Neither tax or politics is about managerialism

Posted on

I am already depressed by the Labour Party's leadership election. I should declare an interest: I could vote, I think, as I am a member of Unite. I have no idea if I will do so. That's because, so far, all the candidates appear to be offering the same analysis, and none of them come remotely near what is required, in my opinion.This is not because they are not competent: I am sure that in their own way they are. But they are not, in my opinion, competent to offer the choice that is required by the Labour Party. That is because what all have to offer is managerialism.

I will not actually rely on the candidates to illustrate the point. Andrew Rawnsley did it quite well in the Observer, saying:

There are already emerging divisions. Between left and right, younger generation and the old guard, northern and southern, those who think the imperative is to reconnect with lost working-class voters and those who emphasise the party’s inability to appeal to the middle classes. More important than any of those divides is the split between those who seek refuge from their grief in superficial explanations for this defeat and those who understand that they must think hard about the existential challenge that now confronts the party.

Rawnsley, astute but certainly not unbiased, observer that he is has accurately reflected that this election is going to be about form, and not substance. No wonder Len McCluskey is not happy.  The debate is already about presentation, triangulation and message management. What seems to have been forgotten is the message.

Rawnsley is right that Labour faces an existential challenge but he appears to be quite unable to spot what it is. He suggests that the crisis it faces comes down to:

Labour never found a good answer to the charge that it overspent when it was in government. Five years on, the contenders for the leadership are still being asked a question that should have been dealt with in 2010.

He's right, but only to a limited degree. The extent to which he's right is that because people believe this all the candidates now offering themselves for election all believe that they must ape the Tories because they do not think it's any longer possible to address this issue. The extent to which he and they are wrong is that this aping of the Tories is in itself the clearest indication of the existential problem that Labour faces. A political party that thinks it must offer the electorate a variation on the agenda of another party has no reason for being: it does not deserve to win. All it offers is presentation and managerialism (on neither of which issues has Labour shown massive ability) but is devoid of political content leaving an absence of purpose which, like it or not, voters detect.

I deliberately say in the title to this blog that this is like most of the debate I witness on tax. When tax debate is also reduced, as all too often it is, to what tax measures may, or may not, be most effective in raising or reducing revenues then that debate also entirely misses the real point of what tax is about. I have said it often, and will again, that tax is not just about raising revenue. It is about influencing behaviour to achieve the goals that we, politically, want to achieve in society. Politics and tax are inextricably linked and both are about choices to be made about the society we want.

Choosing the society we want is not a managerial decision. It is a strategic one: a politically strategic one. Of course it has to be considered possible that the strategy can be delivered. If it is not it is not credible. But the possibility that there is only one strategy within politics now, and that it is the neoliberal one that markets alone can determine appropriate outcomes for society is not just wrong, but dangerously wrong because it is so untrue. It is absolutely true that markets have an important and valuable role to play in society, but so too has the state. And on occasion it is just better in delivering solutions than markets. One occasion when that is true is when markets fail, as in 2008, when the states ability as both lender of last resort and as the creator of money can be exploited to sustain economic activity when most others have failed.

It would seem that this is not known by the managerialist school of politics, which includes commentators like Rawnsley. They have forgotten that there is political choice available and that they have tools, such as economic policy in what tax plays such a key role, that can help deliver those choices. Instead they now seem to think that their only role is to deliver the managerial options markets demand. But this is to deny something fundamental - which is that politics has any role in setting the strategy when that is its whole purpose. Managerialism is largely for civil servants.

No wonder then that Labour has an existential crisis. It's forgotten the choices it can even make, let alone explain them or argue their case. Until it recalls what it is for, why it has to offer choice, and that the alternatives to the neoliberal option are not just powerful, but successful in ways that nothing suggests neoliberalism to be,  will it have a message that is worth hearing.

Right now Labour's instead just tinkering on the edges - as it did with its choice of tax policies in the election just gone, where from the options available it (by and large) selected the safe, cautious and rather innocuous.  When it (and any other party facing a leadership election) realises this is the path to oblivion we might see a revival in the party politics of old.

If not, then let's bring on the new. And in the process the choices about tax, and what it is to achieve, will be vital components in the story to be told.