From the archive: Labour’s absence of war (continued)

Michael Harris /   June 29, 2014 at 8:39 PM 2,030 views

Absence of war

Has Ed Miliband ever made an inspiring speech? Does it matter if he hasn’t? If poetry is the expression of the soul, then Labour’s lack of poetry matters greatly.

Language arguably means more to the left. If your object is to change society, then the ability to inspire – to move, motivate and marshal – is crucial. This is hardly a new thought; it’s even recognised at the top of the Party. Jon Cruddas has talked about the need for Labour to be ‘More Irish, Less Harvard‘.

Ed Miliband, who graduated from Corpus Christi College at Oxford and the LSE, also took a sabbatical in 2002-3 to teach at Harvard, and so Cruddas was presumably conscious is his aim and implication. Cruddas’ reported criticisms of Labour’s leadership for parking bold reforms in favour of “cynical nuggets of policy” and wielding a “profound dead hand at the centre” that blocks radical plans would seem to confirm this interpretation.

The problem goes a lot wider than the leader of course. The week before last saw the leading left of centre think tank, IPPR, publish the report from its major Condition of Britain inquiry, and Miliband spoke at its launch. For the cognoscenti, the report marked a ‘turning point in Labour thinking’ away from a ‘simple redistributive economism’ (translation: giving more money to poorer people), although this is something of a straw man point, since I’m not certain that centre-left has really believed this in decades (or possibly ever), and surely there’s much to be said in these times of widening inequality for a simple and clear argument in favour of distributing more money to poorer people.

We might also question the ‘re-‘ in redistribution here as well, with its implication that the greater sharing of wealth would somehow represent a ‘gift’ to poorer people rather than being just a matter of basic and fundamental fairness. Nevertheless, from one political point of view (especially the ‘dead hand’ section of Labour’s leadership), the IPPR report may be packed with sensible, pragmatic and worthwhile recommendations in the context of the run-up the next year’s general election. But in broader terms it’s difficult to see what’s really new, let alone a turning point.

The think tank’s previous major inquiry, the Commission on Social Justice in 1994, made many of the same philosophical points (this year’s report even has the same subtitle). What also hasn’t changed is the lack of poetry – or even the lack of clarity of meaning – in these reports.

To really understand this point, contrast the IPPR’s publication with the Beveridge report from 1942. The comparison isn’t wholly unfair, since IPPR clearly intend The Condition of Britain (with its suitably portentous title) to be a ‘landmark report’ and the authors seem quite conscious of attempting a ‘Beveridge 3.0’ (2.0 being a bit passée these days).

Here’s how the IPPR report starts (it’s fairer to quote passages at some length to avoid the charge of being too selective):

“Our overarching goal for society should be greater equality of social relations. We seek a society in which people relate to each other as free and equal citizens, and in which unjust hierarchies of power, esteem and standing are progressively overcome. This broadens the centre-left’s commitment to equality beyond purely distributional concerns, although these remain vital. Achieving this vision of equality requires us to challenge concentrations of power by redistributing it to people and places; expect everyone to meet their obligations to contribute to building a better society; and strengthen institutions that bring people together and address the root causes of injustice.”

If you follow George Orwell’s argument, such muddiness is meaningless, or at worst misleading.

Contrast this with Beveridge. While the phrasing might be a bit less direct at times (reflecting the drafting style of the day), it’s difficult not to be struck by the far greater power of the writing, which is to say the emotion behind the writing:

“The first principle is that any proposals for the future, while they should use to the full the experience gathered in the past, should not be restricted by consideration of sectional interests established in the obtaining of that experience. Now, when the war is abolishing landmarks of every kind, is the opportunity for using experience in a clear field. A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching. The second principle is that organisation of social insurance should be treated as one part only of a comprehensive policy of social progress. Social insurance fully developed may provide income security; it is an attack upon Want. But Want is one only of five giants on the road of reconstruction and in some ways the easiest to attack. The others are Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. The third principle is that social security must be achieved by co-operation between the State and the individual. The State should offer security for service and contribution. The State in organising security should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility; in establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family.”

One of the important differences between the two reports is the use of metaphor. Another is in capturing the historical moment – for example, the metaphor of a ‘clear field’ with its unmissable wartime resonance. Yet another is a clear and unembarrassed role for the state, which obviously matters when you’re on the left. (And the ‘leave room and encouragement’ bit undermines any claims for the ‘newness’ of the IPPR’s supposed ‘turning point’.)

And then consider this from Beveridge:

“Freedom from want cannot be forced on a democracy or given to a democracy. It must be won by them. Winning it needs courage and faith and a sense of national unity: courage to face facts and difficulties and overcome them; faith in our future and in the ideals of fair-play and freedom for which century after century our forefathers were prepared to die; a sense of national unity overriding the interests of any class or section. The plan for social security in this report is submitted by one who believes that in this supreme crisis the British people will not be found wanting, of courage and faith and national unity, of material and spiritual power to play their part in achieving both social security and the victory of justice among nations upon which security depends.”

That works for me.

One could argue that the historical moment is what makes the difference, since Beveridge was looking forwards to the era of post-war reconstruction and renewal, and Churchillian-style rhetoric was not just acceptable but perhaps required. Then again, such vision and determination might easily have seemed less appropriate, even ridiculous, when the war against fascism was far from won, and indeed the survival of Britain as a free country was at stake.

Yet it didn’t, of course; the Beveridge report sold 100,000 copies in the month after publication and a total of 600,000 including a cheaper and shorter version (an American edition sold another 50,000 copies). It was a popular phenomenon. The current political class’ apparent failure to really grasp (or consistently communicate) the seismic shock of the financial crisis on people’s lives and on their trust in elites is a measure of their detachment and makes this another historical moment, albeit not on the scale and scope of the Second World War, which could have been exploited by the centre-left.

Instead, it’s hard to argue with the view that they’ve ‘blown it‘. In contrast, Margaret Thatcher didn’t blow her historical moment in the late-1970s, instead she defined the ‘crisis’ despite the Conservative Party being at least as ‘complicit’ in decline as her opponents (indeed, the complicity of conservatives was one her major arguments in calling for a radical change of direction.)

All of which is why speeches matter, and why politics is about emotion as well as policies. Unfortunately, the current political class doesn’t do emotion very well, and I’m far from certain that we live in such cynical times that genuine, credible emotion wouldn’t be welcomed by many (non-) voters, at the very least to suggest that the political class recognises what the real condition of Britain is for many people right now.

This lack of emotion represents a particular problem for the centre-left. It’s bigger than needing to translate technocratic, academic language into plain English (the focus of Temi Ogunye’s comment piece in The Independent), though this is certainly an important part of it. (Meanwhile, as Joe Hallgarten noted on the RSA blog recently, the right tends to put things much more simply and directly.)

More fundamentally, as Berkeley professor George Lakoff has consistently argued, the centre-left needs to have the courage of its emotions, which is to say, make an emotional case to voters rather than rely on rationality and evidence. As Matthew Taylor commented in reaction to the technocratic nature of the IPPR report: “…ask yourself this; what do the British people seem to want right now – better leadership, a clearer vision and more reason to hope…or more policies?”

For those whose greatest fear is demagoguery, the centre-left is so far away from it that this represents the least of its current problems. The John Cruddas ‘More Irish, less Harvard’ point comes from the story of the poet Robert Frost visiting John F. Kennedy in the White House and telling Kennedy that ‘You have to be more Irish than Harvard.’ Technocratic-style policy development has its place, but it’s for nought without the emotional, visionary, even romantic element necessary to build movements and win elections.

David Hare’s 1993 play The Absence of War (pictured) – part of his trilogy about contemporary Britain – concerned a fictional leader of the Labour Party (though obviously based on Neil Kinnock) losing his poetic voice during an unsuccessful General Election campaign as a result of being bounded by focus groups and the advice of ‘safety first’ PR advisers. It’s unclear if Ed Miliband ever had a poetic voice, but he certainly needs to find one now. In the same vein, Kennedy – a flawed man certainly, but a man who could move an audience and a nation – once said that: “If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live.”

But fittingly, let’s leave the last word to the Robert Frost: ”Courage is of the heart by derivation, And great it is. But fear is of the soul.”

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