Can Labour give the country what it wants?

Tony Blair gave a speech today, warning the post-defeat Labour Party of a lurch to the left.  Meanwhile, the most left wing of the four Labour Party leadership candidates, Jeremy Corbyn, is apparently leading the polls.

I find the pragmatism of the centrists in the Labour Party to be enticing.  If you want to win power and achieve social justice, they say, there is no point in positioning yourself too far away from the electorate.  To place Jeremy Corbyn at the top of the Labour Party is to distance the party from the rest of Britain.  And that means further election defeats.  Instead, the answer is to be more centrist, more Blairite, because at least that is where the rest of the country sits.

This seems true on the face of it, but ascribing a fixed political position to ‘the country’ is fool-hardy.  First, there are four nations in the UK and each is positioned very differently.  A Blairite candidate like Liz Kendall might win back ‘middle-England’ and ‘business’, but would do so by surrendering Scotland to the Scottish National Party for a generation (and perhaps, following another Independence referendum, forever).

Second, its silly to say that the country ‘wanted’ a Tory majority or that in 2010 it ‘wanted’ a coalition.   Our First Past The Post system produces skewed parliamentary outcomes, and the 2015 election was the most unrepresentative ever.  The CPG Grey (who, as an American living in the UK provides a unique and important perspective on our politics) explains why the ‘will of the people’ was not at all delivered by the election in May.

Labour is currently arguing about where it should position itself on a single left-right spectrum, which would be a meaningful debate in an era of two party politics, but (like the FPTP system) is an archaic approach in our multi-party, multi-issue world.

Chasing the electorate towards the Tories seems particularly odd when one considers that many more people voted for UKIP than ever before and many more people voted for the Greens than ever before – two political parties that have very little in common.  If large numnbers of voters are walking towards green and purple then to describe the country as a whole as essentially ‘centre right’ seems a non sequitur.

(Note, by the way, than now the election is over there is precious little coverage of UKIP or the Greens in the media, despite the fact that their signature policy issues – immigration and climate change, respectively – are still two of the most important problems the country and the world must tackle in the coming decade.)

Having said all this, I think that positioning oneself centrally is the best strategy for power… because it places a leader and a party in the best place to form a coalition: over voters, and  in parliament.  But that is an entirely pragmatic argument, with no ideological content whatsoever.  And pragmatism appears to be an odd response when the Government—with its majority of just 12—is embarking on a nakedly ideological programme of cuts to public services and welfare benefits.

I think there is an interest contrast to be drawn with the other leadership contests, which have drawn less media coverage.  The first is the Labour deputy leadership election, which seems to be mainly about how to organise and campaign within the party.  And then there is the selection for the Labour Mayoral candidate, which appears to be a battle over different policy ideas that all sit in the same left-wing ideological space.  Both these election campaigns are far less depressing to behold because they’re about who has the best ideas rather than from where, precisely, on the political spectrum, someone intends to develop their ideas and oppose the Tories.  As it happens, I think the personalities in these contests are far more interesting too.

Finally, I’d say that the way in which the Labour leadership contest has developed so far, I worry that the eventual winner will be unable to effectively govern the party.  Tony Blair was able to do it from the right of the party because he looked certain to win, and then did win, convincingly.  Would the Lefties toe-the-line if Liz Kendall became leader?  I doubt it.  And its delusional to think that the Blairites would rally behind Corbyn?  They couldn’t even do it for Gordon Brown.

I’ve written this post quickly, and reading back now I think I’ve talked myself into voting for one of the centrist triangulators, Burnham and Cooper, neither of whom I (currently) find particularly inspiring.  But I think all these conundrums—the pull between pragmatism and ideology, between the desire to win and the desire to vote on principle—are thrown up by a FPTP voting system that is inappropriate for the modern era.  The more I think of it, the more of a disaster the 2011 Alternative Vote Referendum campaign was for the British Labour Party and British Democracy.  If there is one policy that all Labour Leadership candidates should be espousing, its a move to Proportional Representation.  I don’t know how many votes there are in that.

3 thoughts on “Can Labour give the country what it wants?”

  1. A few random thoughts. I rather hope Jeremy Corbyn does win so that those who espouse true socialist ideology have a voice. You have to respect someone who holds honest if unpopular views and doesn’t try and modify his views to chime with what he thinks the” country wants”. I don’t think it would be a disaster if the Labour party split in two. I think those who nominated Corbyn have been uncomfortable that the difference between Blairism and the Tories has become minimal. I suspect a lot of current Labour politicians have been driven by the wish for power rather than a clear view of what they want for the country. Enough.

  2. This leadership campaign has reignited my hope for change, which was dashed with the Tory majority in May. Unfortunately though I think I’ll be disappointed again – it seems that even if Jeremy Corbyn does win that there will be a coup against him pretty pronto and probably someone more to centre will take over. It’s a shame as I think a lot of people voted UKIP because they wanted an alternative and maybe with Labour shifting drastically to the left it may win them back. It may not be the disaster that everyone is predicting.

    The point about ‘doing what the electorate want’ is absolute madness. I couldn’t believe my ears when Harriet Harman said she wouldn’t vote against welfare cuts because the public voted for Conservative cuts – what’s the point of an opposition if it doesn’t oppose?! Parties should stand for something and if people don’t vote for it then tough – politicians shouldn’t create policies based on what is popular, but rather their principles.

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