I have written and published a poem about how much I love an argument, despite the energy and the depression it causes. Contrarian Blues Like Hitchens, for me a good day should include at least a modicum of disputation. As Hegel observed, the dialectic process produces ideas and solutions in its synthesis which transcends either the thesis or its antithesis. Or some such balls: for me an argument challenges my views, knocks some of my crazier ideas on the head, and enlightens me.
Indeed, one of the reasons I am opposed to a Tory-free politics in Scotland is the lack of political challenge: social democrats need a direct and hard-headed enemy. A body politic needs the same as the human psyche, in the words of Martin Luther King, a tender heart and a tough mind. For society as a whole it means a constant questioning of what should be provided communally and how it can be paid for. For Labour, for example, it means a continuous internal debate about the respective roles of welfare and the means of providing it.
So why am I finding the current Labour Party debate depressing? The answer is that I have had the same arguments twice before in the last year: in the Scottish independence debate, and in the General Election.
And like those arguments, the one on the Labour leadership comes down to this: do you believe in evidence or do you believe faith?
The evidence-based argument is that Labour only wins when it embraces the centre ground. This what Labour’s most successful leaders did: Blair, Wilson – and yes, Attlee, whose government embraced the post-war orthodoxy of domestic state control and an aggressive anti-communist foreign policy. Wilson’s governments were based technocratic economic orthodoxy and their greatest achievements were centrist liberal reforms: votes at 18, penal reform, abolition of censorship, lives saved by seatbelts and the breathalyser, comprehensive education and the Open University.
The Blair/Brown governments perhaps sum up the Labour Party at its best: a broad coalition of democratic socialists, social democrats and liberal centrists, which brought about the same sort of liberal reforms (such as devolution) and a wider measure of redistributive policies than Wilson had managed: the National Minimum Wage, tax and pension credits and other poverty measures which reduced poverty for millions, record investment in the NHS and education, the right to trade union representation, Sure Start etc.
The evidence is that Labour wins when it includes the centre in its broad church, and that when we win, we can achieve great things for those in society who most need them.
The faith based case is as follows.
People really want something beyond what Labour has ever offered. They want the transformation of the economy and society into a socialist commonwealth. When asked what this will be like, and how it will operate, things become more difficult, not least because there is no evidence of such a society ever having existed.
In the days before the fall of the USSR, communists would tell us it was the Soviet Union. Trotskyists would tell us it was what the Soviet Union would have become if not for Stalin. Since then, we have had the DDR, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Colombia. None of these stand up to scrutiny, and even their adherents hedge their praise with “well, if it wasn’t for US imperialism…”
The other way in which the faith-based socialist commonwealth is defined is by what it is not. For example it would not be New Labour’s Britain: “no inequality, no wars, no banking crisis, no Trident, no nuclear power, no expenses scandals…” Which still does not define what it actually be like, how it would work, where is similar, how its economy would support its welfare system, its levels of taxation, its means of increasing productivity, its defence policy. There is little or no evidence.
And there is a second article of faith: that people will vote for this chimera. The argument goes that Labour does not need the centre because such a programme will be so attractive to and so much in the self-interest of voters. In particular, it will inspire the non-voting working class to all register and install a radical socialist government indefinitely once Labour gives them the call. Again there is little evidence to suggest this will happen.
Indeed, the most recent evidence is quite the opposite. In the much quoted Scottish independence referendum, the No campaign won on the basis of solid evidence, above all on the economy. Scots were convinced that independence would make them worse off, so rejected independence. Likewise, the Tories won the May election through an old-fashioned campaign of targeted negative campaigning: vote Miliband, get Sturgeon. In Scotland, the SNP wiped Labour out – but not on the basis of an idealistic manifesto.
A new variant of the wishful thinking politics is that we are now entering a new age. This states that in the light of the internet, there is a freedom of information and opinion which frees people from the shackles of the old control exercised by the establishment through the media. Therefore everyone will see that a new left politics will be to their benefit, and will vote in the socialist commonwealth which will have no inequality, no wars etc. (see above)
This argument has three major flaws. The first is the immediate evidence of the 2014 referendum and the 2015 General Election. The second is that there are as many right wing views as left wing ones to be found on the internet. And the third is that people always regarded the old media with scepticism, as in “do you believe everything you read in the papers?” To assume otherwise, i.e., that voters would have supported leftwing policies if the Sun had not told them otherwise, is patronising and insulting to those voters.
So that’s me: firmly on the side of evidence.
I rejected the articles of faith of the Scottish independence movement: that oil would sell at $133 dollars a barrel, that Scotland could keep the pound, that Scotland could achieve growth levels in excess of 10% if only it was independent, that productive young people would turn their backs on London and opt to stay in the hills and glens. Likewise I rejected the almost mystical reliance on “Our Nicola” and her plan to abolish austerity by increasing Scotland deficit by £10 billion.
And I now reject the faith-based mania which appears to be sweeping Jeremy Corbyn into the lead in Labour’s leadership campaign. There is no evidence that he has the capability to lead the party effectively. There is no evidence that he can win the 100+ seats we need at the next election. There is no evidence that he can be a great reforming PM like Attlee, Wilson or Blair. There is no evidence that many of his policies will work or would be the best use of resources.
So I am not voting for him. I would prefer a single candidate against him who combines Yvette Cooper’s experience, Liz Kendall’s imagination and Andy Burnham’s campaigning credentials. Unfortunately none exists, so I will use the device of the preferential ballot to vote for all of them.
And I will not be in the argument any more, at least on social media. I have had enough of arguing for evidence against increasingly blind faith.
Perhaps it is like being Galileo against the Pope. We are talking about different universes. And life is too short.