The 2017 Labour Party Conference came to be regarded by more than one political commentator as the “surrender” of the Labour moderates. When Tom Watson interrupted his own speech to sing, “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn”, it certainly looked that way. There are, however, more Labour moderates than there are members of any other political party in Britain.
Though we are the minority in the Labour Party, we are part of a century-old tradition that has brought profound and lasting change to this great country. But the truth is, if we ever want to get a hearing again, we need a total and complete rethink about the way we do politics. Here are five simple suggestions about how we might go about doing this…
1. Drop the ‘moderate’ tag. Politics is in flux. Old certainties are out. Casting ourselves as ‘moderates’ right now makes us sound unimaginative and it just won’t do. This is not to say decent, principled centre-left politics should be abandoned. It is to say that, in order to get a look in, we so-called ‘moderates’ need to spark an inspiring counter-revolution against unthinking populism. For the past two years, it’s sounded awfully like we’re attempting to be the grownups in the room, but without any of the necessary explanations for reason and order.
The idea that Labour’s previous success under centre-left leadership was based on spin and ideological capitulation should be debunked principally because it’s untrue. There’s a rich history of radical ideas on Britain’s centre-left and it needs to be revived. Only big moral arguments will get or deserve a hearing in this new age of extremes. If you want to win in politics, you have to define yourself, or your enemies will do it for you. Clue: they won’t be flattering.
Just as saying Labour is simply “anti-austerity” is not enough because it says nothing about what we as a party are for, speaking in terms merely of moderating either the Labour Left or the Tories in government is conservative and reactionary. It makes us little better than the Lib Dems, whose 2015 general campaign was a pathetic attempt to “give a heart to a Tory government and a brain to a Labour one.” Such politicking is defensive, mindless and doomed.
2. Stop hatching “cunning plans.” Against the surge of member support for Jeremy Corbyn and his “new politics” in the past two years, the Labour right has often resorted to hatching “clever plans” to try and outmanoeuvre the Corbynite vanguard.
There were the endless negative briefings to the press from Labour MPs, the embarrassing botched leadership challenge, the attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot, the attempts to rebalance the National Executive Committee (which are about to come back to haunt Labour ‘moderates’ when Richard Leonard is elected as Scottish Labour Leader), the failed decapitation of UNITE General Secretary Len McCluskey (although he triggered the election himself) and, most recently, the unprincipled about-turn of certain Corbynsceptics who now pretend that the only issue they ever had with the Corbyn project was “electability.”
These “cunning plans” are so cunning that not one of them has worked and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is more secure than ever. He is odds-on to be the next Prime Minister. Backroom manoeuvres have failed again and again and have solidified the impression that Labour ‘moderates’ have nothing to offer but skulduggery and trickery. We could learn a thing or two from Corbyn’s mastery of political jujitsu. Consider how calm and resilient he has proved under relentless fire despite being new to leadership. Maybe he knows something about leadership that we don’t.
3. Focus relentlessly on policy
It is often said that the one good thing about being in opposition is that you have time to think freely. Well, while Labour ‘moderates’ are not in opposition to Corbyn, we are certainly not in charge of the party and are unlikely to be for a very long time.
As centre-left thinking continues to fester across the West, we in the British Labour Party have the time and, yes, the duty to come up with a bold new vision to take our nation and the world into a new era. We must find solutions to the deep challenges posed by globalisation, worsening inequality, automation, the housing crisis, the revival of political extremism, the denigration of the mainstream media, ISIS, global warming, devolution and, oh yeah, the small matter of Brexit.
Sounds like a lot to think about, doesn’t it? Well, we’ve all the time in the world and nothing else to do. So, we better get our thinking caps on…
4. Get out of London
The fetishisation of London is not unique to the Labour right. The majority of our members live in London. Our NEC and our Shadow Cabinet are dominated by Londoners. Our leader has represented an inner London seat since 1983. We look awfully like ‘the London Party’ at a time when our traditional Northern and Midlands heartlands are turning increasingly towards the Conservatives.
Moves are already afoot to re-balance the Labour Party’s thinking away from its Londonism. The launch of the English Labour Network marks an exciting initiative in attempting to find common ground between Labour values and Englishness. Gurinder Singh Josan’s bid to join Labour’s NEC is a long overdue attempt to give Labour’s ruling body a voice from the Midlands.
Although it is a fact sometimes lost on the political class, most people in the United Kingdom do not live in London. To be in power, you need to persuade them to vote for you. It might be a useful exercise for Labour ‘moderates’ to spend a bit more time outside of London, listening to the rest of the country and not sneering at their lives and aspirations.
5. Champion ‘left behind Britain’
Many on the Left in this country and across the West seem uncomfortable acknowledging the extent to which the working class has been cut adrift in the last few decades. Unable to come up with radical policies to protect the working class from job losses, housing insecurity and wage stagnation, we prefer to talk about issues which sit more naturally with our members. Often these issues coalesce around ‘identity politics.’
Learn from Hillary Clinton’s mistakes. When your enemies are speaking up for your natural supporters, it’s clear that you’ve got an existential problem. It is insufficient and unacceptable to dismiss the concerns of the great mass of working people in this country who are understandably crying out for change. If you resort to calling those who once voted for you “bigots”, you don’t deserve to win back their vote.
We must capture the zeitgeist of change as Attlee, Wilson and Blair did before us. This will require a new deal for the British people. If Labour ‘moderates’ ever want to get a hearing again, then we need to work out what this new deal would be and offer it to the British people with renewed purpose and hope.