HMS Vigilant.

This Trident Submarine is a Nuclear powered vessel contributing to NATO's nuclear deterrent. It is an advanced, high speed, long endurance underwater sub. These displace over 16 thousand tonnes and offer spacious accommodation on three decks. These carry up to 16 missiles each carrying 12 warheads.

Cold warheads and hot tempers: the return of Labour’s nuclear wars

HERE ARE A FEW first thoughts on Labour’s upcoming defence review – or rather the Trident bit of it. I don’t expect anyone to take much notice – most of the people involved seem to have held entrenched views for at least thirty-five years. You might want to put on some 80s music while reading this. If you’re old enough, it might make you feel young again.

Trident (and I mean here Trident with nuclear warheads, not the “I can’t believe it’s not Trident” version without them) is not essentially useless. It could be used, perhaps in some circumstances it would be used. So, it has uses. But Trident as a defence mechanism is, literally, useless. It’s value as a defence lies purely in it not being used.

There are no conceivable circumstances in which we could use Trident and remain “defended”. I find it impossible to imagine a British prime minister firing a Trident missile at a non-nuclear target. I tried hard to conjure up the image of some deranged figure in Downing Street, presumably drunk and egged on by a latter-day Dr Strangelove, moving his or her quivering finger towards the “button” (yes, I know there isn’t really a button) to fire a 4.8 megaton nuclear bomb at some god-forsaken desert town. But I just can’t see it. Can you?

If Trident is ever going to be used it would be either in retaliation for a nuclear attack on Britain which has already taken place or as a pre-emptive first strike against someone who might attack us with nuclear weapons. In both cases, we would have lost. In the first case, there should be no need to explain why. In the second, we have assume that anyone with nuclear weapons who is nasty enough to be worth nuking would retaliate with a nuclear strike against us. We end up with the same result. In either scenario, Trident would have failed to defend us.

Trident has no military use — it cannot be used in any military situation to further any military objective. Defence chiefs like the prestige Trident brings but I wonder how many would resist a credible promise to spend the entire cost (now estimated at £167bn) – or even half of it – on their conventional forces. Trident’s main value is diplomatic and “pre-military”: that it could defend us, not by being used, but by deterring someone from attacking us, whether or not they had nuclear weapons.

The deterrent argument has changed since I used to have these arguments in pubs in the 1980s (when I shifted from being a unilateralist to being a warmongering US lackey, apparently), when it was all about a complex game of bluff and counter bluff with the Soviet Union – a game which, like death itself, could drive you mad if you thought about it too much. Now, the question we have to ask ourselves is this: is there anyone out there who is likely to behave differently towards us because we have Trident from how they would behave if we didn’t?

Trident did not deter al-Qaeda from attacking us. It’s hard to believe that the reason Islamic State/Daesh have not yet attacked Britain is because we have Trident submarines lurking in the ocean somewhere (France is also a nuclear power after all). Kim Jong- un? Really? Does he even know where Britain is? The theory of deterrence rests on a degree of rational self-interest on the part of your opponent – it doesn’t apply to madmen.

There is also the argument that Trident is needed to protect us against future threats we don’t yet know about – Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “unknown unknowns”. The problem with this is that, if these threats are genuinely “unknown”, how do we know that Trident is the best or even a good way of protecting ourselves against them? We might just as well double the size of the army, build a fifty-foot wall around Britain or fill the channel tunnel with cement on the grounds that it might protect us against something.

Perhaps we think we can discern the faint outlines of these potential threats (the shadows of Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns”). What if China or Russia turn nasty? What if a relatively sophisticated state with a slightly unhinged leadership (Iran?) decides to have a pop at us, or tries to hold us to ransom? The problem here is that what evidence we have already points to Trident being useless in these situations. You might well think China and Russia are already quite nasty: Trident (or the French nuclear deterrent) didn’t stop Putin from annexing Crimea, destabilising our “ally” Ukraine or unleashing radioactive weapons on the streets of London in 2006. And the Iranian leadership has been slightly unhinged for most of my lifetime. Where is the evidence that Iran has ever posed a significant threat to Britain, or that the behaviour of the Iranian leadership has been changed one iota by the existence of Britain’s four Trident submarines? In these circumstances, Trident is, at best, a very over-priced insurance policy against a very remote risk – like paying thousands of pounds a year to insure yourself against a meteor strike. (Yes, it could happen, the results would be catastrophic, but, really, are you going to bother?)

The best argument for Trident is one its supporters are obviously reluctant to put forward. It’s that Trident is simply about showing off, in a world where showing off is, like it or lump it, important. Possession of a big fat nuclear weapons system is like a ticket to the VIP enclosure – it gets you noticed, it impresses people, it makes them think you must be a very important country indeed. It’s no coincidence that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are the world’s five oldest nuclear powers. No country that has acquired nuclear weapons has ever been willing to give them up. Viewed this way, Trident is a big fat fee we pay (much of it to the Americans) for a seat at the top table. It’s about diplomacy, not military defence.

I think it’s this loss of diplomatic face that Trident supporters really fear. And they may be right – diplomacy is an important component of defence, perhaps the most important part. But the question is whether this diplomatic golden ticket is really worth it, or whether we can do something better with a quarter of a trillion dollars.

My final thought is that if we do need a nuclear deterrent, why does it have to be Trident? Could we not develop our own fully independent system, as the French have managed to do? That would create even more jobs in the UK and give a welcome boost to our science and engineering sector. It might be on a smaller scale than Trident, but I reckon no one likes being nuked, by a Trident submarine or anything else.

All of this assumes, of course, that the defence review is looking for the right defence strategy for the country, not just the right one for the Labour Party – which may be a different question entirely.

Photo: PAUL O’SHAU/MOD

Bowie, as the Thin White Duke, with Cher during an appearance on Italian TV in 1976.

Music at the Speed of Life

THE NEWS OF David Bowie’s death from cancer at the age of 69 didn’t register with me when it first flashed up on the screen. The words said “Breaking News”, but it didn’t feel like news. It felt like an intrusion from another world or another time, as if I’d been catapulted years into the future. Then it felt like a mistake or a cruel hoax. My mind went blank and I paused for a moment, thinking, “Did I know that already?” Then I wondered why the sky hadn’t fallen in.

I didn’t grow up listening to Bowie. When I first started getting into music at the end of the 70s, we didn’t have much time for anything before punk. Bowie was going through his “Berlin period”, producing music that was critically acclaimed but hardly designed to catch the attention of a young teenager buying his first records in 1979 (I didn’t even hear “Heroes” until years later, which is odd because it’s actually a very “1977” sort of record). He wasn’t on Top of the Pops much. Of course, I’d heard some of the “early stuff” – Ziggy Stardust, Space Oddity and so on – but that belonged to the era of flared trousers and long hair. Bowie was a kind of elder statesman. Whatever you were into – punk, ska, heavy metal, reggae, soul, pub rock, early synthesiser music – Bowie was someone you were supposed to respect. Unlike most of the other big stars of the early 1970s, he had carried some credibility into the era of The Jam and The Human League.

This was shown in spades a year or two later by Ashes to Ashes, a song from an LP (Scary Monsters and Super Creeps) which was so perfectly of its time that it was if the Daddy had come back to show New Romantics how it was really done. I bought Let’s Dance, of course. I liked it but I never loved it. Tonight seemed a fairly ropey LP by Bowie’s standards, but over the years I’ve come to love the title track. Sometime in the mid-80s, I bought the Berlin trilogy. Or I thought I had. I actually ended up with Station to Station instead of Lodger, which still seems like a more coherent triptych to me. I could hear this was something very special indeed, and I wondered at how it must have sounded even fresher and more startling ten years earlier.

Over the years, I kept delving back and back, into the hazardous terrain before 1976, and finding more gems – Diamond Dogs, Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World. Bowie didn’t give you songs to sing in the shower. He had a fair few hit singles, but he was really an albums man. With each new LP he seemed to be announcing a rebirth (one of the reasons his death feels so shocking is that it comes just two days after his latest “renaissance”, with Blackstar) as well as telling us something new about ourselves. With Bowie LPs, you felt you were buying into a piece of art, a slice of culture, a style and a story, even if it was, at the end of the day, just a bunch of songs with a bloke from south London posing on the cover in a ridiculous costume. And that’s a very British thing – that mixing of art, high camp and blokeishness. Bowie didn’t take himself too seriously while taking his work very seriously indeed. Or perhaps it was the other way round.

I never learned to like Space Oddity and I’m too much of a product of the early synth music and pub rock of my time to rate myself as a “proper” Bowie fan. But as a cultural icon of late 20th century Britain, he is second to none. We won’t see his like again.

Fly-tipping on Sixth Avenue, Manor Park, London, 2015.

Private affluence, public squalor

A FEW WEEKS AGO, I went to a school reunion. The next morning, with a couple of hours to kill and a hangover to walk off, I drove over to my old school and retraced the two-mile walk home I used to make every day. The grounds of the school, a former comprehensive now rebranded as an “academy”, adjoined two small lakes (ponds really – everything looks smaller once you’re grown up), a stream and some small open fields, all of which were maintained by the local council as a public space. Although technically “out of bounds”, this was where we spent most of our lunchtimes.

The school is now entirely fenced off, so I suppose today’s kids no longer enjoy the stream jumping, goose-baiting and illicit smoking we did. From what I could see, the school looked run-down and the grounds poorly maintained. But what really struck me was the state of the surrounding public space.

The “motorway field” (so called because it backed onto the M3), where we used to play football when the school’s pitches were all in use, is now completely overgrown, an ugly wilderness of gorse, stunted bushes and dumped rubbish (including two huge tractor tyres, miles from the nearest farm). The lakes and stream, once a lovely place for kids to play and local people to walk their dogs, is in a poor state. There was no sign of the swans, or the flocks of (non-migrating) geese who used to make eating a packet of crisps an occasionally hazardous activity, and only a handful of ducks. Much of the stream is silted up. There were always some litter and fag ends lying about (usually ours) but this was of a different order: bags of domestic and commercial waste and lots of broken furniture. The path down to the motorway footbridge looks like it has been abandoned by the council, full of potholes and with the banks all overgrown and strewn with rubbish. There was an unpleasant smell of fetid water. The bridge itself looked so uncared for I didn’t feel entirely safe crossing it.

In the space of about an hour walking about on a Sunday morning, the only living souls I saw were four boys, dressed in 70s retro sports gear, hurtling over the motorway bridge on Chopper-style bikes. They might have been our ghosts.

The whole area around the school felt unloved and neglected, left behind and somehow betrayed, like, I suppose, the hopes that kind of comprehensive school represented. As I walked on towards my Mum’s house, the contrast between the well-tended front gardens of the houses and the run-down public spaces was striking. One thing you could always say for our eternally-Tory Surrey Heath council was that they took great pride in their civic and public spaces. They couldn’t stop kids from graffiti-ing on the motorway bridge, but they kept the pavements even, the grass cut and the flower beds weeded. Now, after budget cuts of around 30% during the last parliament, even Surrey Heath are skint. And, if squalor is spreading to Michael Gove’s manor how much worse is it going to be everywhere else?

Builder's waste and other rubbish dumped on School Road, Newham, in December 2014.

Builder’s waste and other rubbish dumped outside a primary school in Newham, December 2014. © Craig Ryan 2014.

Suddenly, I started to see this public squalor everywhere. In Newham in east London, where I live now, the cash-strapped council can no longer cope with fly-tipping. We’ve got used to having stuff dumped on our street, but whereas it used to be extra rubbish bags people couldn’t fit in their bins and the odd bit of old furniture, now we get commercial and building waste, vanloads of bric-a-brac and endless old mattresses (sometimes with helpful notes from the fly-tippers warning about bugs). It often hangs around for days rather than hours.

You can see it on the verges of the A13 running east out of London, where piles of refuse often encroach down onto the carriageway and you have to keep swerving to avoid full bin bags, broken cinder blocks or pieces of four-by-two. Recently, I saw an entire bathroom suite complete with toilet cistern and bowl (seat left up) on the hard shoulder, just inches from the carriageway. A week later, it was still there (seat down).

In the small park next to my office you can see it in the spreading bare patches, the unkempt grass and the broken fencing. The clapped-out kids’ playground is finally to be replaced – but only because parents (in affluent Wanstead) managed to raise the money themselves.

This is not just about aesthetics; this is the visible surface, the skin, of our public life. Councils, particularly in wealthy areas like Wanstead and Surrey, tended to give priority to these things because voters noticed them. Now they just can’t afford to. The Conservative-controlled Local Government Association estimates that local council budgets have been cut by 40% since 2010, with further big cuts to come following George Osborne’s calamitous Autumn Statement in November.

There’s no honesty here from government ministers. Cuts are announced as mere numbers, not, as they should be, as a list of services that will no longer be provided. I can’t tell you what the effect will be, because for the most part ministers won’t tell us. They probably don’t even know themselves.

But it beggars belief that cuts on this scale can be made without making life worse. And if you look around, you will probably see the first evidence for yourself. Are ministers really saying that the public servants who are losing their jobs were doing nothing before? Really? I don’t believe them. Behind the grimy windows of those council offices, and outposts of the civil service like the CPS and Inland Revenue, people were doing the real work of democracy – making Britain a civilised place to live. The idea that the private sector will somehow step up to the plate and fill that void is delusional.

The cuts in the last parliament are only just beginning to bite. There are far more, far deeper cuts to come. What you see on the streets is only the tip of the rubbish heap.

British culture: the mainstream is not the whole story

Sandbrook draws some political conclusions as wonky as one of Doctor Who’s early sets. If Britain’s cultural success vindicates Thatcherite individualism, why did most of the figures he celebrates emerge in precisely the kind of “collectivist” society that Thatcher despised?

My review of Dominic Sandbrook’s The Great British Dream Factory has been published in the Winter 2016 issue of Public Service Magazine.

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Osborne’s Autumn Statement: tragedy and fantasy all rolled into one

I have two (Screenshot 2015-12-17 00.43.21rather belated) pieces on English Economic in response to George Osborne’s Autumn Statement and Spending Review on 25 November. The first argues that the spending review was a deal done from a position of weakness and reflects Osborne’s economic failure. His financial statements are turning into twice-yearly Groundhog Days, in which the same failed solutions chase the same unsolved problems.

The second is a ranty thing about economic forecasting, which has, as the Financial Times itself put it, “an astonishing record of complete failure”. Why should we take the Autumn Statement seriously, when the whole thing is based on projections by people with an impressive track record in being wrong? When you look at the facts, economic forecasting deserves to be treated no more seriously than astrology or football punditry.

Dad and Denis

Denis Healey: the last of the “us” generation

Grief at the death of a public figure is a funny thing. It can be self-indulgent or maudlin, a version of nostalgia. But we all feel it from time to time, and never more than when part of our own life seems to vanish along with someone we never knew.

Even though he was 98, the death of Denis Healey choked me up. Healey was a special figure to me because he always seemed to be just like my Dad. I even remember having a vague notion when I was very young that they were almost the same person, that Denis was a kind of “public” version of Dad, or perhaps some sort of important uncle. They were about the same age, with similar hairstyles and the same riotous eyebrows, and shared a taste for jumpers and casual shirts. The cover picture of Healey’s My Secret Planet still causes me to do a double-take whenever I catch sight of it. Subliminally, I suppose I’ve always thought of “Denis” as a sort of distant member of our family.

Dad, who died in 2009, shared with Denis a special kind of wisdom which comes from not from formal education (Denis had a very good one, while Dad had almost none), but from sustained contact with ordinary people through extraordinary times. It gave them a sort of super-charged humanity, an appreciation of people as they really are, warts and all, and a stubborn determination to pursue solutions to problems to the bitter end (summed up in Churchill’s favourite call to action: “keep buggering on”). In 25 years, Healey’s memoirs have never strayed more than a few feet from my writing desk. They are thick with annotations, from a time when I tended to underline things in books that I agreed with. When I read them, it’s usually Dad’s voice that I hear in my head.

Healey was one of the leading lights in a “golden generation” of Labour politicians who, thanks to the omnishambles politics of the 1970s, are generally seen to have underachieved — a view ignorant of both the odds they had to overcome and the very real achievements of the pre-Thatcher years. The 1974-79 Labour government had no majority for most of its term of office. Millions of days were being lost to strikes every year. There were wars all over the place. The oil price quintupled and inflation was out of control in all western economies. And there was a kind of madness in the air. Only a month before Healey became Chancellor, the problems of governing Britain had reduced the Cabinet Secretary to a quivering wreck, rolling naked on the Cabinet Office floor, chain-smoking and raving about the end of the world.

Most famously of course, Healey went “cap in hand” to the IMF in 1976. Quite rightly, he never apologised for it. The IMF was an essential mechanism in a global economic system which produced imbalances, and Healey used the tools available to him. We borrowed the money, we averted the crisis, and the loan was paid back in full within a year (Healey called it “sod-off day”). Why was it a “humiliation” to borrow from the IMF and not to borrow from gnomes of Zürich or the butchers of Beijing, as we do now, to finance much bigger debts? But the biggest irony of all was that the loans and associated cuts were based on Treasury forecasts. Had the Treasury got its sums right, Healey wouldn’t have needed the IMF at all1.

Harold Wilson’s cabinet didn’t seem like remote figures from another world; they seemed like people Dad might know, might work with, might drink with.

Despite this wicked combination of crises, the government of which Healey was the key member still delivered rising living standards for working people, and slightly higher overall growth than the Thatcher government which followed it. It oversaw a significant reduction in inflation, passed Britain’s first race and sex equality laws, and made meaningful inroads into pensioner and child poverty. It presided over the most economically equal society we’ve ever known. It’s probably no coincidence that studies often show Britain was also at its happiest during the second half of the 1970s.

It’s hard to imagine today’s politicians delivering those results even in good times and with a thumping majority. Healey’s generation had to try much harder. They knew that, if western democracy was going to survive, it had to deliver for ordinary people. And one way or another, it had to survive. They had seen the alternatives — communism and fascism — and they knew we didn’t want to go there.

Dad and Denis were both born in south London, although Denis moved to Yorkshire when he was very young. Both were communists in their youth, Denis in the debating rooms of Oxford, my Dad on the streets of London, fighting the Blackshirts. They were both in the Royal Engineers during the war; Healey serving with distinction in North Africa and Italy, while Dad was part of the ill-fated British Expeditionary Force evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, and later took part in the D-Day landings. (Incidentally, both were initially posted to different railway operating companies, and Dad thought he might have run into Denis during a stopover at Swindon in 1940 — Healey’s memoirs do mention a rather pointless posting in the Wiltshire railway town around that time, so it is possible). In their post-war careers, both had cause to visit the Soviet Union several times and were very unimpressed (but quite often amused) by what they saw there.

Of course, in many ways they were very different lives: Dad never went to Oxford and never became Chancellor (although he would’ve made a good foreign secretary in the Ernie Bevin mould, I think). Dad was a modest and private man, whereas Healey loved public attention and was famously arrogant, even if he had quite a lot to be arrogant about. But the fact they had much in common is important. When I was a kid, Harold Wilson’s cabinet didn’t seem like remote figures from another world; they seemed like people Dad might know, might work with, might drink with. It’s hard to imagine someone from my Dad’s background today feeling they had much in common with George Osborne or Alistair Darling.

There was something special in the outlook of that generation, a set of attitudes that came naturally to them but which prove elusive to politicians (and people in general) today: a seamless blending of principle and pragmatism; that pig-headed “can-do” attitude to tackling problems; an unimpeachable patriotism, rooted in love of the British people rather than a flag or a monarch; a profound suspicion of ideology; and, most importantly, a really powerful sense of common purpose.

And let’s be honest — they did enjoy a good crisis. They loved the buzz of high-pitched activity, the feeling that you were playing for high stakes, and that everyone had a part to play in getting out of a hole. If they said “we’re all in this together”, they meant it — and “this” was usually the brown stuff. They had quite a taste for the good life too; if you had a chance of a share of the pie, however fleeting, you grabbed it with both hands — and then asked for more. All this was accompanied by plenty of gallows humour and a love for childish pranks, dirty jokes and silly songs. And, of course, everything was done in a haze of (shared) alcohol and cigarette smoke.

Dad’s sort of socialism, like Denis’s, was moderate but robust, and came directly out of his experiences before, during and immediately after the war. For them, socialism was not an ideology, a theory of history or class war. It didn’t demand that you believed weird things or have a particular lifestyle. It was based on simple, sound principles about equality, solidarity and responsibility that everyone could understand, even if politicians had to get to grips with complex ideas to make it work. There was no final victory, just a lot of hard work and “seat-of-your pants” crisis management. But you didn’t give in, you didn’t take the easy option of going along with what suited the rich and powerful. Socialism meant a sense of common purpose between working people — and “working people” included politicians. Neither Blairites nor Bennites really seem to get that.

Like George Orwell, Denis ended up being defined more by what he opposed than by what he supported. His bellicose opposition to revolutionary Marxism and Bennite socialism leads many commentators to claim him as a figure of the right. Healey became an anti-communist, but that didn’t make him anti-socialist, still less a monetarist, a neoliberal or a stooge of international finance. It was Healey who promised his chancellorship would provoke “howls of anger from the rich” (it did) and who called Thatcher “la Pasionaria of middle class privilege”. He strongly opposed the Iraq War. In recent years, he even reversed his passionate support for Britain’s nuclear deterrent — simply because, as he saw it, the situation had changed. In Healey’s politics, like Dad’s, anti-fascism came first, and then it was all about making socialism practical, appealing, and meaningful to working people. And like Denis, Dad had no truck with the SDP breakaway in 1981; the idea of splitting the movement horrified him.

When I asked Dad about the things he was proud of in his long life, he once mentioned the liberation of Belsen in April 1945, but more often he said something about me and my sister and the lives we were able to have. What should we most remember Denis Healey for? Organising the assault on Anzio as beach master in 1944? Helping to rebuild Europe’s shattered socialist parties after the war? As defence secretary, for helping to keep us out of Vietnam? For beating Tony Benn “by an eyebrow” for the Labour deputy leadership in 1981? There are so many possibilities. But, for me, being Chancellor of the Exchequer when we were at our most equal and most happy might be the best thing of all.

  1. Denis Healey, The Time of My Life (1989), p433 ↩︎

Labour’s future: more Tony Crosland and less Tony Blair

Labour needs to win back poor voters who think it won’t do enough, and prosperous voters who fear it will do too much and wreck things. The next leader’s biggest battle will be to convince voters that Labour hasn’t just run out of road.

My review of Peter Hain’s Back to the Future of Socialism was published in the Summer 2015 issue of Public Service Magazine.

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Tipster: how to hold better meetings

The single thing that must come out of any meeting is agreement on what happens next — even if it’s just another meeting! Everyone should have something to do as a result of the discussion; otherwise, you need to ask yourself why they were there in the first place.

Published in Healthcare Manager, Autumn 2015.

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Autumn 2015 issue of Healthcare Manager is out

The Autumn 2015 issue of Healthcare Manager is all about valuing the people who work for the NHS. We have Karen Lynas, deputy managing director of the NHS Leadership Academy talking about how to be a great line manager, South Tees chief exec Tricia Hart on how staff add value and Professor Derek Mowbray on putting staff welfare at the top of your to-do list. Plus my Tipster piece on how to avoid wasting people’s time with pointless meetings. We also have our digital health correspondent Jenny Sims looking into the NHS’s efforts to engage disadvantaged people with online  healthcare.

I am associate editor of Healthcare Manager, which is also designed and produced by my company, Lexographic.

Read the online version here or download our free digital edition here.

corbyn-kendall-mikes

Labour’s Janus project

We’ve had a four month leadership contest. There have been several TV debates, many hustings, hundreds of supporter meetings and countless discussions in CLPs up and down the country. Jeremy Corbyn alone spoke at 99 rallies. By now we should know exactly what the Labour party stands for.

Yeah, right. The leadership contest mainly consisted of people shouting past each other. We aired our differences but settled nothing. There was, at last, some talk about what the Labour party is for. But no decisions were reached, no consensus emerged.

Corbyn’s remarkable victory means something deeper and more important than a lurch to the left (after the shitstorm of recent days, we can forget about enjoying our “comfort zone”). Labour wasn’t a Bennite hard left party when I went to bed on Friday night and it hadn’t become one by the time Chelsea kicked off against Everton at lunchtime on Saturday. But for good or for ill, the party has reasserted itself as a political movement rather than an electoral machine. Labour will now, at last, have to stop fudging, nudging and grudgingly bending to the political winds. It will have to decide what the main left-of-centre party in a modern European democracy should look like. There will be a lot of blood on the carpet, and it may well cost us the 2020 election. But it had to be done sooner or later.

One of the most frequently heard complaints about Labour during the election campaign was, “I don’t know what they stand for”. Older voters often added “any more”. Younger voters just shrugged their shoulders. Some didn’t even realise that Labour is supposed to be a left-of-centre party (although they probably do now).

In recent years, Labour has sought out policies that might be popular with “swing” voters and then tried to stitch them together into a political programme. It didn’t work because it’s the wrong way round. One of the biggest fallacies in modern politics is that you “sell” policies like you sell oven-ready lasagne or flat-screen tellies. Labour in the 1970s and 1980s had a lot to learn from marketing techniques. But in the end they are just that — marketing techniques. They’re not a substitute for politics.

Voters know they’re not “buying” policies the way they buy things at the supermarket — apart from anything else because they can’t pick and choose the ones they like. They have to take or leave the whole package. Even if they like your policies, if they think your leader is a bit flaky or your cabinet is full of spivs and crooks, they probably won’t vote for you. Unless they strongly identify with a party already, they choose according to a complex mixture of motivations and previously-held convictions: their own material wellbeing; the effect on their community and the issues or causes they care about; the competence of the party leaders and the credibility of their programme; voters’ own sense of identity and how they feel about Britain’s place in the world. Many of these responses are emotional rather than strictly rational.

The American academic George Lakoff has argued the left often ignores the emotional impact of political argument, while the right ruthlessly exploits emotion and presents arguments that chime with people’s feelings. “Conservatives don’t follow the polls, they want to change them,” says Lakoff.

We saw this very clearly in the 1980s. Voters weren’t suddenly converted to Margaret Thatcher’s free market mania once the Exocets started flying in the south Atlantic in May 1982. In portraying the Falklands as a sort of rebirth of the British nation, Thatcher wove her free market ideas into a story about Britain that a good chunk of voters responded to. It swept aside their previously deeply-held concerns about Thatcher’s destruction of industry and her uncaring attitude towards poverty and unemployment. In short, she created a myth around grains of truth and persuaded people to believe in it.

If we want a moderate alternative to Corbyn, we’re going to have to come up with one outside the neo-liberal consensus.

Voters seem increasingly reluctant to jump into the boxes politicians set out for them — “Worcester woman”, “white-van man” and so on. They keep changing their minds and their priorities. Sometimes emotion swamps reason, sometimes it’s the other way around. This is because they are complex beings responding to a world in flux. By the time politicians and pollsters have identified a group, let alone calibrated policies for it, the group has already broken up – if it ever existed in the first place.

White van man might be an English patriot who’s not keen in immigration, but he’s also pissed off with insecure employment, with paying through the nose for inadequate housing and that his local has been turned into another Tesco Metro. Is he left wing or right wing? Worcester woman might be concerned about tax rises and standards at her local comp, but she also does voluntary work for a refugee charity and is campaigning to save her local hospital. Pigeon-hole her if you dare.

To win power, Labour needs to win back voters from the Tories, UKIP, the Greens, the SNP and the Stay at Home party. It will have to persuade people who feel let down that it will do enough for them or for the things they care about. At the same time, it must persuade some people who are doing okay, or think they’re doing okay, that it won’t do too much and wreck things. Coming over as more “left wing” and more “right wing” at the same time will be tough to say the least, but as Jimmy Maxton said, “if you can’t ride two horses at once you shouldn’t be in the bloody circus”.

Forget policies that tack to the left or the right. For Labour, the only way through this is to come up with a completely different story about what Britain can be from the one offered by the Tories. Britain doesn’t need a second big neo-liberal party. We have a perfectly good (and rather effective) one already. If Labour wants to keep its place as “the other big party” in the UK, it has no choice but to define itself against the free market consensus which, whatever its merits, led directly to the banking crisis, wrecked European unity and has no answers to the three great economic problems we face: soaring inequality, stagnating living standards for working people and appalling levels of productivity.

We don’t have to lurch to the left or reject the moderate values that have always had a place in the Labour party. But there’s no point in Labour moderates pursuing neo-liberalism any further. The Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman is right to say that Corbyn’s triumph is “mainly about the strange, sad moral and intellectual collapse of Labour moderates”. If we want a moderate alternative to Corbyn, we’re going to have to come up with one outside the neo-liberal “consensus”. And it needn’t be that much of a wrench. Labour moderates like to talk about aspiration, but there’s nothing very aspirational about neo-liberalism. It’s a gloomy philosophy which assigns most people the status of losers in a global race which never ends.

The failure of the free market neo-liberalism to protect things people value is a huge weakness for the right and for the British Conservative Party, whose rhetoric still emphasises security, tradition and community while, in reality, trampling all over them. But it’s a weakness Labour, and the left in general, has failed to exploit.

Labour needs a vision that joins people’s instinctive “conservatism” — their need for a strong sense of identity and desire to protect things they treasure — with their equally instinctive feelings for fairness, equality and generosity. This shouldn’t be that hard for Labour people – right, left or centre — to get their heads round. Because it’s not just where the voters are, it’s where democratic socialism is too. Social democracy isn’t about destroying things, it’s about building things. And sometimes that means preserving things that we value. Let’s face it, most of us on the left have spent the last 30 years opposing change.

Mixing social democratic values with  traditionally “conservative” ideas about national pride and local control makes a powerful cocktail.

Public alarm at the pace of change in our way of life is often dismissed as sentimentality or nostalgia. That’s patronising bollocks and the left should have no truck with it. Whether it’s Routemaster buses, Woolworths, local hospitals, pubs, railways stations and high street shops, or pensions, employment rights, affordable family housing and time with our kids that are under threat, it’s the same global free-market steamroller that’s crushing them.

This means coming to terms with the fact that socialism and (small c) conservatism maybe different but they’re not opposites, and global free market capitalism is pushing them closer together. It’s perfectly possible to build an alternative that will deliver strict fiscal rectitude without hitting the poor hardest (as James Meadway, chief economist at the New Economic Foundation argued recently in this excellent piece). What kind of socialist doesn’t want to wring the last penny of value from the people’s money? And you can make a powerful electoral cocktail by mixing social democratic values with more traditionally “conservative” ideas about identity, national pride and local control, as the SNP have shown in Scotland.

But we can’t do this if people pay lip service to the idea that Labour is a “big tent” while spending most of their time trying to push people out one end or the other. I no more think that Jeremy Corbyn is a Trot than I think Liz Kendall is a Tory; you can’t expect everyone on the left of politics to agree, nor would it be desirable if they did. And we can’t do it as long as we remain mesmerised by neo-liberalism – either meekly following it or just sloganeering against it. Just let it go. We need a serious and coherent alternative to neo-liberalism and we haven’t got much time. Let’s get on with it.