The spirit problem we can’t ignore
The Coalition are going to set a minimum price on alcohol. A small step in and of itself but emblematic of much more. Particularly for Labour. It had 13 years in office and there was never the inclination to put in place such legislation. Why?
It was drunk on what the free market could deliver. Intoxicated by big business. It was fearful of the accusations of nannying. It found it seemingly impossible to be moral; to have a view about what’s right or what’s wrong – certainly when it came to business, but never of course when it came to the poor. They could be blamed and punished. It was always about individual responsibility not corporate behaviour. The people could be educated not to drink, or punished by an ASBO if they did.
Of course the state always pays the price of markets that are too free. The jobs, pay and spending bonanza of cheap booze or small town casinos is more than offset by the health and social costs. But long ago Labour lost the appetite to intervene to stop the causes of social, environmental and democratic decay – we just ended up putting expensive sticking plasters on the symptoms. It was the same story with the banks. And so Labour allowed a situation where buying alcohol was cheaper than buying water. Economic efficiency would take us to social justice – or so we told ourselves. But it wasn’t social and it wasn’t democratic.
Yvette Cooper’s response to the government announcement was interesting. The top line on the Labour Party website was this: ‘Binge drinking is a serious problem that increases crime and puts considerable pressure on the NHS’. So we tick the crime box and the NHS box – but what about the humanity box? The wrecked lives of the alcoholics and their families. The misery of a mum or dad whose lives are lost so that some big business can get richer? Or the terror of a child who has a family member who beats them whenever a litre of cider costing 79p is downed? Why doesn’t Labour talk in lives and emotions and not facts and figures?
And what does Labour think about itself when it is the Tories that put people before profits: as a party that acts for the citizen and not just the consumer? Does it reflect and consider, or does it just rage against other perceived injustices – many of which Labour began to introduce when in office (commercialisation of the NHS for example).
We can use drink as a metaphor for the party’s relationship with big business. It starts off as just a small thing but soon tips into an addiction. You lie and spin your denial and start blaming others for your own failures. Your friends leave you. Suddenly you are in the gutter.
As with the recovering alcoholic, the road to renewal starts by proclaiming ‘my name is the Labour Party and I have a problem with capitalism’. Ed Miliband has started a conversation about responsible capitalism. I will of course drink to that. But it’s when push comes to shove that these things matter. Why didn’t Labour demand minimum pricing as an example of responsible capitalism? This should have been Labour’s terrain. After all, we were warned. The SNP took the ground north of the border; but because the SNP said it, Labour objected. So what next? Will Labour take a stand against the legal loan sharks, the betting shops, the arms industry – or are jobs and growth the only things that matter? Is it all about quantity and never about quality?
Labour doesn’t have a drink problem, it has a spirit problem. Its glass isn’t even half full.