Joe Robinson is a third-year politics and international relations student at Emmanuel College and former Political Editor at Varsity. A self-described long-suffering Labour moderniser, he enjoys rugby league, Star Wars and providing wordy answers to simple questions. He argued below that Labour’s moderates face a crucial choice between being stuck in the past and dying out, and looking forward to win power once again.
The crisis of the British centre-left comes at a curious time for the fate of the British left more broadly. That fate is characterised by an apparently paradoxical bill of health: Labour is now the largest party in Western Europe by membership yet is has been virtually marginalised as a force in British political life. It lags behind the Tories not only in voting intention but in crucial judgements about leadership and economic competence that the party must win if it is to return to power. Yet the centre-left has some culpability for the failure of the Corbyn project and, we must assume, some responsibility for Labour’s heavy defeat at the next general election.
That responsibility comes from its failure to advance a coherent and compelling case against a leftward shift and towards a centre-ground strategy that seeks to advocate solutions with broad appeal. It is a debate we are still losing, one that has been made all the more difficult by the advance of rightwing populism characterised by a rejection of the prevailing mode of political economy: protectionism replaces free trade, and isolationism replaces internationalism in the sphere of foreign policy.
The response of some elements of the left has been to treat popular discontent for current economic policy as a vindication of the need for old-style statist socialism. This is, however, mistaken: suspicion of government does not lead to the clamour for more of it, and the idea that after reelecting the Tories in 2015 what people really want is a left-wing Labour Party is utter piffle.
The centre-left, in responding to the challenges of a resurgent left and emboldened populist right, is paralysed. Part of this is that we stand at the transition from one governing paradigm – the consensus that took hold in the 1980s after the collapse of postwar Keynesian welfarism – into the unknown. The paradigm in which the centre-left should operate in order to fulfil its historic task of roughening the edges of the prevailing economic paradigm, whether that be neo-Keynesian demand management or supply-side economics.
In some important respects, however, the challenges for the centre-left are predominantly cultural rather than economic. A core component of popular discontent is the perception of politicians as a self-serving liberal elite detached from the concerns of ordinary people. Labour’s strategy during the Blair years of parachuting ex-special advisors into safe seats did much to harm the party’s relationship with its historical working-class base, something that Corbyn’s leadership despite its pretensions to the proletarian has failed to address adequately.
The solution here is not clear. There is a clear correlation between times when Labour has been most out of touch and when it has been seen as politically expedient and willing to do anything to win. But the beginnings of a new strategy for the centre-left in tackling this new political climate can be observed in the centre-left’s deep historical roots in the populist tradition.
As Lionel Shriver has observed, recent use of ‘populism’ has been inaccurate and largely pejorative, as a synonym for xenophobia, racism or stupidity. Dictionaries define it as support for ordinary’s people concerns, and political scientists term populism as a framework in which the just people are contrasted with a corrupt elite.
Understood in this way, populism has always been core to Labour’s message: why the Tories are incapable of governing in the interests of ordinary people and why Labour is uniquely equipped to govern in the interests of the many, not the few. Philip Gould, as one of the architects of New Labour, stresses populism as a core component of the party’s recasting.
And, helpfully, a core component of New Labour’s early thought was the need to reconnect with working-class communities, though the reappearance of this sentiment in the literature of Blue Labour suggests that this was not altogether successful. Nevertheless, both approaches stressed the need to understand and address concerns about immigration, crime and welfare if the centre-left is to seem both grounded and genuine.
It is this framework that the centre-left must use in reassessing support for policy. Understood through this lens, support for curbs to free movement, for example, are the result not of accommodation to Tory preferences but a reaffirmation of the party’s commitment to the working-class communities it left behind in search of middle England.
The genius of the centre-left—the Labour right—has been its ability to achieve synthesis, both between electoral blocs—the middle-class south and the working-class north—and between competing policy paradigms. It has sought to moderate the excesses of economic systems in the pursuit of egalitarian outcomes, and all the while it has presented itself as the future.
For this reason, the centre-left cannot be sentimental about the past. The year is not 1945, nor is it 1997, as much as we might like it to be. We aren’t emerging from war or years of Tory sleaze. But there are still plenty of opportunities to exploit.
The centre-left can take a lot of heart from the example of Emmanuel Macron in France’s ongoing presidential election, who combines unabashedly social democratic politics with tub-thumping populism aimed at attacking the exclusionary populist right, in particular Marine Le Pen, and the obscurantist left epitomised by Benoît Hamon. He has cast himself as the outsider champion of the people, embracing tolerance and inclusion while being pro-business and thoroughly genuine. Most of all, his politics represents the synthesis of liberal values and answers on prosperity for working people, a defiant rejection of the populist right as inimical to French values and an embrace of civic patriotism, is taking him far further than many predicted.
Many comparisons have been made between Macron and a young Tony Blair: young, telegenic, charismatic. But the circumstances in which they find themselves could not be more different: the boom of the late 1990s versus secular stagnation in Europe, post-Cold War calm abroad versus global instability. Yet they represent the values of the left advanced coherently in response to contemporary concerns. That is what the centre-left must achieve to arrest its crisis.