First published in The Social Review: 23 October 2018
After Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in 2015, Frank Field – who had nominated Corbyn – explained why his candidate had won the contest, and why UNISON leader Dave Prentiss had been wrong to suggest that Labour members had witnessed a “great debate” during the leadership campaign. “We had no such debate,” Field told Sky’s Dermot Murnaghan. “I nominated Jeremy, hoping that we would get this debate, What was shocking and surprising and challenging was that the other three candidates… had nothing much to say. The cupboard is bare…We were offered thin Blairite gruel.” In this instance, the stereotype of social democrats knowing what they oppose but having nothing of their own to propose was apparently justified.
These words are apt in explaining the crisis that has plagued the “moderate” wing of the Labour Party for many years – in particular since Corbyn’s election. It has forgone serious policy formulation in favour of articulating a broad stroke ‘aspirational socialism,’ born out of Blair-Brown era ‘Worcester woman’ analogy. In 2014 Tony Blair declared that Ed Miliband was too left-wing to win the 2015 election. Tristram Hunt stated that Labour had to “appeal to the “John Lewis couple” and those who “aspire to shop in Waitrose.” Andy Burnham stood on a platform of “aspirational socialism” in both in 2010 and 2015. Liz Kendall declared that Labour “needed to show people that we understand their aspirations and ambitions for the future.”
Most notably, Chuka Umunna, a vocal critic of Corbyn within the PLP and an early favourite to succeed Ed Miliband before dropping out, explained soon after the election that a future Labour vision had to start “with the aspirations of voters: to get on and up in the world,. That means offering competence, optimism not fatalism..”
Others in the party were sceptical about what this all meant. John Prescott asked “What the hell does this mean, ‘aspiration?” and when asked if it was meaningless, “I think they will recognise that shortly”. And, of course, Corbyn was elected overwhelmingly. Unlike the other candidates, who focused on branding, his campaign was marked by policy announcements and bold ideas. Yes, he talked about aspiration, but he also proposed a radical new economic programme.
In the wake of Corbyn’s continuing success in winning the internal debate, moderates who have resolved to ‘stay and fight’ for the future of the party must rethink their strategy. Progress director Richard Angell, when asked by the Policy Network how to promote social democratic values across Europe, stated that his “killer idea” was that “the purpose of the left was to help working class parents bring up middle class kids, and to help those on middle class salaries have middle class savings.” No one is doubting the desirability of a society that lifts all boats, yet if Progress have a policy strategy for bringing it about, they are not communicating it. They dismiss many of Corbyn’s polices but offer few alternatives.
What Progress and other groups should have been doing, and must do in the future, is to engage with the leadership to influence the policy platform of the next Labour government. This is what the Co-operative Party have been doing for the past three years, working with John McDonnell to shape Labour’s economic strategy towards greater worker control and a localism strategy built on the Community Wealth Building programme pioneered by Preston Council. What have Progress been doing? Where is the alternative manifesto for a ‘moderate’ Labour government? Jeremy Corbyn believes that working class parents can be helped to bring up middle class kids by bringing back EMA, lowering household bills by nationalising utilities, and setting up a National Education Service. Do the moderates oppose these policies?
The Australian Example
In late 1962, the Australian intellectual Donald Horne argued that the typical ‘moderate’ of the left could become a uniquely useless and dishonest politician. “He uses socialist words but he believes in nothing; he is finally demoralised and he is likely to do anything. He may “go right,” he may “go left.” Sometimes he may move out of the Labor Party altogether, or he may stay in it and feather his nest.” Similarly to Frank Field, Horne suggested:
“He is dangerous because even in good times he is so meaningless; he takes the heart out of the reform movement and fills the gap with a consideration of his own career and verbal ritual. In bad times he could possibly be fatal. At a time when the Left of the Left is in the ascendant, it can sweep through the dried, sapless timber of the “moderates”
Although he was remarking on the Australian Labor Party (ALP), Horne’s words are prescient in explaining the current plight of the moderates. Yet one can also look to Australia for a potential remedy in the form of the Labor governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, which dominated Australian politics from 1983-1996. For those who blindly believe that there was no alternative to the policies of Margaret Thatcher, Australia in the 1980s and 1990s provides a clear example of how economic liberalisation was delivered in a more socially equitable way than by Thatcher’s Conservatives.
After attaining power in March 1983, the ALP organised a National Economic Summit the following month, inviting business and union leaders to parliament to develop a Prices and Incomes Accord, updated seven times in thirteen years, that would see wages rise and taxes come down at different times to avoid peaks in inflation. It introduced a superannuation system that still to this day delivers pensions that are the envy of the rest of the Global North. They also introduced Enterprise Bargaining Agreements, a system of collective industrial agreements between employers and unions. And most importantly, they revived universal healthcare. Originally introduced in the early 1970s under the Whitlam government, Medicare had been restricted to paying customers only under the Fraser Liberal government.
Certainly there were figures on the left of the ALP who were opposed to the policy agenda of Hawke and Keating, and no doubt members of the UK Labour left both then and now could find fault with their solutions. But there is no doubt that these were serious policies grounded in social equity, delivered by a Labor government with a Cabinet containing big figures from both the left and right of the movement. None of this happened in a bubble. Jon Cruddas MP is an admirer of Hawke, having spent part of the 80s living in Australia. Blair, Brown and Campbell all visited the country while in opposition. Richard Angell himself has even run campaigns for the ALP. One wonders why many of today’s moderates have not been able to learn any lessons from this.
Lessons for Moderates
If the moderates want to challenge Corbyn successfully, they will have to battle it out in the policy arena. They can no longer rely on the complacency of a party structure that long ignored the voices of its members. Perhaps they could emulate John McDonnell, who offered a series of alternative budgets when New Labour were in office. These budgets outlined many of the policies that the Labour Party is now committed to enact if elected to government. In 2006, for example, McDonnell proposed that as rail franchises ended, the network should be taken back bit by bit into public ownership under the auspices of a board made up of one-third employees, one-third government and one-third travelling public. Twelve years ago, this was radical. Now it is considered mainstream.
The moderates have worthy traditions to build on and examples to follow. The New Labour government achieved too many things to list in this article. To take only one example, Sure Start was a fantastic programme that delivered real change for families throughout the UK. If Labour is to govern effectively in the future, all wings of the party need to work together to come up with the policies that will be needed. Chuka Umunna has argued that Universal Basic Income is not the solution to insecure work in the automated age. Even if it is not, however, that problem needs a solution. Hopefully, in the months to come, organisations like the Progressive Centre UK, the think tank that Umunna now chairs, can contribute to devising an alternative.
If the moderates want their fight to influence the future direction of the party and the country to meet with any success, they should focus on coming up with serious policy suggestions rather than simply on opposing the leadership. The vast majority of Labour Party members are not stupid and should not be seen as the enemy. Well-thought out ideas brought forward in good faith will be listened to and given respect. The alternative is simple: that dried, sapless timber may fossilise altogether.
Donald Horne, “The Metaphor of Leftness” Quadrant,