Shouting at opponents never changes anyone’s mind. It may temporarily bully them into silence, but the effect of aggression is almost always to defensively harden existing attitudes. As the Labour party plunges further into a leadership contest characterised by brutal animosity, we need less shouting and much more understanding than we have had up till now.
First, it needs to be said that people who throw bricks through windows and who send threatening letters are criminals. They have no place in our party and no place in this debate. There is also a larger group of people, who do not fundamentally accept that Labour is a party which should pursue a parliamentary road to socialism. Many incredible things have been achieved by protest movements over the years, but that is not what Labour is.
Nevertheless, there are many, many people who voted for Jeremy Corbyn last summer who are not bullies or criminals, who do desperately want to see Labour in government. We have now lost two general elections in a row, and it is not stupid or naive to conclude that the party needs fundamental change if we are ever to win another one.
However, from last summer onwards, the debate has crystallised into unnecessarily stark dichotomies. Those in opposition to Corbyn have been portrayed as interested in power without principle, and those supporting him have been seen as only interested in principle without power. Evidence for the first proposition comes from a view of New Labour which states that in 13 years Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s governments did almost nothing to advance progressive values. Just a small amount of research disproves this: there were dozens and dozens of policies enacted which improved the lives of ordinary British people, and which stand in proud contrast to the miserable performance of the current Tory government. New Labour’s record remains open to criticism, but to say that there were not progressive principles at the heart of its mission is to ignore reality.
On the other side are many people who voted for Corbyn not because they believed in principles over power, but because they correctly judged that Labour has become alienated from many of its core voters. They believed that his leadership offered the best way to reconnect with them. Principles were, in fact, a means to power. But these members should be questioning how true their assumptions have turned out to be.
We lost the 2015 election because so many swing voters trusted the Tories with the economy more than they trusted Labour, because they believed the Tories had better leadership and because their believed that Labour’s ethos was all about taking money away from hard-working people and giving it to people who did not deserve it. We went on to lose the European Union referendum in part because so many people with socially conservative attitudes (many of whom were Labour voters) felt more at home with the story that the United Kingdom Independence party span than with a message coming from (what they felt was) a London-based, socially liberal elite, who seemed inauthentic and out of touch.
This makes uncomfortable reading for most Labour members. It is easy to latch on to the problem of inauthenticity and insist that if only we restated our values in a more authentic way then we would be more successful. Unfortunately, poor local election results and current polls (some of which now put Labour 10 per cent behind the Tories) provide little evidence for this.
This raises the question of whether we should distort our values to fit those of the voters we need to chase (always the accusation against New Labour). This is not necessary. Our task is to find a way of reconciling Labour values of fairness, compassion, tolerance and community with the current fears and hopes of the electorate; we must hold our principles tight while reframing them in a way that shows we have listened to what people are actually telling us.
Meanwhile, leadership was a crucial issue at the last general election. As an opposition party, we are asking the electorate to take a risk on an unknown quantity. Therefore they will be looking for clues to reassure them that Labour’s leader is up to the incredible responsibilities involved in leading the country. Voters are entitled to ask questions about the capabilities of someone who struggles to command the respect of his own members of parliament.
Corbyn’s supporters were right to ask for change in the party. They will get that change whether or not he remains as leader – for even the most ardent New Labour enthusiasts recognise that Blairism had a time and a place which has now gone. However, we must all reflect on what kind of change is actually needed rather than reflexively define ourselves as simply being against what happened before. The core values which drive the Labour party remain the same for all of us. Away from all the shouting, Labour members need to reflect on which candidate we honestly feel can deliver those values for the current era and cast our votes accordingly.
Christabel Cooper writes a regular column on the Progress website
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