I was asked to write something for the excellent folks at Broad Left Blogging. Here it is, cross-posted.

When Philip of Macedon – father of Alexander The Great – fought his opponents, he always won. His army had the longest spears. His opponents gradually made longer, and longer spears. But the Macedonians were the world experts in this game. And wherever they went, they won.

Until the Romans came along. For unlike their previous opponents, the Romans didn’t attempt to beat Philip at his own game. They simply threw javelins to disable their shields, then walked between the spears to kill the Macedonians with their short swords. The lesson is obvious – you don’t beat your enemy with their own weapons.

Today, the same lesson is famous among political hacks, and is most often expressed as: every election is a referendum, the winner is the person who sets the questions.

And this political rule applies every day. For the battle between left and right is not so much a contest of answers as a fight between questions. While we ask how to protect rights at work, they ask how to limit immigration. While we ask how to end poverty, they ask how to unleash business. While we ask how to cut crime, they focus on how to punish criminals. While we ask how to respond to climate change, they ask if the climate is changing. While we ask how to create jobs, they ask how to cut public spending. Every time we try to fight them on their turf, we accept the premise that this is a matter of significant debate. And, like Philip’s early opponents, we are likely to lose.

One of the great mistakes of New Labour was to cede such rhetorical ground. Tony Blair seemed to believe that if you sound like a Tory, you can sneak through some Labour policies. So he switched from “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” to announcing initiatives to march ‘hoodies’ to cash machines. And while these statements were Daily Mail fodder which never actually happened, a whole generation of people began to believe that attacking those who commit crime is the appropriate response, as no one led them to the evidence that such an obsession with enacting societal vengeance increases crime, and we must deal with causes.

And the same is true of the economy. Does the lack of concern about relative poverty, perhaps, correlate to the fact that there are precious few politicians today making the case against inequality? Well, in the one area where Labour was (relatively) bold – LGBT rights – we saw a massive shift in attitudes. Thus we see the power of the pulpit of the Prime Ministership – of the leadership legislation can provide.

And so every gain Labour sneaked through the back door – increased spending on public services, for example – is under immediate threat from this government, as no one remembers why we wanted them in the first place. If “use the language of the right and you can deliver a manifesto of the left” was the idea, then the reality was “use the language of the right, and you make us a country of right”. Where Labour got things right, the problem was not so much the painfully slow progress along the road to a better world, as the failure to remind us all of the destination.

And now that the Conservatives have the Downing Street podium, they will not make the same mistake. They have already succeeded in turning the great crisis of capitalism into a problem of ‘profligate’ public spending. They have already shifted the goal posts from “how do we fight unemployment” to “how do we cut the deficit”. While the White House has internal debates about how to pay for the increases in public spending the global economy desperately needs, right-wing governments across Europe have shifted the spotlight off the problem of unemployment which has caused the deficit, and onto the deficit itself. The right don’t ask whether to cut spending, but how. And as swathes on the left rush to answer the ‘how’ they shut out from the debate those – including troops of Nobel winning Economists, Central Bankers, and Barack Obama – who argue that we shouldn’t be cutting at all.

And so it is through setting the terms of debate that the right is winning.

We waste our time refuting climate sceptics, and so the public shift to what they see as the middle ground – doubt. We accept some of their cuts in the hope of sounding moderate, rather than asking the real question – how do we create (green) jobs? We talk about – and this is the most bizarre – a “left narrative on immigration”, rather than forcing the right to explain why we shouldn’t sue RBS’ executives for billions in lost earnings through the unemployment they created, and why we shouldn’t mutualise all the major banks. And that is extraordinary – our national economy is destroyed by free market capitalism, and the best the British left can muster is a wet explanation of how immigrants shouldn’t be given all the blame?!

Where we agree on solutions, we should work together. But for me, it is in re-shaping the debate – choosing the debate – that the broad left can best co-operate. For we don’t agree on answers, and, no matter how many conference break out sessions we sit through, we will not agree on tactics. But while we don’t agree on how to tackle it, we can agree that poverty is a bigger problem than immigration. While we don’t share solutions, we can agree that achieving greater equality of income is a crucial goal for our society. While we don’t agree on PFI, we can agree that the question should not be whether, but how to fund public services. We don’t share solutions, but we do agree that climate change is a great challenge of our age.

And if we can, in our battles with the Con-Dem government, ensure that political debate in this country focusses on our questions, then we will ensure that once more, Britain truly has a progressive majority. Because like the Romans, we won’t be caught on the political spears of arms races we can never win.