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It's the (whatever it happens to be in this case), stupid!

Kier Starmer has rejected an increased Labour vote share in the general election (now looking pretty likely) as a step forward for Labour, saying “The vote share has to be compared with the vote share of a rival party and therefore establishing a reasonable vote share if your rival gets much more of a vote share just doesn’t do it.”. Starmer made his view of political success very clear when he said “Winning elections is all I’m here for, that’s why I came into it”.

In rejecting that increased vote share (but not being in government) is a positive measure, Starmer implies that Labour’s role is not primarily to convince voters that Labour represents what is good politically in any kind of absolute sense, but that it is better than the Conservatives, even if better just means ‘less bad’.

Labour’s moderates seem to be concerned that the Conservatives are taking on Blair’s mantle as the party of the third way, ignoring that the third way is economically a busted flush that is highly unlikely to be able to reproduce pre-2008 levels of growth and stability, despite the return to pre-2008 levels of speculative finance driven bubble inflation in lieu of investment driven growth.

In being preoccupied with the possibility that the Conservatives might be claiming ownership of some hypothetically electorally decisive centre-ground that would gift them a string of general election victories, Starmer (especially given his clear preference for the UK remaining in the EU) might do well to ask himself, ‘How many general elections (or even by-elections) has UKIP won?’, and compare the nil answer yielded with how comprehensively successful UKIP has been in achieving its primary political goal. How many of Labour’s primary political goals has it achieved, even while in government? Is Labour even clear about what its most primary political goals are?

Starmer showed recognition of this problem when he said, “You don’t win elections by telling people what you’re against. We’re very good at listing things we don’t much like about what the Tories are doing. But you win elections by telling them what you’re for, what you’re going to change, what’s going to be better. And we’re not in that place. And that’s where we’ve got to go to. Labour only wins when it offers that big vision that actually means things to people, where they think, ‘My life, my family, my community, and my country can get better, and will be better if these steps are put in place.’ And Labour can do that, but it does it rarely.”

UKIP has managed to achieve its primary political goal and has largely failed to achieve any of its other goals. It is perhaps a fair question what proportion UKIP supporters know what UKIP’s policies are that are not related to UK sovereignty. The excellent book, Made to Stick, makes some very interesting points about how to communicate ideas in ways that make them memorable and persuasive. An example the book uses is Bill Clinton’s election campaign’s use of the slogan ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’. Originally that slogan was one of three main slogans to be used in the campaign, but the other two (which no-one now remembers) were abandoned to maintain focus on the core message with the aim of making that message stick (which clearly worked; Clinton got elected and the phrase is still remembered- even if some of Clinton’s successors went on to forget the meaning of it).

So, what is the Labour party’s core message?

If Labour had to select one (and only one) primary goal to win public support for, a goal which the enactment of would be a great step for Labour’s agenda and which could conceivably be carried out by a non-Labour government, the highest priority such goal is not immediately obvious. Some sort of core goal for Labour might involve a guaranteed employment scheme that would pay well enough to provide a decent standard of living. However, even a goal as direct as that would not address the issues around the welfare of the elderly and the unwell (to the extent of being non-working) that Labour is much concerned with.

Possibly (warning- speculation ahead!), Labour’s core goal is to introduce laws (better yet, a principle in law) that mandates something like Kant’s moral imperative to treat people as ends and not as means to ends- In plainer language, not to permit laws to stand which allow the exploitation of people in ways that ignore or override those people’s own needs. A mechanism for such a principle might perhaps look something slightly like the Investor State Dispute Settlement mechanism seen in CETA and TTIP, but rather than empowering corporations to sue states it would guarantee means of recourse permitting class actions to be brought by infringed upon groups of private citizens against states and corporations alike.

Obviously, getting the details of such a principle and mechanism optimised would be a difficult task, and could be badly mishandled, but the technocratic liberal legalism that the centre-left has increasingly tended to adopt since the rise of neoliberal economics dominated politics ought in principle at least to be capable of (and even perhaps in some ways well adapted to) conceiving of and explicating this sort of a meta-legal principle. Does not the entire edifice of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for example symbolise the ambition to construct a reality around principles of what people should be entitled to?

If the foundational principles adopted in the UDHR had not concerned what people ought to be entitled to, but rather what responsibilities they accrued in their dealings with one another, then the world today might look quite different than it does. It may not be too late in the day for a new set of principles to be devised, the hammering-out of which might go a long way towards correcting the various distortions in left-leaning politics that have led to it becoming so unable to locate its path forward, compared to the agile and opportunistic successfulness of the contemporary right. Sort this problem out and maybe the elections will not be so hard to win afterwards.

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