Looking for a fight.

AuthorGarland, Nick

Dimitri Batrouni, The Battle of Ideas in the Labour Party: From Attlee to Corbyn and Brexit, Bristol 2020

In this book, Dimitri Batrouni has set out to show that ideas have played a central role in the internal politics of the Labour Party. Which is good news for Renewal.

Batrouni categorises ideas according to scale: 'philosophical' (capitalism vs socialism); 'programmatic' (Keynesianism vs neoliberalism); and specific policies. But the ideas he explores do not fit easily into these categories. And rather than the battle between competing ideas, his focus is really on the search from 1994 onwards for a single 'big idea', able to serve both as narrative framing and as the source of a policy agenda. These two priorities drive Batrouni's narrative, as he explores different leaders' efforts to find the right combination of story and programme. In general, this is an account of failure.

Hence, the 'New Labour' period is characterised here in terms of its initial flirtation with two 'big ideas'--communitarianism and stakeholder capitalism--which were used primarily as a way of emphasising newness and difference. In the place of a real commitment to 'ideas', Batrouni argues that the party came to embrace personality politics and, once in office, the role of 'technocratic managers of the state' (p61). The result was that the party's credibility was fatally undone by the 2008 financial crisis, and after thirteen years of government, the project failed 'to leave a legacy of a new dominant idea that would reshape British politics' (p62).

In this account, Ed Miliband's leadership was dominated by the failed search for an idea that could provide programmatic and political renewal for the party. Batrouni argues that both Blue Labour and 'predistribution' were flawed ideas which contained some important insights and served some key political ends. However, both were first watered down, in a bid to avoid conflict, and then semi-abandoned because of their lack of clarity. Where Blue/One Nation Labour offered a (divisive) narrative (one which, Batrouni notes, foreshadowed the party's subsequent electoral setbacks) but not policy solutions, predistribution presented the opposite problem--a wealth of policy ideas detached from the narrative Labour was looking for. Miliband's political weakness and the party's dividedness--he lacked a mandate from either the Parliamentary Party or the membership--meant that his political energies were spent alienating as few people as possible, and the ideas which might have...

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