Friday, September 03, 2010

The conversation Labour and the left should be having

One shouldn't attempt to predict the future. This coalition government might be dead in the water in 18 months for all I know. But every time there's a story about Simon Hughes issuing warnings about what the rank and file will or won't tolerate or government ministers shouting at each other, I fear it is just wishful thinking to interpret these as harbingers of the government's incipient collapse. Certainly the honeymoon was over quickly but I'd predict that divorce is by no means certain and is certainly not imminent.

There's a few reasons for thinking this but I'm thinking of one in particular: opponents of the government are, for the most part, underestimating the extent to which ideological glue holds this coalition together. The simplicity of this shouldn't be underestimated either. Underneath everything this government says about anything - whether about health, education, family life or deficit reduction - you'll find just one thing; the notion that the 'good society' is one where the state is smaller - period.

The Lib Dems have traditionally stressed making the state smaller in relation to personal conduct, the Conservatives with the economic sphere, but with both - especially when you factor in the degree of overlap - the near universal presence of this central idea should be better appreciated. Is there anyone on the government benches that doesn't think the state should be shrunk in some way?

Now, simple ideas have a habit of breaking on the rocks of experience because the human situation always proves to be more complicated but for now the cohesive role it is playing should be tackled more directly. In other words, the opposition to the coalition needs to be clearer about what its attitude towards the state is. This isn't easy because to respond to a simple idea like this with an equally simple one runs the risk of sounding either conservative (keep it the way it is) - or a bit Soviet (make it bigger). Whereas a more complicated idea - while it would do more justice to the mess of actual life - can sound like obfuscation, if you're not careful.

The problem here is that I can't see Labour getting even close to agreeing a broad road on which to travel, never mind coming up with a line. For example, my own wish would be for those Labour members and supporters who were nonchalant about the expansion of the surveillance state under Blair to simply admit they were wrong - but it is never going to happen. The attitudes to the economic sphere are if anything even more problematic, which serves to illustrate the problem when opposing the coalition: people from the cuddly non-Orange Book wing of the Lib Dems might not like the budget and even be vaguely social democratic - but I don't think the coalition carries the sort of divisions between 'modernisers' who are in reality just economic liberals and some who advocate economic control on near Soviet proportions that you find in the Labour party.

I appreciate Paul's frustration at the search for a line that could impose unity on a party, which like all parties can never be united, but I'm concerned that Labour, and the left in general, is more deeply-divided on this issue than is usually acknowledged, which is one of the reasons why it should ask itself some very basic questions about the role of the state, what it can and should do - as well as the limits of its competence. Any conversation that produced a sensible answer would have something to say about changing the shape of the state.

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