Morality is an incredibly difficult topic for politicians to discuss. Increasingly, the temptation on all sides is to shy away from a discussion of morality and to defer to a more technocratic debate about management and means.
It’s easy to undersatand why. No one is perfect. Everybody, at frequent opportunities fail their own standards of morality, never mind the myriad standards to which others would hold us. Setting ourselves up to fail could be considered an odd political strategy.
Equally, with everyone having their own interpretation of morality, it is hard to appeal to a general code of morals. There are so many variables, that the idea of a jointly constructed morality is splintering. Even in the major religions, there are many wildly varying interpretations of the moralities that are essential to the faiths. As more human beings communicate to each other more often, we are learing so much about our differences, our nuances and our limits than was ever before possible. Which is great, but is also making it clear that what were once considered moral constants can be anything but.
Morality is a difficult tool in campaigning too. Bash people over the head about “doing the right thing” too much and they’ll simply tune out, turned off by your lack of nuance. However, if you fail to activate the moral core of the individual, their actions will be less altruistic.
Finally, as soon as a politician starts talking about morality, the press and the public start thinking only of sexual morality. This may well be the most interesting part of morality, where the most immediate and prurient failures can be exposed, but in 21st century politics, its probably the morality that has grown furthest from the central debates in politics.
So yes, Morality is difficult. But so is politics. No one gets into this arena becuase they fancy the easy life. As people who are hoping to contribute to the democratic representation of the people, whether that be in becoming a representative or in supporting representatives through the Party structure, we have a duty to accept that part of our heavy lifting is in making moral choices.
As Nye Bevan said “The language of priorities is the religion of socialism”. An acceptance that we can’t do everything within a functioning democracy (an evolutionary rather than revolutionary approach to Socialism) means that we must prioritise. Once we prioritise, we have to accept that there will be winners and losers within those priority levels (or, if you prefer politically, earlier and later winners).
There also need to be an understanding that moving towards a more equal society means people going down as well as up. There are self interested reasons for the top 5% of society to oppose social equality, and for them, protecting the elevated position of their nearest and dearest is their own moral imperative.
Questions of morality are never, ever clear cut. Anyone who thinks they are have not examined the morality behind any decision fully. All decisions have consequences both examined and unexamined; Every pound spent here is a pound not spent there. Money spent on truly moral high-level intervention into one social crisis may be money saved later, but is money not spent on another equally deserving cause right now. A decision made for moral reasons may not be a decision that s popular democratically. As a representative, personal morality has to be balanced against the morality of going against the will of an electorate. A life saved from dictatorship may well be at the expense of a life lost in a war against that tyrant. These aren’t easy decisions, but they are moral ones.
This is the case. We can try to shy away from it with endless and dry discussions about managed economies and the role of the state. But when we talk to real human beings, we need to talk in real human terms. We need to say that we have a morality that informs our politics and that it is differnt than the morality that inform Conservatism. We need to speak not just to their financial but to their moral aspirations.
We need to address the issues of the day, from Hester’s bonus payment to welfare reform through a moral prism. For me, these issues are fundametally linked as they are about the value we place on human beings in our society and how wide we will allow the gap to be between the lowest and highest paid in society; about the moral value of contribution where possible and support where necessary at all levels of society and about the necessity of represeting a resentful electorate without making damaging long term choices.
Labour have fallen into a habit of hiding their moralism behind managerialism. There are those who advcate that this is the only way we will be taken seruiously. But our electorate need not just a sense of our policies but our purpose; of our values as well as our evaluation.
Politics is a moral cause for everyone involved in it. Labour is its own moral cause. We should be proud of that.
*Given that I’ve stated in this post that I reject black and white attitudes towards moral choices and that Labour has also had it’s fair share of failing its own morality, I will be exercising the rules pretty strongly to engender a more interesting debate.