Chasing the middle ground

There is an interesting review by Alex Wood of Alistair Darling’s new book ‘Back from the Brink’ (Atlantic Books) in the Scottish Review. Essentially this is Alastair’s take on the banking crisis and some broader thoughts about political strategy.

I will admit from the outset that I am not a big fan of the former Chancellor. In particular his, our cuts will be “tougher and bigger” than Thatcher’s, almost led me to giving up on the 2010 election campaign. That one stupid phrase illustrated just how managerial Labour had become in government. However, I am willing to give credit to his handling of the crisis itself. Without the decisions he and Gordon Brown made at the time we would be in an even bigger mess. That’s not to say that his light touch regulatory approach didn’t contribute to the crisis, but he wasn’t alone in that, including Alex Salmond.

Wood argues that the book leaves him with several profound impressions including:

“Gordon Brown’s government appears a directionless combination of warring cabals, beset by personal jealousies and without any consensus on the moral purpose of a Labour administration.”

The book presents bank crises as always possible and banks as inevitably fallible and with only a limited capacity to foresee disasters. Despite the many warnings that are not mentioned in the book!

“The job of politicians is simply to manage the system as calmly and rationally as possible. The bankers appear, with a few, individual honourable exceptions, as short-sighted, self-centred and self-serving. Their expectation of government was a one-way deal. ‘When times are good, get off our backs; when they are bad, you have to help us.’ Labour duly did as the bankers expected.”

And on alternative actions,

“given the systemic failure of the privately-owned banking system, a Labour government might have seen maintaining a significant stake in such banks as a mechanism to avoid the much wider economic catastrophe which a banking crash would have brought and which remains possible. Nationalisation, not to create a socialist utopia but to ensure that a key part of the economic system kept running, would have made practical sense. “

Finally we get Wood’s conclusions, “As I read ‘Back from the Brink’ and as I listened at the book festival to my old friend’s calm and urbane explanation of Labour’s position, his assertion that Labour manages the system better than the Tories and that Alistair Darling’s approach to managing the crisis was better than Gordon Brown’s, what remained was a sense of loss.”

“Many, myself included, have moved far from the certainties of the politics of the 1970s and 80s but still seek to discern some moral purpose in the political arena. It appears sadly obvious that if all politicians occupy the middle ground, and his book lauds that tactical priority, it will become an over-crowded place occupied by essentially indistinguishable politicians and electoral cynicism will grow even further.”

“If the political system is never open to fundamental challenge, if ideology disappears, then politics devolves, as ‘Back from the Brink’ implies, to a mere competition in managerial competence. These are essentially conservative politics, offering, at best, a more effective maintenance of the financial and economic status quo than the brash and divisive conservatism of David Cameron.”

Some very good points in this review that reflect many of the concerns about New Labour that led to the Revitalise Network being formed. Chasing the middle can have adverse political as well as economic consequences.