Labour’s centre-left must become the radicals they once were and own the future, writes Alan Milburn
Not so long ago, politics was a closed shop. Discourse and debate were the preserve of members of parliament, party members and political commentators. Now politics belongs to millions. The internet has democratised political debate. I view that as a good thing. The downside is those with the loudest voices and the sharpest messages often dominate the airwaves. The United States’ president seems to believe that a tweet is an appropriate substitute for good governance and well-thought through policy. The cacophony of noise that is modern politics is at risk of gifting cut-through to those with the sharpest point of view.
When that happens, clarity beats rationality and favours those with the simplest answers. Build walls. Close borders. Ignore experts. Take back control. Tax the rich. Reward strivers, punish shirkers. Those with the most extreme points of view – mainly from the right but including some from the populist left – speak at the loudest volume and with the clearest viewpoint. But being noisy does not make them right. Unfortunately, throughout the developed world they have been going largely unchallenged. With honourable exceptions, such as French president Emmanuel Macron, the extremists screech their message while the centrists mumble theirs.
This global story has a very British echo. Last year’s election has left our politics polarised again between an old two-party left-right divide. Together Labour and Conservatives took their biggest share of the popular vote for decades. Ironically a large slug of opinion in Britain has been disenfranchised as a consequence. Indeed, if the authoritative British Social Attitudes Survey is anything to go by, there is majority support in Britain for a politics that is socially liberal, economically aspirational, global in outlook and capable of managing markets so they work for ordinary families and their communities, not just the wealthiest. The nation favours less austerity, greater redistribution, more individual freedom and a tough approach to crime, defence and terror. With their starkly polarised positions neither of the big political parties, in their current guises, covers all of these bases. There is a gap in the market.
A sizeable body of public opinion is calling but the centre does not seem to be responding. Instead it is distracted, even discombobulated. The global financial crisis put markets in the dock, leaving the centre uncertain how to create a new state activism without replicating outdated state interventionism. Growing social inequality challenged the centre’s assumption that a rising tide of economic prosperity would lift all boats. The centre’s favoured policy tool to address poverty – moving people from welfare to work – was found wanting when faced with the new reality of stagnating wages and bifurcating labour markets. Meanwhile, the upsurge in global terrorism and identity politics left the centre stranded on unfamiliar and uncomfortable terrain, uncertain whether to be open or closed when it comes to the core issue of immigration. Brexit has been the straw that threatens to break the centre’s back. ‘Remain’-supporting politicians across the party spectrum do not believe in Brexit any more now than at the time of the referendum, but they are fearful of saying so lest they are seen to disrespect its outcome.
The Labour party has been going through particularly painful contortions. Absurdly, its leadership seemed initially to favour a hard Brexit position but the efforts of some in the shadow cabinet have now softened that stance. Ambiguity is the kindest description for today’s Labour position – seemingly stranded somewhere between ideological opposition to the European Union as a ‘capitalist club’ and the opportunist desire to hound a wounded government to parliamentary defeat. In truth, Labour is behaving in a way that lacks authenticity. Whatever the leadership’s view might be, the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs, party members and trades unions believe in access to the single market as a minimum and the United Kingdom’s continued membership of a reformed EU as a preference. The party leadership is uncomfortable with both.
Thankfully, Brexit has helped Labour’s centrists – from the Blairite centre-left to the Kinnockite soft-left – find their voice again. The election had silenced them. They bet the house that Jeremy Corbyn would be an electoral liability. Instead he was strengthened and they were weakened. Now, some of his fiercest critics are scrambling to become his newest supporters. Others are busy convincing themselves that they will have to live with him even if they do not believe in him. It is not always an edifying spectacle. Nor is it sustainable. There is a chasm between the Momentum-left and Labour’s centre-left. The triumph of the former in the recent NEC elections poses a stark question for the latter. Will the centrists be silent or will they be vocal? It seems to me they have no option but to speak up. If they choose to do so there are five things to bear in mind.
First, they should recognise there is a new currency in global politics: change. Whether it is Corbyn, Macron or Donald Trump, voters are looking for a different solutions than those of the immediate past. That is particularly difficult for those of us who believe in what New Labour achieved. It is painful to see Tony Blair’s record as Labour’s most successful prime minister being trashed by people within his own party. The temptation to defend the past, however, all too often tips over into the centrists clinging to it. They would do well to remember that New Labour’s success was built on modernising and reforming: a mindset that always looked ahead to the future challenge rather than back to the past achievement. What worked then may not be as relevant now. Today’s centrists must deal with issues like identity, inequality, and immigration that loom far larger now than two decades ago. Progressive politics has to be built on a platform of change and a relentless orientation to the future. Here is a vacuum in British politics. Both major parties seem locked in the past. One offers a closed nationalism harking back to the 1950s, the other proposes a crude statism dating back to the 1970s. The future lacks political ownership. The centrists should make it theirs.
Second, the argument against Corbyn is not that he is unelectable – another early election would make him a serious contender to become prime minister – but that he is wrong. Nationalising the water companies might make some feel good but all the historical evidence suggests an unfettered state is badly equipped to be a responsive utility provider. Remember the state of Britain’s telecommunications when the Post Office was in charge. Abolishing tuition fees might be good retail politics but it is a bad progressive policy: it redistributes from low-income families to better-off ones. Abandoning Trident might appeal to some of the war-weary young but Britain’s nuclear deterrent confers power on the UK in a highly unpredictable world. On issue after issue, policy after policy, the centre-left know the Corbyn leadership are wrong, yet all too often they are mute. They must find their voice.
Third, the centrists need to move beyond vocalising opposition to developing their own proposition. Right now it is hard to discern what that is. Some in the centre believe the answer to the Corbynistas’ menu is simply a fatter diet of detailed policy. This puts the cart before the horse. Policy is an expression of philosophy. The starting point for the centre-left’s recovery is to work out what it is for, not just what it is against. Political parties have to exist for a purpose and so do party leaders. Without it they are nothing. Great leaders always have a purpose. For Winston Churchill, it was victory in war. For Margaret Thatcher, victory against a stifling state. For Blair, it was victory against old-fashioned attitudes and institutions. Today, to be blunt, voters are no longer sure what centrist Labour is for. They do not see a compelling core purpose. Here, the centre has been cowed by the idea that, because the right prioritises freedom and the left equality, they have nowhere to go. But surely progressives believe that the purpose of politics is to give people an equal chance to make a life of their own choosing. The platform on which the centrists can build their policy prospectus is about tearing down the barriers to social progress that are holding back whole swathes of low- and middle-income Britain – in education, employment and housing for starters.
Fourth, the DNA of progressives is hope, not fear. Even when they have been literate in policy terms in recent years, however, the centrists have been dry and technocratic. Politics is not just plumbing. It is not just about fixing problems. It should inspire and enthuse. A Britain facing the uncertainties brought by changes in demography, technology and society – alongside Brexit and terror – is yearning for a sense of possibility about a better future. It is the centrists’ job to convey a patriotic optimism – to speak in the language of opportunity, not challenge. To make the argument that that there is no viable future in hunkering down in a national fortress but that our success as a nation in the future, just as in the past, requires a Britain that is confident, open and positively engages with the world. To make the case that technology, rather than threatening jobs and prosperity, can be harnessed to empower our citizens, make our public services sustainable and protect the environment. To show that there is a better way of organising our economy and our society so that the proceeds of economic growth can be shared more fairly.
Fifth, and most crucially, the centre has to be radical not just rational. All too often it has looked as though it simply wanted to split the difference between the right and the left. A third way built purely on pragmatism will end up being drowned in the soggy middle. Instead the centre’s proposition has to be relentlessly progressive and founded on its own purpose and principle. That means distributing power widely to the nations, communities and citizens of our country. So that local councils can build both private and social housing, and so that infrastructure spending is geared to lessening regional inequality. It means sharing opportunity fairly across classes and between generations. So that taxes are reduced on income and wealth creation but increased on unearned wealth. It means fairness being about rules that apply equally to how today’s citizens and tomorrows’ immigrants access the welfare and justice systems, public services and jobs markets. So that a national citizens’ card is championed to tackle illegal immigration, overseas terror threats and eligibility to services. It means reforming public services to ensure they are sustainable for future generations. So that its users are empowered through technology and increased funding is tied to improved outcomes. Above all, it means government being a force to narrow social and economic divisions rather than increasing them. So there should be a renewed commitment to end child poverty and increase social mobility. If the centre is to first win back the Labour party and then the country, it has to break the Corbynites’ monopoly on social justice by producing modern radical proposals of its own to tackle inequality.
This is not the agenda of a soft centrism. It is the stuff of real radicalism. Indeed, the centrists would be sensible to stop calling themselves by that name. It smacks of expediency not belief. Disavowing the excesses of both neoliberalism and statism in favour of harnessing the benefits of a market-based economy managed for progressive ends makes them today’s radicals. They need to step out of the shadow of the New Labour party of 1997 and lead the making of the new politics that the country is crying out for.
Alan Milburn is former health secretary and former chair of the Social Mobility Commission
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