Josh Jackson is a second year Human, Social and Political Science student at Queens’ and serves as a delegate to the National Union of Students. A Labour Party activist and loyal Corbynista, he enjoys studying social policy, Cold War history, all things Star Wars. He argues below that the centre-left needs to be cast aside in order for a stronger, radical left to emerge in its place.
The problem with the ‘centre-left’ is included in the title: it’s the ‘centre-left’. It is a combination of socially liberal values with relatively pro-market economic approach in one form or another. Even though the leadership has changed, the party created under Tony Blair still remains, the consensus has yet to shift. We are still the catch-all, ‘broad church’, party that is attempting to encapsulate as much of the views of the British public in order to occupy the centre ground and win enough seats.
Now that will work for the Tories, but there are three good reasons why it will not work for Labour: first, the distribution of Labour voters and would-be voters across constituency lines means we can’t win in rural England. Second, we cannot talk convincingly to the Scottish people until we can uncompromisingly state our position on independence. Third, the main reason why this ‘broad church’/catch all approach will no longer work is that the coalition of people that once powered Labour in ’97 no longer exists. Many of people who voted Labour in ’97 have gone to the Liberal Democrats, have gone to the Greens, have gone to the SNP, have gone to UKIP, and the most disaffected have just gone and stopped engaging in politics at all. Collectively, these are the ‘left behind’. If Labour ever wants to win again they must reach these people. And to do so, we must be a genuine left-wing, socialist, Labour Party.
The ‘left behind’ are totally adrift in political discourse because from their perspective the two main parties show no interest in their concerns and make no effort to each them. These people are the kind to say about politics and elections that “it makes no difference” or “it doesn’t affect me”. The majority of these people are working class, lacking university education, former industrial areas, and white. This is a massive block of voters that used to be the mainstay of Labour in the 70s/80s and up until 97′ and then in subsequent elections millions of them simply dropped off the political grid or fled to UKIP.
The reason the centre-left and social democratic parties in general have faced such difficulty is because of the way mainstream parties have evolved in the past 30 years. The professionalisation and modernisation of both Labour and the Conservatives, beginning with Labour in the 90s, saw the rejection of outright appeals to the working class, it was a rejection of actively talking about redistributing wealth and any attempts at revolutionising the conditions of working life. What replaced it was a moderate economic position combined with socially liberal values aimed primarily at the middle class. The Labour victory in ’97 cultivated the idea that you can’t win an election without winning middle England, without winning the middle class.
This shift in the very nature of the political party affected Labour the most. Labour went from advocating the common ownership to ditching ideology. It adopted the language of aspiration, social mobility, and toughness on benefits and, of course, on crime. The problem with this was that the social mobility promised never materialised; the majority of people who are born poor die poor. People still did not get enough houses and faced an increasingly unstable financial climate culminating in the crash of ’08.
The key thing that the centre-left mistake when talking about the New Labour years, especially of 1997, was not that they gained the votes of middle England but rather that they had not yet lost working England. In ’97 the centre-left still commanded the loyalty of the working class because there was no alternative and during each subsequent election under New Labour votes were haemorrhaged by the millions. Labour’s position among the middle and working classes, the nations, and even ethnic minorities has been eroded because of centre-left misdirection.
The two mainstream parties in this country effectively became variations of the same theme. Where once there was a left and right, there’s a centre-left and a centre-right. Both parties accept the same core tenets: capitalism works, albeit with some state intervention; the private sector is where jobs are made, at the expense of nationally owned enterprises; not actively redistributing wealth but ensuring others can better access it. Concerns over housing, the NHS, wage stagnation, and a rapidly globalising society were no longer discussed in serious detail by either party. If you talk to these ‘left-behind’ people, they all feel a sense of powerlessness. Where once they felt they had a say in government now they feel they have none. They see ever more wealth going to the cities and financial districts whilst the values they grew up with have been replaced with social liberalism and a multiethnic society.
Therefore, when a radical right-wing party such as UKIP comes along and offers urgent and immediate solutions to the housing crisis, economic decline, immigration, and the quality of jobs then it is no doubt that millions of people went for it. There exists a massive constituency in this country desperately looking for someone to, for lack of a better term, ‘take back control’ and offer a radical change from the status quo.
At this point many would say we must ‘listen to the people’ and go tough on immigration and the like. Wrong. The problem is not social liberalism or ‘political correctness’, but merely coating the deep social and racial divisions with a ‘wishy-washy-everyone-hold-hands’ sort of progressive liberalism. Only the most obvious and egregious examples of racism were fought and a base legal equity given to everyone, ignoring cultural prejudice and bigotry. Thus, UKIP or other far right anti-immigrant forces can exploit these latent racist attitudes to advance their political agenda. Undoubtedly, the liberalisation of social values is good, but the left needs more than continued liberalization – it needs liberation.
It must also be uncompromising on the redistribution of wealth to the working class. That means a stinging attack on the 1%, the top 10%, and the system that maintains this disparity. This means no more dithering on Europe – we pick a side and stay with it. The same goes for Scotland, we need to outflank the SNP to the left at every turn, which also means a 100% commitment to immigration, refugees, and upholding a genuine desire to uproot cultural racism. But it cannot end there; we need a plan for automation that promises a house, a wage, and resources for everyone. It’s not about the next general election, it’s about the next 20 elections.
The Labour Party can only do this with Jeremy Corbyn. It needs his unbending moral principles and unwavering commitment to economic and social justice that will empower the party. Of course, times will be tough but we can win these arguments if we commit to them, given that this is a truly remarkable time in politics where people are more open to accepting the once unacceptable. We have the platform and the reach, we just need to be brave enough to use it.
Check out King’s Politics‘ next event:
Is the British centre-left dead?
Friday 10 February, 7.00-8.30pm, Panel debate including:
Daniel Zeichner, Labour MP for Cambridge
Abi Wilkinson, journalist and commentator for numerous national newspapers and publications
Jonty Leibowitz, Co-Chair for the Cambridge Universities’ Labour Club
The event will be held in Lecture Room 3, Mill Lane Lecture. Please arrive slightly earlier than the event’s start to find a seat in the auditorium.