The Labour case for conservatism (thoughts on the 2019 election)

The Conservatives are not conservative. In fact, it is one of their greatest tricks to convince the electorate that they are. Because one of the most well-known truisms about the British electorate is that we are innately conservative, with a small ‘c’. We are collectively resistant to change; suspicious of radicalism; mistrustful of ideology; and scared of revolutions. The Conservative Party learned this essential lesson long ago, which is why it has always tried to portray itself as the party of law and order; of strength and stability; and of unwavering belief in those institutions that uphold what they see as the decent British character: the monarchy, The Bank of England, the military, the Institute of Directors, etc.

Yet all the while the Conservatives have been much more radical than this portrayal might suggest. Radically destructive. Their project, in essence, is to usurp the 100 years of progress that have seen workers get more rights, consumers get more protection, and the vulnerable get more care. This is a combination of ‘red tape’ and ‘sponging’ as they see it. And they want to return to Victorian times; both in terms of hypocritical, anachronistic morality and a deregulated state that allows for capitalism to be unfettered by responsibilities. All accompanied by a prototypical Victorian foreign policy of ‘splendid isolation’. These things, of course, are all intertwined. And the Conservatives have shown themselves to be highly pragmatic when it comes to respect for those institutions that they claim to espouse, as shown by the reaction to the verdict on proroguing parliament. They will respect state institutions so long as those institutions support their ideological project.

In marked contrast, progressive politics wears the idea of change as a badge of honour. Yet I believe that the first thing that it needs to do – in the face of this wrecking barrage – is to focus on conservation more than change, on retention more than radicalism.

This is both out of a sense of urgency – we are losing some of this country’s greatest post-war achievements, like the NHS, public libraries and social care; our education system is being degraded; our environment is being trashed – and also as a pragmatic electoral strategy. It’s been far too easy for the Conservatives to portray Labour as dangerous, a potentially destructive force that poses a threat to British cultural values. But the real fight is about what those British cultural values are. Is Britain’s culture one of unfettered, neo-colonial capitalism that values the achievements of the top 1% above everybody else; or can it be a more joined together, socially cohesive, caring society that looks after the majority of people in the country, that helps the most vulnerable, and protects our environment?

The environment is actually a good analogy: at the moment almost every environmental problem is getting worse: for instance, the amount of carbon being produced is still rising; and the amount of plastic being manufactured is increasing. So before we consider what an ideal environment policy might look like, let’s start by trying to put an end to our most obviously destructive behaviours.

The first step in changing the toxic political culture in this country is not by trying to be more left-wing than everyone else, but by taking a leaf out of the Conservative playbook: Labour in the next election should not promise socialism, but conservatism. Conserving our NHS. Conserving our environment. Conserving the rule of law. Conserving peace. There are many national treasures (institutions, communities, rights) that are under threat. I was recently at a conference about US healthcare where we discussed Walter Cronkite’s quote on the US healthcare system: “America’s health care system is neither healthy, caring, nor a system.” I don’t know anyone that would vote for a healthcare system like that, or for 10 days’ annual leave (the typical allowance for US workers), but that is our current direction of travel. So let’s defend what we have – and then try to improve on that starting point.

It’s a strategy that’s far more likely to appeal to the British electorate because, guess what: dreary, old-school, self-righteous socialism isn’t yet palatable to the majority of people in the UK, especially when it is espoused by a stubborn, peevish politician who would rather win an argument than win an election; who would prefer to try to appear saintly than say sorry, and who at no stage had the gravitas, intellectual capacity or imagination – or possibly even lacked the basic honesty – to tell a story to the people of the United Kingdom about how Brexit is intimately connected with all his pet projects that he claimed to care so deeply about, like the NHS and worker’s rights and the environment.

Labour and its ideological outriders blamed the media for their crushing election defeat. They stated that they lost the election because of Brexit. They argued that their manifesto was a triumph but that they made mistakes in their campaign.

The reality is that they lost 2.5 million votes against 2017 figures, whereas the Conservatives held steady, increasing their votes by approximately 340,000. The Liberal Democrats, SNP and Greens also increased their votes. So, the main headline is that it was an anti-Labour election.

Corbyn and his ideological conspirators do not have the answers. That’s already been decisively proven. Any continuity-Corbyn leader is a leader for continuity-stubbornness, continuity-denial, continuity-self-righteousness, and continuity-losing. The most important step to turning this around is for Labour to win an election. That requires pragmatism, not pipe dreams; grit instead of utopianism; accessibility rather than piety.  These are hard times and it’s time to shape up. Start with the small steps.