Rebecca’s Road to Oblivion!
In her opening remarks in the leadership hustings in Glasgow yesterday, Rebecca Long-Bailey, flawlessly delivered a classic Corbynista stump speech. She warned about the dangers of moving to the centre and how the party should not look and sound like the establishment. In front of her Sottish audience, she attacked the SNP and implicitly called them ‘yellow Tories’ (another classic Corbynista insult) and concluded with a mention of her favourite policy, the ‘Green New Deal’ which she proudly claims to have single-handedly formulated.
But even such a short opening performance was enough to provide a generous sample of everything that was wrong in the last 4 years. Those on the left of Labour have an almost mythical and dystopian view of centrism. They mistake dilution of principles and moderation with radical centrism which must be understood not as triangulation and fence-sitting (which Comrade Corbyn skillfully demonstrated on the European question) but as combining a set of powerful ideas from both sides of the spectrum.
Radical Centrism seeks to address the big challenges of our age but in a way which is rooted in the art of possible, on evidence-based policy and above all on a realistic understanding of the electorate. It takes into account the often unspoken truth about voters. The idea that the majority of voters are far from ideological and prefer spending time with their loved ones, getting on in life rather than sitting through party meetings or canvassing. Despite RLB’s description, ‘moving to the centre’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘looking and sounding like the establishment’.
If Johnson’s December victory has shown us anything, It has demonstrated that the majority of voters are a slightly left of centre on economics and right of centre on cultural and social issues. That’s where the radical centre currently lies in British politics. The mainstream 50% of British voters (excluding the more ideological 25% on either side of the spectrum) are in favour of a bigger role for the state, in terms of more spending on public services and investment on infrastructure. Yet they are equally put off by the modern Left’s obsession with Identity politics and dismissal of the nation-state. The mainstream majority love their country and care more about what unites than what divides it. The voters may yearn for economic reform, but they are equally anxious about the pace and scale of change to their communities. The British have historically seemed to have an innate small ‘c’ conservative instinct which the electable left has always understood and reflected, most famously embodied in Clement Attlee.
Since December, political scientists have been quick to point out the wider continental trend in the decline of left of centre parties and have dubbed it as ‘the Crisis of Social Democracy’. But another phenomenon which has gone unnoticed is the crisis on the centre-right, from Merkel’s CDU to French Republicans and Vrardkar’s recent defeat. All these parties have banked too heavily on the success of globalisation. Yet since globalisation has failed to raise the living standards of the western working class, they all seem to have lost their deposits. The rise of national populism has posed a challenge to both the mainstream left and right. The fringe has filled the vacuum left by the mainstream. When the dominant capital city talk was about universalism and ‘openness’, the national populists have articulated the concerns of the periphery and stressed the importance of national identity to transcend the atomistic individualism of metropolitan liberals. But the brains behind Boris (i.e. Cummings and Co) seem to have grasped the disappointments over globalisation and have managed to provide an antidote in a very British way through the existing apparatus.
Long-Bailey, on the other hand, seems still stuck with a 2010 worldview, which still fails to grasp people’s legitimate concerns about immigration and is quick to dismiss them as ‘bigotry’ and ‘xenophobia’; just like Starmer and Nandy who both support freedom of movement even after Brexit. What’s more, is that Long-Bailey subscribes to an outdated view of the establishment. She seems to still believe the establishment consists of privately educated old men in grey suits who speak in Queen’s English. A view which couldn’t be further from the truth. The new establishment is a state-educated, graduate, liberal in outlook and may have a regional accent just like Long-Bailey and Jess Philips. The New Establishment consists of those who came from a working-class background and have made a success of themselves in the city, just like Sir Kier and Emily Thornberry. Yet they struggle to connect with those of their former classmates who have not left their birthplace or gone to university.
Long Bailey’s lawyerly talk of grand schemes and technocratic solutions like the ‘Green New Deal’ actually makes her sound very ‘establishment’. In a world where power lies with ‘big data’, she has the backing of the Momentum machinery with its own database and resources. She is the establishment candidate.
Her attacks on the SNP were not out of staunch defence of the Union (as she has actually flirted with ‘IndyRef2’) but out of left-wing tribalism. One doesn’t have to support Sottish independence to defend the SNP (as I certainly don’t) but the charge of ‘centrism’ to those who have opposed austerity long before Labour is at best disingenuous.
In order for Labour to win again, we can’t afford to stay this tribal, dismiss other parties and assume that we have a monopoly on good ideas. We can’t afford to continue wrapping ourselves around progressive esoteric buzzwords and vague visions like ‘democratic revolution’ or ‘Green New Deal’ which may sound inspiring to the converted but in fact, bears little relevance to everyday struggles voters face in their lives.
As a party, we have to recognise that the membership is not socially representative of the wider electorate. The average labour member is more white, more male, more affluent, more formally educated and more cosmopolitan than the average labour voter. Therefore, more ‘democratic powers’ to an unrepresentative clique will only make the party less relevant and more narrowly sectional than it already is. I may be the last remaining labour member to believe in the collective wisdom of the Parliamentary Labour Party. From their regular correspondence with the electorate and campaigning experience in marginal seats, collectively the Labour MPs in the PLP have more insight, experience and contact with the electorate than any individual Labour member could ever attain from campaigning in their own area and their social media echo chambers. Whilst not advocating for the return of the electoral college system for electing the leader, I would, however, favour the return of Shadow Cabinet elections to ensure that the frontbench contains not only a broad church of opinions and traditions but also the best talent of the PLP, through peer assessment rather than the patronage powers of the leader to dish out jobs for his allies.
For all Long Bailey’s talk of ‘politics of big ideas’, It wasn’t lack of ‘ambitious policies’ and ‘inspiring visions’ which lost us the election, but excess of it. We got drunk on ‘big ideas’ and ideology and unknowingly distanced ourselves from the immediate issues at hand. When the public didn’t even think about the need for free broadband or a 4 workweek, we offered them with little credible assurance of their costs.
We believed in quasi-utopian transformation led by a benign leader with a magic wand. We fell into the dangerous temptation of seeing the State as the solution to everything and believing that ‘things can only get better’. Then we were shocked when the working class rejected us. Such a mindset was perfectly exemplified by the ‘Novara Media’ who now back RLB’s leadership campaign. The independent radical outlet openly and unapologetically advocates utopianism. To complete the irony, in his recent book ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ Novara’s Aaron Bastani, talks about extracting minerals from the moon as an alternative energy source, which leaves the reader wondering why he lacks ambition and doesn’t argue for the moon itself on a stick. Such out of touch radicalism will only add to Labour’s disconnect from the concerns of the mainstream majority. It will offer solutions to problems people didn’t really feel existed and fail to address real ones. Such pie in the sky thinking should be the counter-indicator of where the next leader should take the party.
Since 2010, Labour has lost 4 elections and it will undoubtedly lose the next one if lefties fail to get their own house in order. The politics of narrow intersectionality will not be able to build a broad enough coalition of voters to defeat the Tories. Vague visions and ideological purity without power butter no parsnips. An opportunity to serve was once our purpose for the pursuit of power. But first, we must save the left from itself, before that opportunity has irrevocably slipped away from our fingertips as it did to Lloyd George’s liberal party in the early 20th century.