On Heads, Hearts and Hands

In today’s article, Ben West, the former Secretary of the Young Fabians responds to Robert Woods ‘On a proper use of resources’ article and tells us why Labour needs Heads, Hearts AND Hands to be successful.

Back in my life before the Labour Party, I was a climate campaigner. In it, we did lots of community training. Aside from non-violent direct action training, one of the valuable things I learned was that creating meaningful political change requires three components: ‘heads, hearts and hands’. A successful strategy depends on all three: a strategy based on reason (head) and a means of delivery (hands), but with no emotional component (heart) will sooner or later fail, as will a cause which taps into emotions (heart), but which lacks a practical means of acting upon them.

It’s simple stuff, but it’s a good place – if indeed one exists – for beginning to understand the potentially terminal illness which has befallen the Labour Party. And while someone with pneumonia may only have been coughing for a few days, it is rare for someone to catch such a serious illness out of the blue. And so it is with the Labour Party. Our present condition is the symptom of bad luck – yes, there is always an element of bad luck – but also a failure to maintain good habits – culturally, socially, intellectually and even morally – over many decades.

The ‘heads, hearts and hands’ analogy illustrates that we’re not just sick, we’re also doing ourselves harm. We in the Labour Party seem to be under the impression that one has to choose between these bodily organs – that to be a Party driven by our hearts, we need to chop off our own heads, lest the facts lead us astray. Or that in order to win elections and get anything done, we need to go full-blown Aztec and start ripping hearts out, or as Tony Blair put it, ‘get a heart transplant’.

Robert Wood’s recent article (‘On a Better Use of Resources’) illustrates this point nicely. In it, his argument seemed to be that the Fabian Society’s recent analysis of YouGov election data, which found that Labour could drop to as few as 150 seats at the next election, was at odds with the Party’s work to ‘tell voters the truth’ about issues including high executive pay, soaring child poverty, and action to bring the railways back under public control.

Or, to put it in terms of my analogy, that the Party should stop obsessing over its hands, and instead focus on its head and its heart. ‘Why talk about polls and elections (not to mention the rather inconvenient internal ructions they cause!), when there is low pay to tackle, homeless to house, and trains to nationalise?’, the argument goes.

At one level, this is nonsense. Clause One of the Labour Party’s constitution makes it abundantly clear which is the priority, and what we, as a body exist to do. We exist to do things. Thinking big thoughts and letting our hearts bleed onto our sleeves never fed, clothed or emancipated anyone.We are not a pressure group, a fan club, a charity, a book group or even – though our long-term future rests on us rebuilding the trade union movement that created us – ourselves a social movement.

We exist to win power on behalf of those in society who do not currently have power. And, in a democracy, we do that by winning power through the electoral process. Many of our comrades on the Left argue that winning elections is not the only way to win power. And certainly that’s true. The examples of the trade union and co-operative movements show that consumer and industrial strength are vital too. But the reason those two movements created us, a political party, is because they realised that power in the workplace and on the high street can only be transformative if paired with the political power that comes from direct parliamentary representation.

And so, first and foremost, in a Party like ours, our heads and our hearts serve the hands, because it is through our hands – winning elections – that we achieve change. If we are heading off an electoral cliff (and the Fabian research suggests we could well be), then it’s hard to think of more urgent business, or a bigger service they could be performing on the Party’s behalf. No Party with 150 MPs in Parliament ever eradicated low pay, renationalised the railways or eliminated child poverty.

But that’s not to let the ‘moderate’ end of the Party – of which I count myself a member – off the hook either. Because it’s vital that we too don’t forget that however much the hands – the business of knocking on doors, of winning elections, of crunching the polls, of honing the message and getting out the vote – drive the whole business, they too rely on hearts and hands.

While the days of moderates who behave as if they’ve had a lobotomy while proclaiming their belief in ‘what works’ seem to have now passed, their legacy remains. In case you hadn’t noticed, in the years since the last Labour government, people have become seriously angry. What we at £40 per head Saturday political Conferences solemnly discuss and call ‘populism’ is far more simple than that: people are pissed off, and they want politicians who show that they know that people are pissed off, and who get pissed off on the pissed off peoples’ behalf. It’s empathy, stupid.

So if there are people in this Party who seriously need to think about how to engage their hands, and not just their hearts and heads, there are also plenty of others who need to engage their hearts as well as their heads and hands. You need all three. Because if we constantly repeat among ourselves the myth that a heart is all we need, or that we can sit around coming up with ideas without the means of making them practicable, then we’ve done the Tories’ jobs for them. We assist them in perpetuating the lie that it’s impossible to be both compassionate as well as responsible, or the dishonesty that says we have to choose between functioning public services and a solid economy.

You need all three.

And over more than a Century, one of the things the Fabian Society has done rather well is reminding the Labour Party of that fact. Combining the reforming zeal and idealism of the social reformers, with the hard-headed, detailed policy thinking of the great technocrats, harnessed to the tough, irrepressibly practical business of how to win elections.

And while the Fabian Society’s recent focus on the practical means through which a Labour government will one day be elected is urgent as it is sobering, it will only transform this country when coupled with our heads and our hearts as well, and when all three begin to function as one.

That is our mission.

Ben West

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