How do you balance purity of principle with achieving power?
It is principles (or lack thereof) that lies at the heart of all politics. It was principles that drove the Liberals under Lloyd George to create Old Age Pensions; Clement Attlee’s Labour to found the National Health Service and the creation of Right to Buy under Thatcher’s Conservatives. Principles are the driving force of our system but alone principles are nothing more than ideas. To change the world you need power.
The theory seems simple enough: apply your principles and win power, but for the British Left at least, this is little more than wishful thinking. If you are lucky your ideology may align perfectly with a good chunk of the electorate and thus to achieve power, all the party must do is spread the message of its principles. For the UK, the Conservatives’ key principles of individualism, nationalism and social conservatism align with the majority of elderly and middle class voters, which also happen to be the two groups in society most likely to vote. Therefore the Tories have an easy majority whilst being able to leave their principles unchanged. Whilst I think it would be unwise to say they have a natural majority, they certainly have an excellent advantage. The real victim in the conundrum of how to balance principles with gaining power is the Labour Party.
Whilst I would not go so far as to say that social democratic policies are inherently unelectable, they do certainly face a significant handicap when taking the UK’s constituencies into account. Broadly speaking, Labour politics do well in multicultural, working class (although that is coming under scrutiny due to UKIP), urban areas whereas Conservative politics are strongest in predominantly white, rural, middle-class constituencies. The Government estimates that 276 of the 573 constituencies in England and Wales are either ‘Major or Large Urban’. Considering as how practically every rural constituency will vote Conservative, or at a push Liberal Democrat, that already puts Labour at a natural disadvantage. Consider then how also urban constituencies are split between the Labour-strong inner cities and the Tory leaning leafy suburbs, then Labour is put at a considerable electoral disadvantage when fighting on its own social-democratic principles.
How then, can Labour overcome this seemingly insurmountable hurdle? To put it simply, there are two ways: to have the people’s attitudes align with that of the Party, or have the Party’s policies align with the views of the people. The former seems ideal – the Party does not lose its principles to gain power but the task of aligning an entire population with socialist views away from conservative or traditionalist roots is immense. This has happened before, most prominently during the election in 1945, but to hold a World War before every election seems, at best, quite tricky. Alternatively, in ordinary circumstances, the Party can try and convince the British people that they should vote for their undiluted principles, which, as Michael Foot could tell you is very difficult indeed.
This therefore leaves Labour with the other option: aligning the Party to the public’s attitudes or at least a combination of moving towards the public and moving the public towards the Party, to meet at a compromise. This worked highly successfully in 1997, with the creation and rise of New Labour, but as the twice election of Jeremy Corbyn has shown, New Labour has become a toxic brand within the Party. It was perceived that the price of sacrificing key Labour principles, such as nationalisation of key industry, was not worth it for the 13 years of rule, no matter the good which came of it. Now the Party is in a kind of limbo – having been torn apart by two leadership campaigns in as many years we have seen a return to the similar rift that split the Party between Bevan and Gaitskell in the 1950’s. It is a battle for the soul of the Party and compromise is exceptionally difficult.
No issue exemplifies the Party’s dilemma more than its policy on immigration. The status quo attitude to immigration, for all major parties, was proved to be demonstrably inadequate to the British people through the Brexit vote but this leaves the Party with quite the conundrum… a power-principle conundrum if you will. In option one, the Party sticks to its principles: immigration is shown as a vital tool in our economic arsenal and closing our borders is touted as potentially xenophobic and nationalistic. Whilst the membership may be happy with the purity of its policy, this attitude would be rejected by the electorate – 77% of people would like to see immigration reduced according to research by Oxford University and immigration is seen as the most important issue for voters, above the NHS and the economy. To stick with the principle would alienate the voters and lead to Conservative Government. However, the alternative option may be no less problematic. If Labour were to suddenly change policy and side with a majority of its former voter base, the white working class, then, although the Party may win more seats, the members more focused on principles would be in uproar and could tear the Party apart, mitigating the benefits that the policy change could bring.
I didn’t start writing this article to answer the question. Principles are key but what are they if you cannot exercise them in power? What is the right thing for a Party to do in this instance? Broadly speaking, we could also ask the deeper question of is it a political party’s job to hold principles or purely exist to gain power? Whatever the answer is, this conundrum will not easily be solved but for the sake of Labour, it better be answered soon.
I hope you enjoyed my first little article. This is just my opinion but hopefully it has given you food for thought. What do you think about the Power-Principle question? What topic would you like to see me cover in the future?
Thanks for reading and see you next week!