The Labour leadership contest is simply about picking a new leader for a mainstream political party. You could be forgiven for mistaking it for a soap opera, or perhaps an actual opera, replete with feuding families, accusations of disloyalty and aged soothsayers issuing dire warning for the future (I’m looking at you Tony…).
Before the decent into Eastenders territory, the debate came dangerously close to discussing actual ideology and policy. It had been very revealing, effectively lifting the curtain on debates that have taken place in the party for decades, but away from the glare of the cameras.
The immediate context of this debate is, naturally enough the general election defeat of May 2015. Under leader Ed Milband the Labour Party was said to have moved significantly to the left. The usual evidence used to support this idea was Miliband’s support for energy price controls, the election-eve proposal to abolish the controversial non-dom status, and the possibility of a significant rise in the minimum wage.
Some in the party, among them Corbyn and his cheerleaders, think that what was being offered to the public was ‘Tory-lite’, and was therefore no choice at all. Others, (Blair again) are convinced of the opposite; that Miliband had tacked too far to the left and shed those swing voters put off by anything that sounds socialist-y.
Like any large political party, Labour is a de facto coalition. There are elements which are more or less radical, more or less backward-looking, and more or less committed to electoral politics. In common with other parties the activist base of the party tends to be more ideologically extreme, even within the fairly moderate traditions of British parliamentary politics. Now the party is rapidly approaching a fork in the road, these erstwhile allies within the party are grouping with like-minds in a bid for the ideological domination of the party machinery. It is no secret that Corbyn’s more radical, populist approach is in pole position to achieve that aim.
Whose values are they anyway?
The ideological discussion during the campaign has centred around ‘Labour values’; specifically what they are and who could had the most convincing claim on them. The candidates’ differing conceptions of these values places them, according to the standard media view, along a left-right spectrum. On the left of the contest is the flat-capped socialist-in-waiting Jeremy Corbyn; occupying the opposite flank is Liz Kendall. There are two very important questions being argued over when the contestants debate the ideas. One is inherently backward-looking: whose ideas are closest to ‘real’ Labour values? The second casts its gaze to the future: which ideas will bring greatest success at the ballot box?
The social democratic approach
The Labour party card states that it is a social democratic party, that is, one committed to achieving equality in society through incremental change, and by harnessing, rather than overthrowing the forces of capitalism. This is a fairly clear answer to the oft-posed question of whether Labour has ever really been committed to introducing actual socialism, in other words ensuring equality through redistribution of wealth rather than simply creating the preconditions for equality.
The British social democratic project has changed little over the past century-and-a-bit. It has enjoyed significant electoral appeal generally only in times of economic boom, most notably during the long post-war economic upswing, and then in the 1990s and 2000s, riding the wave of globalisation. The worry for proponents in the leadership race (everyone except Corbyn in essence) is that we are experiencing a period of significant global economic disruption. Hitching a crudely statist, redistributive wagon to the faltering horse of the world economy is not an especially appealing prospect.
Given this problem it is tempting to adopt the ideas of one’s more successful enemies. In the current leadership election the candidate trying hardest to ‘occupy the centre ground’ – or move ever further in the direction of the Tories – is Liz Kendall. Her commitment to equality is tempered her emphasis on equality of opportunity. Her policy positions are aimed squarely at softening the blow of capitalism on those most in need, whilst accepting the essentials of the political status quo.
The result is that ideologically Kendall, and others on the ‘right’ of Labour have little room for their own ideas, or anything radical and inspiring. For example, the elimination of low pay would apparently be achieved under a Kendall government by a restoration of working tax credits, a greater role for the Low Pay Commission and repealing Conservative legislation restricting union activity. Trying to turn the clock back to 2006 is hardly likely to succeed as a political programme, or have supporters manning the barricades.
I heart Socialism
Jeremy Corbyn in contrast is offering a transformative vision, one in which problems are clearly identified and solutions proposed. The widening inequality in wealth would be addressed through higher rates of taxation. Railways which don’t meet customer needs despite huge profits and hefty government subsidy would be renationalised. Weapons of mass destruction are morally reprehensible, and so the Trident missile system would not be renewed.
There is much to recommend this straightforward approach, not least that Corbyn isn’t afraid to actually discuss the issues at hand. His plain-speaking is the reason his campaign has attracted vocal support from otherwise hard-to-enthuse sections of the party and also wider society.
The problem lies instead with the solutions being proposed. Putting aside the Blair & co.’s fairly sound assertion that the public at large isn’t that enthusiastic about socialism, Corbyn’s ideas are not exactly world-beating. Most obviously, he is standing as a strongly anti-austerity candidate; cuts made by Osbourne would be reversed. The foundation of a National Investment Bank would finance infrastructure projects, to prime the economic pump for growth. As such Corbyn is a good Keynsian, which is not a bad thing of itself, only that he does appear to be genuinely backward-looking in some crucial respects.
A National Education Service, like the NHS would be “free at the point of use”. How would this address the pressing problems of educating young people for the challenges of the 21st century? Never mind, because everyone loves the NHS, so an NES sounds good too. Corbyn recognises the grave threat posed by climate change, but also advocates the reopening of pits closed in the ‘80s, apparently believing that ‘clean coal’ is an actual real thing. The reason for the unfortunate paucity of his plans is that Corbyn is a genuine socialist, with an accompanying faith in the effectiveness of state action. Whereas government had some success addressing inequality and reigning in the worst excesses of capitalism in the mid 20th century, there is no reason to believe that socialist ideas formulated decades, or even centuries, ago have relevance in an age of ‘secular stagnation’ and the juggernaut of the information revolution.
Still, the questions ‘who is most Labour?’ and ‘whose ideas are best?’ will keep being asked. The answers being given to those two questions demonstrate one point above all others: just how far the party has to go if it is to return to health. Beset by not only by the problem of an ingrained blandness and a cynical approach to the electorate, Labour currently has few ideas from any quarter – left, right or centre – that will stand comparison with the party’s past, or meet the progressive, electoral challenges of the future.