About ten years ago, whenever I visited Europe, I always used to look the wrong way when crossing the road. But not, as you might think, just out of habit and instinct; it's slightly odder than that. I consciously thought about which way to look but still got it wrong. It was just the dumbest thing. I would actually stop, think about the way I should be looking, and still somehow look the wrong way.
Eventually I came to realise what was going wrong in my head. Basically, I had TWO instructions going on: one was (a) here in France, you need to look left as you cross the road, and (b) here in France, you need to look in the opposite direction from what you think. Both of these instructions are fine and each would on their own likely produce the right result. But both of these instructions together are a disaster; they cancel each other out. I'd think 'look right' then the other instruction would suggest I reverse that, so I'd look left. You have to choose one.
And which one? Well, (a) is actually much better than (b), because (b) is ultimately self-cancelling. If it works and becomes instinctive, then it will at some point come to feed on itself. You start by using the instruction to look left when habit told you to look right; but once you're now instinctively looking left, the instruction tells you to look right again.
Strangely enough, it's simpler when there's more than two options, when changing currency or learning a new language and it's not simply a binary. No one speaks French by thinking 'fromage is just the opposite of cheese'. You just learn to say fromage. In other words, you need to teach yourself to do what's right, not what's different.
I bring this up because of the Labour leadership elections. A whole series of candidates have put themselves forward (and some have already taken themselves back) for the job. But look what's happening: candidate after candidate has denounced the 2015 manifesto, the manifesto that they all signed up to and on which they all campaigned. Most of the candidates have been insisting that what the Labour Party needs to do is ditch their former policies and do the opposite. Liz Kendall has declared that Miliband's Labour was not 'aspirational' enough, that it should distance itself from the trade unions, and embrace privatisation in the NHS, the school system and in university teaching. Andy Burnham has complained that Miliband's Labour was anti-business and that the party needs to 'celebrate the spirit of enterprise'. He's also said it was a mistake to be running a deficit before the crash of 2008, as does Mary Creagh. Yvette Cooper also thinks Miliband was anti-business and has pledged to support cuts in Corporation Tax and to set up a advisory group of business leaders. Caroline Flint, standing for the Deputy Leadership, has suggested that the party should give a 'kick up the backside' to people on benefits.
All of these positions seem to be based on ditching the principles on which they fought the election. This is stupid for many reasons: Labour got 9.3 million votes last month. The Tories got 11.3 million. It was hardly a landslide; it was close. In fact, as this chart shows, only twice in the last forty years has it been closer. Why this rush to sweep everything away?
General Elections since 1979: 2nd-placed party as a proportion of 1st
A widely-circulated article in The Mirror suggested that - due to the vagaries of our first past the post system - the votes of only 900 people secured Cameron his majority. Why go for Tory policies? 11.3m people voted for the Tories but 19.4m voted for other parties. That hardly says to me that there's electoral gold in them policy hills. It also makes the candidates look absurd: how can we take seriously someone who believes in a Mansion Tax in March but fulminates against it in May?
But most of all, the stupidity is that they are doing (b). They're looking at where we were and just doing the opposite. We wanted to rein in the fatcats? Let's encourage the fatcats. We wanted to protect the unemployed? Let's kick the unemployed. We opposed NHS privatisation? Let's support NHS privatisation. We rejected Tory claims that Labour ruined the economy? Let's agree that we did.
I think we're being misled by the topography. In 1789, during the French Revolution, when the Assemblée Nationale was founded, supporters of Liberty tended to gather on the left side of the room (relative to the Chair), leaving supporters of the King on the right. This more-or-less spontaneous grouping slowly became sedimented into French political life: when the Legislative Assembly was formed in 1791 and again, a year later, when the National Convention met these divisions were duplicated. and by 1815, after the Restoration of the Monarchy, the left-right axis had become an established way of identifying not just the broad political groupings, but, within them, the level of radicalism (with the terms far right, far left, centre right and centre left coming into usage). The left-right axis spread through the press and by the 1820s spread out of the chamber to the public who began to identify themselves as being on the left or the right.*
Labour has to get out of this left-right thinking. In part, because it has no option. Labour faces twin threats of SNP and UKIP. The SNP has, on the whole, a much more leftish programme; UKIP have a much more right-wing programme. The more Labour moves to the left, the more it risks shedding voters to UKIP; the more it moves to the right, the more it entrenches its incredible losses to the SNP. There is no future for Labour in repositioning; it needs to reject the whole topography.
What Labour must do is reassert and argue firmly, clearly and uncompromisingly for its basic values, of making the UK a fairer, more just, more creative and open society. Let's not fall into the delusion that because we looked left last time we have to look right the next. Conceding Tory policies to send out a signal that Labour is listening will actually just send out the signal that the party has no values and its members no integrity. The whole 'repositioning' debate is a distraction. Labour must do (a) not (b): what's right, not just what's different.
* Marcel Gauchet, 'Right and Left,' Translated by Arthur Goldhammer, In Realms of Memory, Volume I: Conflicts and Divisions, edited by Pierre Nora and Lawrence D Kritzman, Rethinking the French Past, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, pp. 241-98 is a rather brilliant history of these terms.