In 2014/15 (and, despite recent speculation, almost certainly not before) Labour are going to go to the voters of Britain with a vision for Government. This is my third in an occasional series where I give my best attempts to think about what I’d like to see articulated in that vision. These are not policy ideas, though I will offer those elsewhere, but principles that should form the basis of Labour’s policy making. Here I will be posing questions that should help Labour to establish how we move the arguments for Socialism forward and make it relevant to the 21st century and it’s new challenges. I will also start to offer my answers to those questions.
Labour is neither a liberal nor an authoritarian party. That’s not to say that all members of the Party don’t have views on these issues. They do, and some are held very strongly. But even more than disagreement over economic drivers (which largely exist over strategic political differences rather than fundamental policy differences) we are not of one view on this topic. Because Labour exists fundamentally to deal with issues on the Left/Right axis and not the Liberal/Authoritarian axis, we have an extremely broad range of viewpoints within the Party, all held firmly, with the conviction that theirs is the view that truly matches the Party’s Socialist ideals.
Even though I myself have pretty strong convictions on liberalism I don’t try to sell these as vote winners (or allow a false understanding that they are vote losers). I am neither a natural libertarian nor authoritarian. What I want is to protect communities using methods that work. Sometimes that will be by taking a strong line on deterrent measures. Sometimes by investing more in rehabilitation rather than punitive punishment.
But what I think Labour has to stop trying to do, is tie itself in knots trying to please extreme ends of an ideological spectrum that does not relate to our core values. Because Lib/Auth values don’t always have a natural place in a Party with Left/Right values, we often have a failure in our politics. Too often we have tried to be bold with initiatives that have little or no chance of succeeding in their stated aim and then get surprised when people accuse of of having other motives. Partly this is a presentational issue. We feel the need to be doing something, anything, so favour hasty action over well thought through action. Largely though it is this political failure to make the case for not having a designated place on the Lib/Auth spectrum, but being in favour of taking each case on its merits and the impact on and value to the communities we serve.
As Socialists we have the strength of believing in the state as a positive actor. The state can and should be a framework that enables people to achieve. It should not be a straight jacket nor should it be too distant from our lives. We have this great tool at our disposal. But like any tool, it’s how we wield it that counts. We shouldn’t be concerned with ideological liberty but with the genuine safety, comfort and heath of the people of our country and internationally. We shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security by shiny technologies that do little more than add a sticking plaster to a gaping wound and simply allow us to say we have acted.
Once established that Labour cannot and should not have a fixed view on liberal and authoritarian issues, for me, the key questions are: Is there really a problem that needs fixing? Does this solution work? Will it keep working or will it eventually exacerbate the problem? What are the real drawbacks when you remove the ideological objections? Are these negatives a price worth paying? If they are not, what do we do instead? Does that work better or have worse impacts?
Removing ideology from the equation either way should help to answer these key policy questions. But there are other aspects that need to be dealt with.
Much of the problem we have in deciding on liberties and our outlook to them is the fact that it is often needed in reaction to the fast way in which technologies which either give us new liberties or new ways to express them are developing, and the corollary of new technologies for curbing liberties. For example registering a citizen’s DNA could be seen as simple an extension of other items keeping account of our citizenry, such as the census, electoral roll and the registration of births marriages and death. It is only scary and new because it is a new thing that will be counted and registered. Looked at ideologically, the retention of DNA from citizens accused and acquitted of a crime is a strike against an innocent person’s liberty. Taking ideology out of the equation, the retention of the DNA has literally no effect on that citizen. Unless they happen to later commit a crime that this retention later helps to solve. This seems to me to be to be luddism dressed up as civil liberties. A rejection of progress dressed up as a civil liberties issue. Unless you are a pure Libertarian, you accept that the state is entitled to keep certain records. The keeping of the records is not – from a non-ideological perspective – an abuse of liberty. It’s what you do with the information that counts.
Equally from the oppositve perspective, ID cards were proved before the idea had got out of the Home Office door to be utterly useless at dealing with the crime of identity theft. The technology used by the criminals was much more agile than any Government system could ever be. The Government got caught up in its excitement over a technology and ignored the fact that the answer to question one was no, it won’t work.
If Labour can move to a properly understood middle ground on Civil Liberties, we could undo a lot of the damage that is done when our factions cry “woolly liberal” or “fascist” at each other. We can accept that we are not a Party with a settled view, and while continuing to argue over the specifics, lose the tag of class-traitor that both sides attache to the other. We can also be better understanding of the actions of our Governments when they try to act in the interests of society one way or the other. Equally we can have a strong line to take on doing the right, not the expedient, thing one way or the other.