There is currently an intense and acrimonious dispute going on within the Labour party over the cause of our recent electoral defeat. Supporters of Corbyn want to put it all down to the fact that traditional Labour supporters wanting Brexit chose to vote Conservative to ensure we leave the EU; opponents of Corbyn claim it was the fault of Corbyn’s far too radical political programme that was always going to end in disaster.
I think both over-simplify. Clearly the Brexit issue was a major factor. But anyone who canvassed for Labour (myself included) can’t deny the intense dislike of Corbyn on the doorstep. However, opponents of Corbyn are conflating dislike of Corbyn with dislike of the policies he was supporting. Poll after poll has shown these policies — including renationalisation of the railways and a Green New Deal — to have strong popular support. The problem was that Corbyn just wasn’t a skilled communicator of those policies. He never wanted to job of leader and never expected to get it. Any Labour leader that tries to challenge the neo-liberal consensus is relentlessly demonised by most of the UK media (including the BBC), and you need to be a larger than life personality to beat this; Corbyn, for all his virtues, just wasn’t up to the job. If we had had someone as articulate and message-disciplined as Bernie Sanders selling this manifesto, I think we could have cut through, although whether that would have been enough to get round the Brexit problem is hard to say.
The aims of the right of the party are clear: to discredit once and for all the programme of the radical left and to push Labour back to the ‘centre’ of politics. The problem with making a virtue of ‘centrism’ is that the centre moves. For the thirty years after the war, the centre of politics involved a commitment to a far more radical programme of state ownership, regulation and high taxes on the wealthy than anything we find in Labour’s recent manifesto. I have a friend in his 70s who is an old school Tory who never got down with the Thatcher programme; his views on the economy are slightly to the left of Corbynism (at least the 2017 manifesto). Thatcher dragged the centre the right, and the neo-liberal establishment now pretend that this is the sacred and eternal place of the centre, and that anyone who questions its fundamental assumptions is beyond the pale.
Moreover, I think a lurch to the centre at this time would be disastrous for Labour. This election was as much about people’s lack of interest in centrism as anything else, as shown by the bad performance of the Lib Dems and the complete collapse of Change UK. Every centrist MP that left Labour and Conservatives in protest lost their seat. As soon as neglected leave voting communities realise that Brexit doesn’t make life better, and there’s still insecure work, in work poverty, collapsing NHS, food banks, neglected communities, etc., there’ll be looking for radical solutions from left and right. Either we inspire them with a radical rethink of the economic model or we’ll get fascists in parliament. I don’t think Labour has a hope of winning back working class seats if it becomes Change UK mark II.