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In praise of moral outrage: reply to Douglas Alexander


1:55 pm - January 3rd 2011

by Dave Osler    


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If I had to state the reasons I signed up to the Labour Party Young Socialists 30 years ago this year, the words ‘moral outrage’ would make for a pretty good two-word summary. The feeling has never entirely left me, and on my reckoning, Labour today could do with more of this commodity rather than less.

Harold Wilson famously declared that the party was a crusade or it was nothing, and let’s just say that in the Blair years, it wasn’t exactly a crusade. Detestation at Britain’s obvious class-based inequalities – once a given on the Labour left, and at least a theoretical postulate for the Labour right – gave way to being intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.

Loyal Brownite Douglas Alexander, writing in the Guardian this morning, at least grudgingly concedes that ‘moral outrage is a laudable response to manifest unfairness’, which I suppose is progress of sorts. However, he warns, it is not an adequate electoral strategy.

Whoever said it was? I’m not sure who he is trying to finger with that remark. This is curiously softball polemic, mysteriously directed to ‘those on the centre left’ who unfortunately remain nameless.  But I am not aware of anyone on the centre left, or even on the hard left, calling for the next manifesto to be confined to ill-defined angry platitudes.

If Alexander is contending that Labour needs a persuasive platform capable of winning a plurality of the electorate, then the article would be devoid of worthwhile content. But from the tone of the piece, it is immediately clear that he is warning against any re-emergence of democratic socialist politics.  

All the relevant codewords are inserted in the text, from ‘the lessons of the 1980s’ to a dig at those nostalgics – again unnamed – who ‘believe that the poll tax riots and civil unrest brought down the last Tory government’. This presumably translates into a swipe aimed at a handful of union leaders and Labour backbenchers who are talking in these terms, and the audience that may be tempted to listen to them.

In place of strife, Alexander commends ‘pursuing a tough and sustained course to show we can be trusted with the nation’s finances’. Or, in plain English, a readiness to stress that Labour will make cuts, too.

How deep? Well, immediately before the last election, Alistair Darling stressed his readiness to undertake public spending reductions ‘tougher and deeper’ than those seen in the 1980s. Needless to say, this ‘back to the Thatcherite future’ call was not widely regarded as inspirational, and such a scheme will not be seen as any more appealing, however many times it is repackaged.

It is not clear that widespread austerity will work, even in its own terms. The reduction in economic growth such policies generate may even make reducing the deficit harder, as is already becoming apparent.

Instead of tacitly buying in to the coalition’s small state ideological fervour, Labour should build mass support for an alternative that would put jobs, services and tax justice ahead of the needs of the City. And yes, a little bit of moral outrage would certainly help.

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About the author
Dave Osler is a regular contributor. He is a British journalist and author, ex-punk and ex-Trot. Also at: Dave's Part
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Reader comments


Great stuff Dave.

Couldn’t agree more with your comment regarding the necessity of offering an alternative economic vision based on investment and job creation.

Labour made many many strategic mistakes in communication duing the period leading up to the election but two were key

1. It didn’t own its sucesses by trumpeting them. It seems embarassed to actually discuss the extra cash pumped into public services and the, albeit moderate redistribution, achieved through the tax credits system. This mean it couldn’t really state what it really stood for and what seperated it so clearly from the Conservatives. Endless sucking up the rich and the fear of actually saying we are in favour of redistribution and high quality public services funded through progressive taxation eroded the party’s USP.

2. It failed to deliver a coherent alternative to cutting the state instead it just accepted the Tory narrative on cuts and quibbled over the time frame. This was a catastrophic error as it has meant that the Tory narrative on the factors underlying the crisis – too much spending on a bloated public sector- has crystalized in the public consciousness and will be very hard to shift. The public may not like the cuts but if it believes that cuts were inevitable and the deficit was the consequence of too much public sector expenditure then we really are fucked.

I would also suggest that Alexander’s comment that:

So while it might be nostalgic for some to believe that the poll tax riots and civil unrest brought down the last Tory government – it’s not true. It was the emergence of a serious and credible opposition that finally ended the Tory years in power.

is utter bollocks. Labour’s election victory in 1997 had almost zero to do with Labour’s image. The party would have won with Basil Brush as party leader in 1997. By far the most important factor in the Conservative defeat was Black Wednesday and the damage that this did to the Conservative’s image for economic competence. Labour should bear that in mind when ceding all the ideological ground to the Conservatives on the management of the economy.

That “alternative” is using Richard Murphy’s economic analysis again.

That’s really not a solid basis to be basing the lives of 65 million people upon: however bad you think George Osborne is.

3. gastro george

And great stuff too, bubby.

Cheers George. I must admit I always enjoy your economic/political posting as well.

1. bubby

” I would also suggest that Alexander’s comment that:

So while it might be nostalgic for some to believe that the poll tax riots and civil unrest brought down the last Tory government – it’s not true. It was the emergence of a serious and credible opposition that finally ended the Tory years in power.

is utter bollocks. Labour’s election victory in 1997 had almost zero to do with Labour’s image. The party would have won with Basil Brush as party leader in 1997. By far the most important factor in the Conservative defeat was Black Wednesday and the damage that this did to the Conservative’s image for economic competence. ”

So what you are saying in effect Bubby is that it was the City that kicked the Tories out and delivered a Labour victory in 1997. With no shorting of the pound in 1992 there would have been no Black Wednesday.

So what you are saying in effect Bubby is that it was the City that kicked the Tories out and delivered a Labour victory in 1997. With no shorting of the pound in 1992 there would have been no Black Wednesday.

Not deliberately. I am pretty sure that George Soros didn’t conciously set out to screw the Tories when he trousered a billion pounds on Black Wednesday but the combined activities of speculators did have that effect.

At the end of the day British governments rise and fall primarily on the basis on whether they are trusted to run a sound economy. In this light Labour’s decison not to mount a highly aggressive counter-attack on the Tory narrative on the deficit is the political equivalent of placing a loaded revolver in your mouth.

7. gastro george

I’m conjuring up this image of George Soros agonising: “do I make a billion pounds and take the risk that the Tories might lose office”.

8. Robert Anderson

For all those in the labour party the blue labour cabal is a cancer that cannot be cut out. They are still devoted to the crackpot economic theories based on market fundamentalism that got us in this mess but which has in truth made the UK a cesspit for the last 30 years.

Regards

Bob

I tend to agree with you that when the public lose trust in a governments economic competence then it is all over for that government. The economy affects real people and the public don’t particularly care about all the other Westminster trivia that animates the political obsessives. After Black Wednesday, Labour pretty much led the polls for almost a decade until the fuel protests. Soros was the biggest name but one of many in a battle that the Tories had no chance of winning. They were pretty much the only ones who did not think the pound was grossly overvalued.

“Intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich, as long as they paid their taxes.”
Shame new labour concentrated more on the first part of that statement and made little effort on the ‘as long as’ part.

11. Scepticalbutopen

Your moral outrage at Douglas Alexander’s article is impressive, Dave. Your moral outrage is presumably of a higher order than Douglas’s. But you omit from your urging that “Labour should build mass support for an alternative that would put jobs, services and tax justice ahead of the needs of the City” commendation of motherhood and apple pie.

“Harold Wilson famously declared that the party was a crusade or it was nothing”

Ah yes that pure noble idealistic socialist Harold Wilson. Cant speaking louder than actions.

In reality the poll tax riots and such like did get Thatcher out of office because the Tories realized she’d gone to far so got shot of her. Labour were not a good enough alternative at the time though so the public backed a Tory selected alternative.

When the Tories were then hit by sleaze and a new change was needed, the public chose the Labour alternative because it was a much improved alternative.

The key is that the non-centre-left should probably stop sniping at the centre-left – and vice versa.

Moral outrage can help convey the importance of whatever the alternative is. But it needs an alternative if it is to achieve anything substantial.

At present Labour isn’t an alternative government. It hopefully will become one.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    In praise of moral outrage: reply to Douglas Alexander http://bit.ly/i29L6g

  2. CathElliott

    RT @libcon: In praise of moral outrage: reply to Douglas Alexander http://bit.ly/i29L6g





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