If the trumpet give an undertain sound, who shall prepare himself?

by Elias Blum


The above text, by the former Labour politician Dennis Healey, who passed away today, is the basis of the unprincipled pragmatism of New Labour. It is the sort of argument that is levelled at Jeremy Corbyn today. I don’t know whether it was wrong then, but it is wrong today – and here’s why:

  • Firstly, it assumes the only way to influence policy is to be in government.
  • Secondly, it assumes that being in government will influence policy. .
  • Thirdly, it assumes that the position of the average voter cannot be changed.

I’m not convinced that any of these assumptions hold true.

  • There are ways to influence policy without being in government, by shaping the agenda and the terms of debate.
  • There have been Labour governments whose principles have been so diluted that they have had little or no influence on policy.
  • We have seen how a succession of right-wing political speech has so shaped the range of acceptable discourse to change public opinion.

On the same basis, the SNP would never have achieved power. Independence for Scotland was, when the party was founded, the obsession of a tiny romantic or visionary fringe. By this logic, the SNP should have tracked public opinion to win power – and then done nothing too alarming with it – rather than set out their stall, stick to it, and do the hard work of convincing people of their case. If the Labour Party wants to have a purpose, beyond the pursuit of office for its own sake, then it should be willing to set out its stall, speak boldly and confidently, and thereby exert a positive influence over policy while building up a base of support that will see it winning office not as a mere electoral cartel but as a party of principle.

If Corbyn has courage and vision, that would be a legacy worth striving for.