The questions Labour has to answer

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Some would like to think Labour is having a bad weekend. If the papers were to be believed Ed Miliband is a disaster, when Labour stands at 41% in the polls. And his brother says Labour should move on from last year, and he's right.

So, although some would like to suggest Labour's having a bad time because of problems with its leadership I'm not sure that's true. I think Labour is having the same bad time all politics is having.

I've explained the ethical problem that I think all political parties in this country are facing at present: and that it is a problem of their own making. They have all, it seems, in the face of the financial crisis decided that there must be a smaller role for government in our society without there being any logic backing up that decision.

The reality is that the need for government intervention is independent of the size of our banking sector.  It is, of course, constrained by what we can afford, but that again is independent of our banks: there are very many more variables involved.

Politicians have, however, almost universally  linked the failure of our financial services sector with an apparent need to cut all forms of public services.  That logic is flawed. This is already very obvious: the Conservatives are failing to deliver almost any of the policies they have adopted based on this flawed logic. As the months and years go on that  failure will become increasingly apparent.

The simple fact is that in logic you can't work out what out to be happening from what is happening, and in politics you can't work out  what government policy  should be  as a result of the failure of parts of our banking system. Both  facts should be glaringly obvious, but that doesn't seem to be the case.  Until our politicians realise this then we're going to continue to live in a mess,  a muddle and a situation where democracy itself might be threatened due to the failure of government to deliver what is needed in our society.

The challenge, therefore, is to create a viable alternative.  The Conservatives won't do this.  They're not delivering small government because of the banking failure: they're trying to deliver it because they believe in it.  They will fail because they will discover it's just not possible to reconcile their fantasy of government with reality. Labour can, however, accept the challenge. But, if it is to do so then it has to  answer four questions.  They are:

1) What is government for?

2) Why is that the case?

3) What policies should have priority as a result?

4) How do we pay for them?

These questions are more important than they might seem. Taking just the first as an example, it seems we have developed a breed of politicians who want power and yet have almost no clue what they wish to do with it. Wishing to hold power so you can privatise much of what the state is doing does not give any reason to have confidence in a politician. And nor does it encourage faith in government itself, or democracy, or in the services the state and that all who work for it can provide.

Of course it is appropriate for a politician to believe in the private sector, and in what it can do and what it can provide. Indeed, it would be very odd if a UK politician did not have that belief. But surely what we need in a politician is someone who believes in government, what it can do, and what it can deliver?

That confidence is almost absent in politics at present. There is no narrative of belief in government in existence, even amongst politicians of the left. That, I think, is a significant cause of the lack of confidence in politicians and democracy itself at present. The confusion that politicians exhibit about the purpose of government is very obvious to all, and people now reflect that back at them.

And yet the absence of a narrative for government that politicians can believe in is not wholly their fault.  I’m sure such narratives for government and its role in the 21st century may exist, but I’m not aware of them. Don’t get me wrong; that does not mean they do not exist. But what I am saying is that that the alternative narrative of why government shouldn’t exist, why what it does should be done by the private sector and why government interferes with well being do all exist, are powerful (even if they’re wrong) and they’re also widely promoted and taught. It would be virtually impossible to complete a course on economics, finance, accountancy and maybe politics and related issues and not be taught that anti-government narrative at any university almost anywhere in the world right now. The crippling consequence of that process is now seen in the malaise in our politics and democracy.

So the need is actually obvious: if Labour wants to govern again it has to say what government is for. And it has to do more than that: it has to say why this is the case. Asserting that government is a good thing without providing a logical, reasoned case for saying so will not persuade people to give Labour a mandate. In the process there is a need – I’d almost call it a desperate need - for something Tony Blair said he would provide in government, but which he absolutely failed to deliver: that is ‘joined up thinking’. Although the need has now become one for joined up reasoning as to why government should undertake certain actions.

The excuse that it has always done something as a consequence of the post Second World War consensus is no longer good enough. The case for what government should and should not do in the 21st century needs to be made afresh so that if it is decided that the government should undertake an activity it does so with confidence, with reasons given, and with a confidence that not only is the service in question needed, but that it is the government that is the best agency to supply it. That confidence has not existed for far too long in governments of any complexion.
This does not just require reasoning though: it definitely requires some theorising; albeit that the theorising in question has to be readily communicable. That’s a tall order, but hardly beyond the wit of humankind. And then, and only then can the third and fourth questions that Labour must address be dealt with.

If Labour knows what government is for, and why, the policies that it should follow should become readily apparent. Until then Labour policies will simply be, at best, opportune reaction to current events, and will look like that too. In that sense they will continue to look far too like what too many have been: policies remarkably like those of the Tories.

Finally, a coherent policy on tax has to recognise two fundamentals. The first is that the state has a right to tax and that all property rights are conditional on taxes due having been paid. For far too long it has been suggested that people pay tax out of their own incomes and assets but that’s not true. The right to enjoy many incomes and assets is contingent on having paid the taxes due in the course of their acquisition. These are not independent events: they’re utterly intertwined. Second, if there is a proper understanding of what government is for, what services it must provide and why then the confidence to tax will exist. But as has been absent for too long.

The result of this exercise would be radical: Labour would know what it was for and so would those who were being asked to vote for it. It’s not clear that this has been the case for some time.   It’s certainly not clear that the Conservative do any such thing with any real confidence:  being opposed to government is certainly not a basis for holding political  office.

But there is a fifth question that needs to be asked. Is anyone willing to do this?