The problem with the centre-left

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 13 August 2015
Republished in Der Standard (Vienna), 22 August 2015

dead-endAustralians could be forgiven for not closely following the leadership contest of the British Labour Party. After all, what is the point of studying the internal debates of a party that has just suffered a crushing election defeat in a general election and now faces five long years on the opposition bench?

Australian politics certainly has enough excitement to offer of its own. Who needs an international distraction when you can choose from your own expenses scandal, the same-sex marriage showdown or Bronwyn Bishop missing out on a $2,500 prize drawn at the RSL?

That said, watching the British Labour Party’s quest for a new leader is not only entertaining but also instructive. It holds some lessons not just for Britain’s centre left but for social democratic parties around the developed world.

To give you a brief summary of what happened, you may recall that Britain went to the polls in May and not so much re-elected Prime Minister David Cameron but rejected the alternative, then Labour leader Ed Miliband. At the time, Miliband was described as the most left-wing candidate for the premiership since Michael Foot. Foot, of course, ran unsuccessfully against Margaret Thatcher in 1983 with an election manifesto dubbed ‘the longest suicide note in history’ for its hard-left and outlandish proposals.

When Miliband lost, most commentators concluded Labour had veered too far to the left and needed to reposition itself in the centre of British politics. That is where elections are won and lost. If there was one lesson Labour should have taken from its defeat, it should have been that. Voters had not trusted Labour with sensibly running the economy because they were frightened by Miliband’s left-leaning rhetoric. In the end, they gave David Cameron’s Tories another mandate even though it is fair to say that his is not the most popular government in British history.

For the Labour Party, therefore, the strategic choice should have been obvious. It should have repositioned itself to where it had been under Tony Blair and, to a lesser extent, under Gordon Brown. Back then, Labour was a party at ease with the market economy. Or, in the words of arch-Blairite Peter Mandelson, it was a party “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”.

Of course, they could have put a more positive spin on it: Aspiration, hope, hard-working families: these are the cliché buzzwords that politicians like to use when they basically want to say that they are trying to work with the market and not against it. Indeed, such marketing would have worked wonders for British Labour.

Instead, something completely different happened. In order to encourage his own party to have a proper debate on its future direction, Labour backbencher (and former minister under Blair) Frank Field, together with 34 of his parliamentary colleagues, nominated the most left-wing MP they could find for the leadership: Jeremy Corbyn. In interviews, Field explained that he wanted his party to decide where it stands on the budget deficit by discussing Corbyn’s radical leftist views.

As someone who knows Field personally, I must admit I was puzzled by his (nominal) support for Corbyn. In many ways, Frank Field is a greater free marketer and conservative than most Tory MPs. But I can see why he wanted his Labour Party to make a decision on its future direction.

Unfortunately for Field and the Labour party, this strategy backfired. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Jeremy Corbyn leads the Labour leadership contest. Some polls see him at 53 percent of the vote, more than 30 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival.

What Corbyn has to offer makes Miliband and Foot look moderate in comparison. He wants to renationalise parts of the British economy, re-open derelict coal mines, increase government spending and seek closer ties with Russia. His agenda is the kind of socialist renaissance that warms the hearts of dyed-in-the-wool Labour activists and trade unionists, but scares off everyone else.

And that is the problem — not just with Corbyn but with left-wing parties around the world. Social democratic parties have achieved many of the things they traditionally campaigned for. It was left-wing parties that successfully secured workplace rights, women’s rights and a social safety net. The core demands that centre-left parties had a century ago have all been achieved. In fact, so successful have centre-left parties been that many of their traditional positions have been accepted by the centre right.

But this is where it gets difficult for social democrats today. Having scored such great historic successes, where do they go from here? Are they content with past glories and shift their efforts to the political centre-ground? Electorally, such a strategy can be successful as Tony Blair’s (1997), Gerhard Schröder’s (1998) and even the self-proclaimed “fiscally conservative” Kevin Rudd’s (2007) election victories demonstrated.

Such centrist repositioning does not satisfy the hearts of the Labour movement, though. This is where Jeremy Corbyn comes in. He promises the opposite of anything that could have made the left electable to the broader electorate. What he offers instead is something that clearly differentiates his own party from its opponents. In doing so, he caters for the sentimental needs of the party loyalists who would much rather like to feel right than to be right — or actually, who would rather like to be left than to be sensible.

Should Corbyn really become Labour’s new leader, it is clear that his party would not stand the slightest chance of winning the next UK election in 2020. It might even tear the Labour Party itself apart. Many Labour donors have already declared they would no longer support a Corbyn-led party. Which makes it appear even more bizarre why Labour would even opt for a candidate like him.

The reason is that the centre left, not just in Britain, is in desperate need of a new narrative if it wants to win elections once again. The old, socialist narratives may make traditionalists feel nostalgic but will not win votes. The centrist narratives do not win the hearts of the party grassroots and sound almost indistinguishable from their centre-right rivals in any case.

What the left really needs is a new narrative of its own: one that does not condemn markets and yet sounds progressive. One that talks about individual liberty and does not confuse it with state power.

Jeremy Corbyn does not offer any of that. All he shows is how the centre left, void of new ideas, is trying to find refuge in retro-politics. It will not work. Not in Britain, or anywhere else.