 pm, December 02, 2010

Anonymous Rich said...

There is good and bad from all political sides. I think prejudice exists on both sides but it is far more damaging when those with all the power and wealth seek to cheat the poorest in society. Some of the torys appear to have deep prejudice against those that have little choice.

I wonder where the working class will be at the next general election. Will we have access to a fair trial, equal healthcare, will we have the right to withold our labour, access to the best education.

I critised luke a lot before the last election and for that I feel deeply sorry. I like many other people voted lib dem but now regret that decision.

I just hope labour can fight the media machine and deliver a better fairer government by the next election.

11:58 pm, December 02, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Somewhat ironic that you should cast aspersions on baby eating Tories and opportunistic Lib Dems while quoting from that innocent, idealistic, naive babe in arms of political tricks that was Harold Wislon.

All it needs is a quote from Damian McBride and we can all truly see how wonderful altruistic Labour would have been building the new Jerusalem this summer, while grubby evil self-serving ConDems grind the faces of the poor instead.

If the Labour Party is going to cast itself as the guardian of nobility in British politics, please do, most people will see through it in a second - only get off your smug high horse.

10:38 am, December 03, 2010

Anonymous Graham Taylor said...

Although I totallty agree, and I am a secular moderate social democtaic; CLause IV still defines us as a democratic socialist party; and we're still tied down by the unions.

11:49 am, December 03, 2010

Anonymous Haggerston Harry said...

"It's bizarre that at a time when religious faith is regaining ground globally and in the UK, we shouldn't be seeking to evangelise about our secular social democratic worldview."

Luke, we "shouldn't" or we "should"?

Please explain and expand on. Thanks.

1:28 pm, December 03, 2010

Blogger Luke Akehurst said...

Hi Harry

what I mean is that the rise in religious faith implies people are looking for clear answers to the world we are in. One of those answers (not mutually contradictory to religion) is a clear set of political beliefs i.e. if religions can be growing stands to reason political ideologies can too.

3:12 pm, December 03, 2010


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