Where is the centre ground and who is closest to it? Who are modern and who are backward looking?
In a BBC interview, the Conservative peer and columnist Daniel Finkelstein suggested: “You can have an argument over whose nearer the centre, Yvette Cooper or George Osborne. But you certainly can’t have an argument about who’s closer to the centre, George Osborne or Jeremy Corbyn.” Can’t you?
Take a step back from the deep crisis engulfing the Labour party and let us consider the claim. In doing so, I am neither defending nor criticising Corbyn or Osborne – there will be plenty of time for that. But terms are bandied about and reported in relation to UK politics that distort both what is happening, and why. This is a debate about the terms of the trade, and I’m calling for an urgent review.
For good or bad, Osborne seeks to reduce the size of the state. He argues that, once the cuts are implemented, he will “only” take the country back to spending levels in 1999. In other words, he plans to more or less reverse the entire spending increases introduced by the previous Labour government. He targets welfare and the so-called working poor in particular, but publicly-funded institutions such as the NHS and the BBC also totter precariously, as they did in the 1980s. Although Osborne seeks state shrinking spending cuts he finds the cash to more or less abolish inheritance tax.
There are arguments for and against these measures, but taken together and separately, they are rooted on the right – as are the Right to Buy, further reforms of trade unions tamed by equivalent policies in the 1980s, and the focus on an in/out EU referendum. Perhaps they genuinely believe this is centre-ground politics. Cameron and Osborne were brought up in the 1980s and are assiduous readers of Tory supporting newspapers, some of which also assume sincerely but wrongly they espouse a moderate centrism – although, as a former SDP member, Finkelstein will probably have spoken to his old friend David Owen who despairs of the Government’s right-wing radicalism, most specifically in relation to the NHS but on other issues, too.
While the assumption that Osborne is a centrist takes hold misleadingly, Corbyn is widely labelled an “extremist”. Corbyn may be misguided, naive and untested by the impossible demands of leadership, but are his policies more “extreme” to the left than those of the “centrist” Osborne on the right?
Corbyn’s willingness to appear on platforms with those linked to terrorist organisations fuel his image as an extremist. Yet the principle of talking to terrorists is mainstream. The former head of Tony Blair’s office, Jonathan Powell, wrote an illuminating book on the theme, Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflict. Imagine the outrage if Corbyn published a book with that title. I am not comparing Powell’s heroic, tireless negotiations that helped to bring about the still fragile political settlement in Northern Ireland with Corbyn’s conduct from the relatively undemanding safety of the backbenches. But when Corbyn argues that it is necessary sometimes to talk to terrorists all hell breaks loose because we are being conditioned to view him solely and simplistically as “extreme”.
Reflect also on Corbyn’s other policy positions. For good or bad he opposes the renewal of Trident, but so does the former Conservative Defence Secretary Michael Portillo. He opposes air strikes on Syria, but so does the former Tory leadership candidate David Davis. Corbyn wants to renationalise the railways, a mainstream view in much of Europe. He has doubts about kneeling in front of the Queen – but why should we accept without question that an elected MP, who is then elected a leader (doubly elected) must kneel in front of a non-elected monarch? Perhaps the centrist view is to back the doubting elected democrat?
Some of Corbyn’s internal dissenters are described as “modernisers”. Is not Corbyn modern, in showing his wariness of rituals that imply democratic leaders must bow to those who reign on the basis of the hereditary principle? I am not arguing that Corbyn was right, but if the juxtaposition is “modern” versus “old fashioned”, this was a modern act of defiance.
The BBC in particular must be careful about its use of the term “moderniser”. Nearly all of us like to feel we are modern. The label is therefore flattering when applied to senior politicians. It is also meaningless. Presumably “modern” means a leader who wishes to move on from a party’s recent past. In which case Corbyn is a “moderniser”. But this tells us nothing much about Corbyn.
Evidently Osborne wishes to be seen as a centrist. But he is more interesting than that: a thoughtful figure on the right, immersed in political history with a genuine curiosity about his Labour opponents as well as a desire to beat them. Corbyn has never claimed to be a centrist and is rooted on the left.
Like “moderniser” the term “centrist” is meaningless. The new Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, has got off to a good start by declaring that he is not a centrist. He is clearly a figure on the centre left – as was Charles Kennedy, Paddy Ashdown and David Steel. This will not help to attract despairing centre-left MPs in the Labour party. Those MPs are interested in power, rather than joining a party with eight seats.
British politics is in a state of flux. There is a lazy way of interpreting what is happening, which is to accept a framing in which the “moderniser” Osborne commands the vaguely defined “centre ground” against a backward-looking extreme left winger. There is a more fruitful and demanding route in which we rid ourselves of terms that distort or imply the opposite to what is really happening. Then we can start to discover who is who, and what they really represent.
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