Are “Realistic” Labour Leaders Best Placed to Win An Election?
Conventional wisdom has it that the outcome of the Labour leadership contest most feared by the Tories would be the election of the candidate perceived to be nearest to the middle ground. Conversely, it is suggested that a candidate who espouses policies seen to be further to the left, (which seems to mean simply offering something different from the Tory programme), would gravely prejudice Labour’s chances of winning the next election.
There are, of course, many criteria that might be relevant in deciding which candidate to support – age, gender, personal accomplishments, and so on – and a candidate’s electoral appeal, based on such criteria, might well be important in determining which candidate would be most helpful to Labour’s election chances. But the suggestion, constantly made even by Labour’s friends, that the willingness to offer a clear alternative to Tory austerity, Tory attacks on the public services and Tory victimisation of the vulnerable is somehow a disqualification is surely to be resisted.
The advice to Labour members that they should eschew potential leaders who do not “move forward” (or, to put it more starkly, do not acknowledge the inevitability if not actual desirability of Tory policy) is based surely on a damaging failure of political analysis. It can be justified only on the unstated but mistaken premise that the Tories always occupy the centre ground and that any departure from that centre ground is quite literally eccentric and a mistake, and is doomed to fail.
Yet it is the acceptance of this premise that leads most of the candidates for the Labour leadership to vie with each other in demonstrating how “realistic” they are, how thoroughly they accept that resistance to each new Tory initiative is pointless, how little interest they have in the supposedly hopeless task of developing a credible alternative to Tory orthodoxy.
The paradox is that opinion in the world beyond the Labour leadership contest has moved on – not backwards or leftwards, as the conventional wisdom has it, but forwards to a growing recognition that Tory neo-liberal orthodoxy has had its day. There is now a substantial body of opinion that understands that austerity is not the correct response to recession, that markets are not self-correcting, that running the country is not the same as running a business, that growing inequality is the mark of a failed society and a failing economy.
Among the many who share these understandings, we can now count hard-headed bodies like the IMF and the OECD – hardly raging revolutionaries. What the Labour Party now needs is a leader who can articulate these understandings persuasively. It would not be too difficult. All that is needed is an awareness of how the debate on these issues has progressed and a modicum of competence and courage in putting that to the voters.
It is, in other words, not the left but the Tories, with their determination to press on with a discredited orthodoxy, who now occupy the far reaches of ideology. It is a complete misapprehension to position them in the centre ground, when their policies so clearly represent a distorted and prejudicial view of how real societies and economies work.
It is not just in the context of the leadership contest that this error of analysis is likely to cost Labour dear. If the advice tendered to Labour is followed, and a “realist” is elected to the leadership, the Tories – contrary to the conventional wisdom – will heave a sigh of relief. They will enjoy discrediting a rival who complains about outcomes but is at a loss to explain how things could be done differently. They will know that their task has been made easier, because they will face an opponent who has already conceded the greater part of their policy stance.
They will not have to defend the fundamental assumptions on which that stance is based. Their principal rivals for power will, by failing to engage them in a real debate, provide in effect the most persuasive evidence that there really is “no alternative”.
By positioning the Labour party as a sort of cordon sanitaire around an incumbent Tory government, a so-called “realistic” Labour leadership would insulate their opponents from any truly effective critique of their policies and actions. The contention that it need not be like this would easily be dismissed by pointing to Labour silence and timidity as proof that the Tories had got it right.
The “realism” urged on Labour and the advice that they should not “fight the electorate” would not, in other words, improve Labour’s chances at the next election. On the contrary, a Labour leadership that – inadvertently perhaps – acted as a sort of praetorian guard for Tory extremism so that they were protected from outside criticism could only increase the chances of that extremism doing yet more damage.
And, if by some chance the voters tired of the Tories and elected a Labour government, a “realistic” leader of that government could then no doubt be relied on not to veer too far away from Tory orthodoxy and would thereby disappoint its supporters all over again. Haven’t we been there before?