Lessons for Labour

 

The next Labour leader must balance principles and electoral appeal

 

There are a multiplicity of electoral strategies for political parties to pursue while in opposition. But, among them, two stand out as the starkest alternatives. These are dichotomous strategies that should be avoided at all costs.

 

The first of these is well-documented, and frequently warned against by (among others) keepers of the Blairite flame on the right of the Labour Party. This is to choose, either wilfully or by means of optimistic self-delusion, to sanctimoniously remain in perpetual opposition, staying true to what you believe in, regardless of public opinion. If recent polls are to be believed, Labour Party members are currently flirting with this idea – through the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

 

However, there is also another kind of extreme strategy in opposition, much less discussed, yet equally mistaken. This is the exercise of winning power not as a means to improve peoples’ lives, but simply for the sake of victory. At its worst, this strategy essentially involves warping the party into an invertebrate organisation that unthinkingly defers to the dominant public mood.

 

One of the most remarkable things about the recent history of the Labour Party is just how close it has come to pursuing both of these strategies. In 1983, under the leadership of Michael Foot, Labour was oblivious to the changes occurring all around it in society. The party failed to accommodate the decline of the working class, and pitched itself to an ever-narrower support base. Indeed, Foot and later Neil Kinnock chose to defend old and increasingly unpopular shibboleths, such as unproductive nationalised industries and the trade unions. This allowed Margaret Thatcher to win and hold power; free to dictate the terms of Britain’s new political settlement.

 

By 1997, Labour had recognised the importance of winning elections, and had developed a formula to reinvigorate the Labour Party. However, the party had become so spooked by its numerous defeats that it left nothing to chance. Tony Blair realigned Labour to the fluid centre ground of British politics, and in the process abandoned some of the party’s core principles. Much of what New Labour did in power was welcome, and had the economic crisis not sunk the economy, Blair and Brown would have succeeded in shifting the goalposts for any future Tory government quite successfully (why else did David Cameron hug huskies, and George Osborne pledge to match Labour’s spending commitments before the crash). But, it’s also possible to argue that a Labour leader with a more left-of-centre worldview might have reframed the debate more favourably still. Labour under Blair came too close to seeking power for its own sake.

 

And yet now, incredibly, the party risks reverting to the 1980s by following veteran radical Jeremy Corbyn. There has to be a better alternative than this. Labour does not have to choose between power and principle. The key is to select a leader who knows how to triangulate, who knows how to align policy and messaging in such a way that engages the majority of the public. Among the reasons for still admiring Ed Miliband is his attempt to chart this different course, to steer in between the two extremes. Unfortunately, with the benefit of hindsight and the detailed statistics from the election result available to peruse, it’s now all too easy to see why he failed, just like Kinnock before him. Of course, the jibes of “Red Ed” were puerile and inaccurate - Miliband’s Labour (and to a lesser extent Kinnock’s too) differed greatly from the disastrous Foot era. But if we try to locate Miliband's Labour Party on our spectrum of electoral strategies, although we would find it well clear of the second extreme (power for power’s sake), we would find it far too close to the first (sanctimonious opposition).

 

Yet, analysing past leaders and past elections is the easy part. The difficult task is working out which candidate could steer the best course with (this far out from the next election) limited information about their policies and their personal popularity. I’m not yet sure which of the candidates can provide the best blend of electoral appeal and left-wing values. However, it should be clear from my preceding argument that I would rule out Jeremy Corbyn emphatically. This leadership election is not a binary decision between power and principle. The Labour Party can achieve both.

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