Labour's current situation is not a crisis: it's a wonderful opportunity to develop a new brand of politics

5 Jun 2015

 

There are a lot of things that annoy me about politics in Britain today. George Osborne's glottal-stop, an economic agenda from both the Tories and Labour that appears to be irrelevant to anyone who isn't a 'hardworking family,' the failure of all Westminster parties to have a serious debate about immigration, Harriet Harman (who I secretly have a massive amount of respect for as a feminist).

 

But the thing that has hacked me off most since Ed Miliband's abdication as Labour leader is the term 'Blairite' and how it is used in Labour circles. Labour, supposedly (depending on who you listen to), lost the election because they failed to appeal to a) aspirational people b) wavering Conservative voters, AKA 'Shy Tories'. None of the rhetoric from the frontrunners for the Labour hotseat has suggested that they have considered this: a politics that appeals to 'aspirational' people and a politics that appeal to those who voted Conservative with gritted teeth could be one and the same. The issue is what it is called, not what it is.

 

The toxic legacy of Tony Blair has helped decimated Labour's support in Scotland, with the decision to go to war in Iraq shown to be a key reason in former Labour supporters changing allegiance to the SNP. Meanwhile, this idea of Blairism and its ideas being a toxic brand pervades within the Labour Party itself, with the label 'Blairite' applied sneeringly to the likes of Liz Kendall and Rachel Reeves. It has to be said, female Labour MPs who are perceived to be Blairites would appear to get a worse deal than their male colleagues and regular attract ire from the left of the party with more than a touch of ingrained misogyny behind ideological criticism.

 

Rest assured, this is not going to be another call to arms for Labour to drop the Blairite label and move towards the Left. On the contrary, the rise of the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru means that in terms of left-wing politics, Labour has precious few options. So what can they do?

 

What Labour can and now must do is learn from the Conservatives, learn from Cameron and the ultimate failure of 'compassionate Conservatism' and take this opportunity to develop a new progressive agenda that  restores faith in the party's economic competence yet sticks true to its principles of social justice and compassion. For although Labour should absolutely reject Blairism, what the party should predominantly reject is this anachronistic compulsion to describe every Labour politician who has the audacity to express ideas that aren't obviously left-wing as a Blairite.

 

There's more to politics, you can be guided by traditional Labour principles, yet support ideas traditionally favoured by the Conservatives without being a follower of Blair. What Labour is suffering from is a lack of ideas. It is particularly ridiculous, given her articulacy and direct style of engagement, to compare Liz Kendall to a man whose defining trait was his ability to speak for hours without once using a noun.

 

The shadow public health minister impressed the lobby the other week with her upfront style; a rare gift in a politician and a huge asset to Labour in a time where one of the public's most frequent complaints of politicians that they never answer questions honestly and openly. Especially striking about the Leicester MP was her courage in saying what has become the unsayable in Labour circles; that privatisation in the NHS is not always a bad thing. If you ask me, Kendall's comment that “what matters is what works” is a pretty bloody good motto for running the country and Labour needs more of that spirit to move forward. Compassionate Conservatism failed because it was a bunch of idealistic platitudes cooked up between Dave and Steve “hashtag winning” Hilton that didn't really mean anything and was inevitably rejected by a predominantly right wing party.

 

This is also a problem that whoever the next Labour leader is will face, to convince the left of the party that the left ground is now occupied and as such, the only place to go is the centre to provide a genuine alternative to the Tories as opposed to just aping them, something that Yvette Cooper made on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. Yet the failure of Cameron to deliver his New Right politics means that the new Labour leader will have a ready-made how-to book of delivering a new progressive centre ground politics and how to convince the party to go for it.

 

The key issue here is how voters perceive the centre ground. “Labour and the Tories are the same,” is a refrain which has haunted both parties for more than 10 years and Labour's first step is changing itself to prove that it is possible to occupy the same centre ground that the Tories are fighting for without becoming the Tories.

 

Business is the elephant in the room for Labour and is a top priority, seemingly, for all the pretenders to the red throne. None, however, have made the case convincingly for the simple reason that all arguments have been geared towards supporting big business. This is not an argument that reaches the kitchen table and Labour must seriously compete with the Tories to gain the small business vote if they are to progress.

 

In other news, a drastic change of tack on immigration (ie making the positive case and praising the economic contribution of migrants currently in the country while being clear that the past mistakes of open borders will not be repeated) and learning from the mistakes of the Scottish referendum campaign for the EU referendum (i.e. not sharing a platform with the Tories and making their own case) are crucial for Labour's new progressive agenda.

 

As is a slight move away from adversarial politics. One of Ed Miliband's biggest mistakes was his attempt to fight the coalition on every single issue in order to distance himself from David Cameron, leading to a lack of focus on the biggest red lines between Labour and the Tories. Liz Kendall's early support for free schools could well be an early indication that she realises the idiocy of fighting the government on absolutely everything.

 

Distancing itself from the SNP in terms of both ideology and policy is also crucial for Labour, given how successful the effect of the Tories' SNP-Labour coalition scare strategy was. Moving to the centre ground whilst retaining a commitment to social justice would allow to Labour to highlight the SNP's hypocrisy of claiming to care about inequality whilst pursuing austerity-lite policies such as cutting the number of college places in Scotland.

 

Ultimately, Labour must go where it has room to go. There are thousands of people out there who would have liked to vote Labour but did not do so because they liked Ed Miliband's vision for addressing issues of inequality but did not trust his party on the economy. Labour can win them back and win new voters, but first they must realise their own mistakes, reject the Blairite label and show that this is not 1979 and that you can care about inequality, support business and occupy the centre ground all at the same time.

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