What are Labour’s virtues?
I have found myself harking back to the mid-nineties a lot in the last few days. The excitement and anticipation of the 1997 election was amazing. We were a confident party, we had ideas and a sense of direction, and people were with us.
Like lots of members, I have also been reflecting on our pledge card. It seems to me that the individual pledges were not what was important. It was that the card crystallised our sense of mission and purpose. It represented the confidence that we had and that people had in us.
Where I think we have gone wrong these last few years is in thinking that the pledges matter more than what they represent.
The emerging analysis of this defeat is that we were pincered: too left wing for England and too right wing for Scotland. We failed to meet the aspirations of middle England or meet the demands for radicalism of “yes” Glasgow. But this analysis is flawed.
There was little in the Tory manifesto that pointed to aspiration. Their entire approach seemed to be about us pointing to “chaos”, franticly attempting to calm fears over the NHS and promising to hammer the welfare budget. Hardly the “Morning in America” brand of feel-good conservative ambition. Similarly, in Scotland, the SNP barely campaigned on policy let alone argued for anything that out-flanked us from the left. Their whole campaign rested on one slogan and one person: “Stronger for Scotland” with Nicola Sturgeon subtly yet confidently smiling.
The problem is that most people who talk about politics think about it in a completely different way to most voters. We want it to be about arguments, facts, justification, merit and achievement. We hope that every leaflet we put through a door is carefully read and compared to the others. We expect our policies are closely considered and contrasted with those of our opponents. In the political anoraks’ world-view, votes should be decided only after scoring each manifesto to see which party most accurately reflects your particular beliefs and personal situation. Except this is not how it works in practice and this election result bears it out more than most.
This election was about security and confidence. The last five years have been bruising. Household bills have soared, we have all felt a less secure at work and, in Scotland, we have had a referendum that brought tensions and divisions to the surface that everyone is desperate to see healed. People north and south of the border voted for the party they felt was safest, the party where they understood how it would act and respond.
For English voters, they know the Tories are hard-nosed and perhaps even selfish, but they feel they won’t shirk tough choices to stabilise and secure our economy. In Scotland, faced with the prospect of the harshness of continued Tory governance, voters backed the party they felt would not compromise and would pursue their interest stridently and confidently.
By contrast people were confused by Labour. On the doorstep, people liked our individual policies like tackling energy prices, lowering university tuition fees in England and Wales, employing more nurses in Scotland and increasing the minimum wage. These were all good policies but people were not confident about how we would act as a government. They didn’t understand how we would make our judgements and what things would shape our decisions – it was a question of character.
Labour will not emerge from this crisis through policy or positioning. Those things are merely indicators, tokens or justifications for much more fundamental political judgements that voters use as they go to the polls. Duncan Hothersall recently wrote on this blog that we are in an era of “post-rational politics”. This is probably true, but we need to take the analysis further. I think we can take this a step further and conceive of ourselves as located in an era of “Virtue Politics”.
Increasingly, people are making their judgements based on the perception of character and the credibility of political leaders and parties. People largely do not engage with politics at the detailed policy and analytic level. Rather they seek politicians and parties whose character and judgement they feel they can trust. In other words, they seek politicians and political parties who exhibit virtues they feel are best suited to the country.
In essence this is nothing new. At the point of marking their ballot paper, voters have always aggregated and assimilated information from all sources and made a judgement that is as much emotional as it is rational. What has changed is that the importance of virtues has become greater. Newspaper columns are read by fewer and fewer people, public meetings are increasingly rare and participation in most institutions once considered vital parts of civic society are in decline. In its place we have the mass dialogue of social media. In this new environment the need for intuitive and less detailed judgement becomes more critical.
Virtue politics means taking greater care of our underlying values and purpose; ensuring that everything we say and do explains and extends these central concepts. It is an idea borrowed from moral philosophy. Virtue ethics was revived as a response to the more formulaic schools of moral thought. The central thesis was that while ideas like utilitarianism were perfectly rational, they lost an important element of moral character and intuitive judgments. Moral judgements do not stem from calculating good arising from different options, they stem from virtues such as altruism, kindness and selflessness.
We must think of our politics in the same way and we have a good story to tell. We must contrast the Tories’ shrewdness with our solidarity. We must challenge the Nationalists’ national strength with our mission for equality and community.
But it is not enough to simply assert our virtues. Moral character is not judged by explanation, it is judged by exposition. We must bring our political virtues to life explaining how we have realised them in the past and applying them to the future. We must tell the story of both our party and people bringing our policy to life. Policy cannot be about percentages and spending, it must be about people’s lives and opportunity. Above all else, our policy and positioning must grounded within this framework but also seek to reveal our political virtues.
Being in power for 13 years was a good thing for Labour and our country. But the problem is we have a generation of leaders who think in policy memos. We come up with clever stuff, things that will work. But the electorate does not think in bullet points.
Various leadership candidates have pointed to particular policies or a lack of aspiration as being the cause of our defeat, but our analysis and response needs to be deeper than this. People want to understand our character, to feel confident in our judgement and know we will act in their best interest. Our politics must be grounded in our character and virtue. And these must be Labour in conception, act and outcome if people are to trust us again.