Labor concern for ‘values’ a fundamental policy error | Alain Finlayson
THEunion leaders love to talk about values. Gordon Brown and Jeremy Corbyn both paid tribute to what the latter called ‘British majority shared values’. Last month, Keir Starmer presented the party’s narrow victory to Batley and Spen as proof that “when we are true to our values… Labor can win”. More recently, its new chief strategist, pollster Deborah Mattinson, reportedly said that Labor’s main challenge was to develop “clearer, more precise and more edifying messages on the values of the party”.
So far, the Labor leader has adhered with particular intensity to an orthodoxy that ‘values’ are the source of political commitment – and therefore Labor cannot do anything until it has convinced the electorate that they share their values. It is a terrible mistake. Politics is not based on values but on requests.
For most of us, party politics matters but is not central to our moral life. Politics is how collective decisions are made about things government might (or might not) do – things we do or don’t want. These desires come in all shapes, colors and sizes: higher pensions, no restrictions on planning, more national flags on public buildings, fewer wars, capital punishment, no harassment at work, affordable housing. , cancellation of student debt, no more wind farms. The list is endless.
Some may categorize these needs as cultural or economic, materialistic or moral. It’s not serious. These aren’t exactly “fully encrypted policies”, but neither are they abstract values. These are things people can (and often do) demand from society, the economy and government. And they are the raw material of politics. Political parties identify them, extract them and refine them. If they are good at politics, they reformulate and organize these demands into a comprehensive, unifying, iconic and summarizing proposition – “spend more on the NHS”, “education, education, education”, “leave the EU” – around which a coalition large enough to gain power can be built.
Because the participants in such a coalition are united around demands, they do not need to share the same values. Maybe your values come from Methodism; maybe i got mine from my mom. For us to be political allies, I don’t need to be converted to your religion, and you don’t need to meet my parents. I might want wind farms for environmental reasons; you might want them for job creation. I will support your call to end student debt if you support mine for higher pensions. Our reasons may be different but we always agree on the request.
Political alliances succeed despite values not because of them; they thrive when people stop trying to agree on basic philosophies in order to do something specific. Groups and individuals supporting the leave in 2016 included anti-immigration obsessives and free market fundamentalists, retired miners on the Lincolnshire coast and chairmen of parish councils in the opulent villages of Norfolk. These do not share culture or values. They had a range of different demands that in 2019 the Tories promised to meet by delivering Brexit. The problem for Labor at the moment is not that the values held by its electoral coalition are too diverse, but that their different demands are not being solicited and aligned. Forging this unity is called political leadership.
Policy advisers probably think “values” are more important than requirements because political scientists’ research seems to say so. Voting behavior specialists have found that if you want to guess how someone voted in the last election, your chances of being right are higher if you combine information about an individual’s social, economic or professional situation with their response to so-called “statements of value”. (about, say, capital punishment, schooling or legal authority). It is an interesting and important finding. But that doesn’t translate into a simple way to win votes.
If I tell you that in a particular country there are a lot of palm trees, you would be reasonable to think that it is probably often hot there. But you would be wrong in concluding that planting a million palm trees would make the UK a tropical paradise. Likewise, if I tell you that a lot of voters say they like to wield the union jack, that’s useful information. But it does not follow that planting flags everywhere will make the political climate more conducive to the growth of Labor voters. Arborists and politicians both sow seeds in complex ecologies kept green by meeting basic demands.
“Values” have a place in this ecology. But they grew up there as a political “character”. A party’s promise to meet our demands is useless if we think it is lying, or that it is sincere but naive. But demonstrating your political character is more complicated than simply announcing that you are “trustworthy” or “competent”. Character is not – most of the time – something we value in the abstract. What matters is that someone is trustworthy or knowledgeable about specific requests. For example, I don’t ask my hairdresser to take care of my money, my bank to drive me to the train station on time, or the taxi company to cut my hair. I trust them to do what they’re good at. If we are to trust a politician with power, we must first know what he will do with it – which of our demands he could meet.
Consequently, the perceived political character is inseparable from the demands to which it is linked. Voters who “trust” Boris Johnson know they don’t lend him money, don’t have his child, or publish his racist novel. They want Westminster to drop an ankle or two and the ‘political class’ to be punished for their arrogance and indifference. Playing the role of a chaotic wild card unconstrained by the rules of normal politics, and hinting that Westminster is a sham he doesn’t take seriously, Johnson looks like he can be trusted to ruin the place. It is his response to the request. And when Labor politicians present themselves as responsible, traditional professionals, they imply that the only demand they will meet is for Westminster politics to resume business as usual.
There are a lot of other raw demands waiting to be forged in a political movement. There is the demand for a post-Brexit trade policy that understands the problems leaving the EU has created and more than makes the government look harsh in the headlines. Labor has started talking about it but need to say more. The demands on the job – availability, pay and conditions – are starting to be listened to and should be seen as part of larger demands for safety, dignity, time and space to plan for the future. There is the demand of the majority of people for whom the climate crisis is a top priority. But Labor seems too often embarrassed by its own Green New Deal, even as Joe Biden implements his. There is huge demand for the provision of adult social care, but a Labor leader said the party is too scared of the Tories to talk about it. And there is the democratic demand that our politics be reformed so that power and control is dispersed rather than concentrated more in the hands of Downing Street officials eager to hand out supply contracts to their friends.
Starmerism generally avoids the language of these claims, preferring harmless reiterations of values. “Labor only wins when it sees the future,” he correctly informed the Financial Times this week, but he chose to highlight only his “passion” to change the country and his “pride” of the achievements of previous Labor governments. Confusing means and ends, Starmer says his strategic vision is “to win the next election.” Politicians cannot declare themselves the winners until they have won over the voters. To do this, we must seize the raw demands that are waiting to be forged into a political movement.
An opposition does not need an “encrypted manifesto”. But a party that does not explicitly, systematically and loudly recognize and reorganize political demands does not engage in politics, no matter how proud it is of its historic “values.” Many liberal, centrist and left activists like to think and speak in abstractions with capital letters: Hope, Confidence, Decency. Many of them are happier when they are convinced that they are living up to these values. Politics is their church. But most of us don’t go to this church. We demand a more secular redemption.
We see – rightly, I think – that politicians exercising their the values will not regulate the end-of-life care of our parents, protect our democracy or improve the education of our children. We need to know what the politicians will do with the power they ask us to give them. Their character is revealed when they choose to answer some requests and not others – by their response to the call to action. When they don’t act, the resulting character judgment is swift, ruthless, and very difficult to rewrite.