Mark McLaughlin says the centre-left of the Labour Party has ridden the tiger of moral outrage, and now finds itself consumed. Centre-left politics in Scotland must not go the same way.
If the past two years has taught us anything, it is that tin-foil hats are far more in vogue than one might imagine.
Those who partake are easily identifiable. Almost always, they have multiple twibbons. The number of twibbons is often inversely proportional to their grasp on reality. They also use phrases like MSM, Westmonster, red tory, Blairite, and traitor, and frequently ask why you hate Scotland, or don’t believe in Britain.
But, above all else, they are on a moral crusade.
This self-righteous moral certitude is cultivated by the political mainstream. Ed Miliband’s Labour Party denounced the Conservative cuts to welfare, and rightly so. They were a disgrace, you see, because the Tories hate the poor and would like to see them in cages to be poked with sticks. They’re all millionaires who want to privatise the NHS so companies can profit from people being sick. And obviously they hate women too, because they have fewer female MPs than us. Heartless, sexist, evil sods, the lot of them, and they must be stopped.
If this was Batman, our side would clearly be Bruce Wayne, and they would be the Joker. Or something.
That’s not much of an exaggeration. If your supporters take what you say at face value, is it so surprising that political discourse has become so debased and angry? By voting for you, they are protecting the sick and vulnerable from being maliciously attacked – a moral cause, if ever there was one. And so, you have their votes. That was easy. Well done us. Congratulations all round. Champagne for everybody.
Except now, without a radical policy agenda from the centre-left, the rabble-rousing potency of confected moral outrage lies not in the hands of Gordon Brown or Tony Blair, but Jeremy Corbyn. And not only has he failed to produce a policy agenda, his whole political ideology is articulated in meaningless platitudes, a vacuous stream of consciousness that speaks only to the downtrodden, extremist sympathisers and affluent graduates. Needless to say, that is not an election-winning coalition. And so now, having ridden the tiger of moral outrage, the centre-left is being consumed by it.
As a supporter of Scottish independence and SNP voter, not only should I rejoice in this phenomenon (Hooray! Labour are finally destroyed! etc.), I should also be acutely familiar with confected moral outrage. For, as we know, No voters were selfish and bullied pensioners and so on. The right-wing BBC (laugh along with me, watchers of Fox News) blocked us from attaining our freedom. Scotland, poor old Scotland, you see, has been betrayed, once again, and isn’t it all shameful. When-oh-when will the humiliation by MI5 end?
But for someone who cares about centre-left politics in this country, I’ve been surprised to find that Labour’s collapse has actually driven me to despair, a little.
‘Ah-a!’, I can hear Scottish Labour folks say, ‘but the SNP aren’t even left-wing!’. Well, good. I vote for the SNP because I vote for centrist parties. Most people do. You did too, Labour people, in the thirteen years in which you actually made a difference to people’s lives. With its charismatic leader, its slick branding, its message discipline; the SNP is New Labour. Nicola Sturgeon is the heir to Blair (without the warmongering, obviously). And that’s a good thing. So, put the pitchfork down, re-sheath the battle-axe and step away from the keyboard, left-wing warriors. You were the future once.
To English Labour, who sought to emulate the electoral success of the SNP’s shiny brand of hard-leftism in a Corbynite revival: sorry to break it to you guys. Close, but no Cuban cigar.
What is different, though, is that the SNP lacks the reforming zeal of New Labour. Yes, the Iraq war was an historic catastrophe. But establishing the minimum wage, the Human Rights Act, the Equalities Act, Sure Start centres, devolution, peace in Northern Ireland, reducing child poverty and on and on it goes, is a more lengthy list of achievements than the current SNP administration can boast. Even the oft-touted free tuition policy is a triumph of virtue-signalling over actual social progress. And yet, if you were to ask most Scots who had a better record, it would be an SNP landslide.
In that context, much of Labour’s current plight is rooted in a failure to defend thirteen years of government. Even if you accept the inevitability that Blair was to be synonymous with war, that tinge of betrayal need not have polluted a decade in power. The result is a selectorate who do not see electoral success as a route to radical change.
The Blair government was certainly not a hard-left one (awards for insight, address on request), but it was a radical one. For too long, the conflation between radicalism and the hard left has been allowed to fester in the bowels of left-wing rhetoric. Those in need of radical solutions have found solace in the vacuous moral outrage of the extreme left, the very obstructionists who opposed the election-winning centrist reforms of 1997.
Raising taxes is not radical. Nationalisation of industry is not radical. Appeasement of terrorists is not radical. These are the same platitudinous tropes that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have been shouting through loud-hailers for the past 30 years. Just imagine, for a moment, the seismic events that have transformed society in that time. De-industrialisation, the advent of globalisation, increases in immigration, advancements in technology and the internet age have all reshaped British society in profound ways.
If your solutions to the problems of the working class in 2016 are the same as in 1980, that isn’t being principled, it’s being blind. And I suspect you’re just not thinking hard enough. It’s self delusion on such a scale that it makes David Icke look grounded. Extremist? Maybe. But certainly not radical.
Trust me, Corbynites, communism isn’t the Utopian idyll it’s cracked up to be – and I live in China, so I know.
As much as an analysis of the dying Labour Party, this is a warning to the SNP. Continue to encourage the perpetually outraged brigade without providing radical solutions, and it will consume you too, one day.
Many people vote SNP because, like Corbyn supporters, they hear Nicola Sturgeon eloquently articulate the inequality in this country and thus believe voting SNP is the ‘moral’ choice. She’ll correct that injustice, you see. Don’t wait until you hear ‘I didn’t leave the SNP, the SNP left me’, to embrace the kind of radicalism that tackles these injustices. Because then, it’ll be too late. And the party that replaces you may be markedly less cuddly.
One thing is clear: when Corbyn wins in September, the Labour Party is dead as political force. And Scottish Labour members are right; a more equal Scotland will be not won by the waving of flags. But it isn’t won by the waving of placards, either. If that is what UK Labour is to become, then there must be a home for the genuinely radical politics that was the beating heart of New Labour.
The thirst for radical solutions is being briefly satiated by the idea of Scottish independence, but that won’t last forever. It is essential that centrist reformers must have a new home after being cast adrift by Corbyn’s capture of the Red Rose. If the SNP can have the courage of its convictions, it could provide this new home, empowered by a new reforming zeal. If not, I might be looking for a new party, too.