Should we be less “radical” and more “sensible”?

First published in Compass, 7/7/15

Did Labour lose the election because it was too left wing? That’s become a standard explanation in right-wing newspapers and among some Labour commentators. But Hopi Sen – who sits on the right of the party and would be the first to complain about this sort of thing – has a different take:

“Labour went into the election with a costed, centrist policy platform. However, it had spent the previous five years trying to sound as radical as it could – sounding like a party opposed to austerity, angry with the government, eager to take on the vested interests of the rich and powerful on the behalf of the ordinary man and woman. This meant Labour was an SPD* sheep in Syriza clothing.”

Sen exaggerates wildly, yet still takes us closer to the truth than the “too left wing” story: Labour’s rhetoric, if not exactly revolutionary, was – at times – to the left of its policies. On issues around “predator” capitalism, energy rip-offs and the power of the Murdoch press, Ed Miliband was prepared to speak out – and rightly so. But the accompanying measures – like a “two-year freeze” on energy bills – fell flat. Labour tended to highlight the problems and fudge the solutions.

Sen identifies Labour’s earlier, more “radical” rhetoric, rather than its “centrist” policies, as the problem. But polls suggest that Miliband suffered from being perceived as “too weak”, not “too left-wing”. Former policy review head Jon Cruddas offers a more convincing explanation when he says it wasn’t Labour’s earlier vision that was at fault, but that vision’s subsequent narrowing into a series of “retail offers” – an approach mocked by US strategist David Axelrod as “vote Labour, win a microwave”.

Nevertheless, there remains a germ of truth in Sen’s observations, especially for those of us who would have liked Labour to go further in challenging the status quo. In its language, the left does often revel in its own “radicalism”, which can drive away potential supporters. Owen Jones made the point well in an article written several years ago, in which he called for “radical ideas, moderate words”:

“Lefties often think that, if you’re pushing really radical policies, the language you use has to be equally radical. If it’s not, it’s almost seen as betraying your left-wing beliefs. But you can promote ideas with moderate language without diluting their radicalism.”

Spain’s Podemos party has grappled with such issues, and its campaigners have even questioned the use of the word “radical” itself. Sirio Canós, a London-based party activist, says:

“I don’t think labelling the new parties and citizen platforms as ‘radical’ helps in the slightest. First, ‘radical’ as a purely descriptive term is neither negative nor positive, it just describes how different something is from what was there before. Thatcher’s economic policies were radical; so was Mandela’s idea of a rainbow nation.

“But the real problem is that ‘radical’ is not neutral at all. It carries a lot of baggage, mostly negative. I appreciate for most people in activist circles and on the left ‘radical’ has positive connotations, but that’s not the case for wider society. In Spain it’s one of the traditional strategies used by the establishment to discredit new political formations. In most people’s minds, being ‘radical’ is the opposite of being ‘sensible’, and it evokes images of violence and chaos. In a political landscape where the traditional elites have lost all credibility and all they have left is fear, ‘radical’ is one of their greatest allies.”

Canós adds that the most successful campaigns in Spain have not only shown that their policies are just, but also that they are “reasonable, necessary and realistic”. For those campaigns, “the true ‘radicals’ are those that have been destroying our welfare state, privatising public assets and putting their private interests before the common weal”.

In the UK, such views are reinforced by a TUC-commissioned post-election poll, which found that five times as many voters preferred the second of the following statements:

  •  “I want political parties to offer a big vision for radical change in this country.”
  •  “I want political parties’ concrete plans for sensible changes in this country.”

There are reasons not to take such polls purely at face value (what people say motivates them isn’t necessarily what does), and you could question the wording (why are concrete plans “sensible” and a big vision “radical”?), but either way the result adds weight to Jones’s and Canós’s arguments.

One implication of Canós’s advice to be “reasonable, necessary and realistic” is that we ignore the language of “competence” at our peril. The Conservatives framed a whole election campaign around this theme, counterposing Labour “chaos” with Tory “competence”. The Tory manifesto was designed to look like a corporate annual report, with Cameron’s cabinet as the board of directors.

It may be true that governments lose their reputation for competence rather than oppositions winning it, but Labour should have done more to undermine the Tories’ self-image. Instead it seemed scared to hit back, perhaps fearful of reinforcing the Tories’ frame and resigned to losing the war of words on the deficit, which meant the government was never sufficiently pinned down on a trail of fiascos, from empty free schools to universal credit.

John Curtice, who has written a valuable analysis of Labour’s poll defeat, says Labour was narrowly ahead on policy, but suffered heavily on competence, particularly among older voters.

“As many as 40 per cent of the over-65s said that they were voting for the most competent team, compared with 26 per cent of those aged between 18 and 24. Older voters were, by contrast, less concerned than younger voters about policy promises: while 57 per cent of those in the older age group said that they were voting for the party whose promises they liked best, the equivalent figure was as high as 70 per cent among those in the youngest group.”

The non-Labour left, too, shies away from issues around competence, preferring to focus on injustice and inequality. Admittedly, under our current leaders, it isn’t always clear where incompetence ends and deliberate malice begins, but by ceding this ground we make it easier for would-be supporters to reason: “There may be a bunch of bastards in charge but at least they are bastards who know what they’re doing.”

One reason for the left’s reticence about “economic competence” is that it can be code for business as usual: “Britain plc” run by an “expert” elite. But that is precisely why we should challenge the terms of debate. Exposing our opponents’ incompetence helps us resist the anti-democratic idea that a narrow corporate and political elite can run our lives better than we can – a notion that should have been put to bed by the 2008 financial crash yet lives on.

These issues, of course, go beyond language. But language matters, and we must find ways to show that the policies that will lead us to greater equality, democracy and sustainability are not a “radical alternative”, but plain, common sense.

*SPD: Germany’s “centrist” Social Democratic Party.