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..”