At least one of the candidates to succeed Ed Miliband as head of the British Labour Party understands where he went wrong. Liz Kendall writes in The Guardian that the party needs to be far more trusting of people to make their own decisions.
Miliband resigned after losing the election for Labour last month. His leadership had marked a departure from the centrist “New Labour” of former prime minister Tony Blair. Miliband moved his party back to the left and — despite his talk of “new politics” — revived what is one of socialism’s least attractive qualities: its inability to trust people.
Rather than rely on individuals to know what’s best for them and make their own decisions in a free market — allowing for the possibility that they might make bad decisions, like eating too much fast food or borrowing too much money — socialists would rather give “experts” the power to make choices for everyone.
In twentieth-century Britain, this left-wing mentality conspired with a right-wing paternalism to create one of the most centralized states in the developed world.
This is only sustainable so long as voters believe bureaucrats and politicians are actually smarter than they are. That might have been the case in the late 1940s when Britain’s welfare state was erected. But it’s certainly no longer the case today.
Since Miliband refused to repudiate Labour’s overspending before and in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, voters have been especially doubtful about his party’s ability to make intelligent decisions for the country. Kendall minces no words: “They didn’t believe the economy or their taxes would be safe in our hands.” So they gave David Cameron and his Conservative Party an overall majority instead.
If Labour is to regain voters’ trust and find a way forward for social democracy at a time when citizens are more assertive and more informed than ever, Kendall argues it needs to learn how to share power with citizens, communities and local governments.
Sharing power helps achieve better decisions. It is also a way of building people’s self-confidence, restoring civic pride and deepening our democracy.
Moreover, devolution would go some way to satisfying the surging nationalism of England and Scotland. Given the Scottish National Party’s wipeout of Labour north of the border, more power is likely to be devolved to Edinburgh soon. “We must support England’s right to its own voice too,” writes Kendall.
What’s less clear is how decentralization under a Labour Party led by Kendall would be different from decentralization as it is happening under the Conservatives.
Kendall recognizes that Labour let the Tories “steal our clothes” with their proposals to give more power to England’s major cities. “We held on to an urge to control that belongs in the past,” she argues. But her criticisms of the government’s plans are vague.
She writes, “Power needs to be shared with communities and individuals, not just with town halls and local politicians,” without spelling out how that should happen.
She adds, “Unlike the Tories, Labour understands we must work together to achieve this individual freedom and build a country we are all proud to call our own.” But what does that mean?
Kendall only entered Parliament in 2010 and may not win the leadership contest this time around. For one thing, her frank admissions about where Labour went wrong are not appreciated by everyone. Her policies, however ill-defined, are also too right-wing for some, including the trade unions which still have a big influence in electing the next leader. But if she loses and Labour repeats the mistake of electing a leader who is too far to the left, she would be a viable candidate in 2020 and that should worry the Conservatives.