What is the point of the Labour Party? It’s not the first time I’ve asked this. But maybe it will be the last. Maybe I’ll give up asking. Perhaps once they pick a leader this time they will make the answer clear and I won’t have to keep asking.
Right now they seem to be saying that the point of Labour is to get back into government. That sounds reasonable until you realise that’s where it stops. That’s the end in itself. The point of Labour is to give Labour’s top names a career and to win elections. But ask them why they want to be prime minister, the party strategists, the electoral ‘realists’ who do nothing but consume polling data and spit out clichéd inanities about aspiration while insisting they are in touch with ‘the public’, ask them what it is they want to do with their power, and they look at you blankly.
Liz Kendall wants to be leader because she wants the Labour Party to win elections. And then what? She’s often compared to Tony Blair but she has none of the vision, no overriding sense of how she wants to transform the country, that made people believe in Blair. Or, if she does, she hides it from Labour members during the leadership contest, which makes me a little nervous.
Yvette Cooper, according to one new MP, wants to be prime minister because she wants the economy to be strong and because she knows that the internet exists. A strong economy based on a digital revolution, which could be a joke policy from the Thick of It, except it’s too boring.
Andy Burnham, from what I can establish, thinks he’s the best candidate because he has friends, has a constituency that he goes back to sometimes, used to work at a publishing company and likes football.
And they wonder why Jeremy Corbyn is grabbing people’s imagination. At least he sounds as he has an idea or two in his head about what he actually thinks the country needs. At least he has a bit of passion, at least he trips over his words rather than reading them off a page without caring if they even make sense or directly contradict the logic of something else he’s said only moments ago.
It’s hard to expect people to take seriously the meaning of labels like hard left when the rest of the accepted narrative has moved so far to the right that Nigel Farage is in touch, George Osborne is a moderate man of the working people, putting up taxes for people in work on low pay is balanced, and suggesting that child poverty is bad or that sick people shouldn’t have even more money taken away from them, is all the stuff of the so-called looney left. It doesn’t matter that policies like working tax credits were the stuff of popular, centrist Blairism not so long ago.
And yet the left of the party, not the ones with the ever-changing principles and week-long memories, are the ones to get attacked for moral relativism.
It’s true that the Conservatives won the last election, and it’s true that there’s a lot of public hostility to various aspects of the welfare state. But the Conservatives did not, however much it seems to be the accepted popular narrative, win by some honking, stonking majority. They did better than everybody expected with their surprise victory, but it was still, compared with Blair, or Thatcher, by the skin of their teeth. And that’s without even beginning to consider the mess of the electoral system. The vast majority of people in the country did not vote Tory, and did not vote centre right.
The Tories won the election but that doesn’t mean democracy stops for five years. We don’t have an elected dictatorship, we have a parliamentary democracy. The Labour MPs elected to parliament have a job to do. They are paid to do it – and paid rather good money to do it. That job is holding the government to account, and representing their own constituents – not worrying about what floating voters in a handful of other marginal seats may or may not be concerned with in five years time.
Let’s not forget that the party will oppose the government at the risk of losing the ‘centre ground’ when it suits them, of course; the link between the unions and the Labour Party is hammed up to be just as toxic as anti-benefit sentiments but the party speaks up against anti-union reforms because that could impact the party’s pockets, rather than just yours or mine.
Arguments about the actual impact of the Welfare Bill won’t matter to the party ‘realists’ of course – if they were going to be listen to those impacted by the cuts they would have done so by now – but there’s a cynical, political argument as well for not letting the centre be dragged any further to the right. How much further can this go? If cutting taxes for people in work has become some sort of extreme left wing socialism, then where will the centre ground be in five years? And Labour think they can win an election, on that ground, on the terms set by George Osborne, in five years time? By repeating patronising platitudes and hoping the SNP implode or that Scottish voters simply decide they rather like Liz Kendall and quite fancy another five years of cuts and privatisation, actually?
The Labour ‘realists’ keep going on about how Labour needs to stay as a party of government, not a party of protest. But Labour MPs are sitting in the House of Commons, paid by those taxpayers that the ‘realists’ keep pretending they care about. They have a choice. They can take a ‘tough decision’ and use their influence to hold the government to account, as they’re paid to do. Or they can sit on their hands and stick their fingers in their ears and refuse to oppose things that will cause actual harm just to make an abstract point. A point they will be hammered on anyway, because Labour will probably always be seen as the party of the welfare stare. Labour is the party of the welfare state. Or, rather, it was, once upon a time. If any of the leadership hopefuls really want Labour to be seen as a party of government, they should take a little bit less interest in the beauty pageant of leadership contests, or the faffing around with percentages in marginals to decide what position to take on any given day, and take a little bit more interest in showing they are actually up to the serious business of governing.