Labour leadership contest: 'Moderniser' is just a vague and overused label

It remains one of the more ubiquitous terms in British politics

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The Independent Online

Hands up those of you who regard yourselves as modernisers! Before we go further, I should add that recently on Twitter I asked for a precise definition of “moderniser”, one of the more ubiquitous terms in British politics. In most cases, the attempts from some brilliant political writers to define the term chimed in with their views as to what form successful leadership should take.

Partly a bit of fun. But there was a serious side to exploring what “modernisation” means. It helped explain what, at this early stage, is already wrong with the Labour leadership contest. It is deluged with terms that appear precise, seem to point in a very clear direction, and yet only help to obscure.

Currently Liz Kendall is awarded the label “modern” because she is a “Blairite” who wants to take the party back to the “centre ground”. In addition, she understands that Labour can only win by appealing to those with “aspiration”.

Currently, any figure who utters words similar to those mouthed by Tony Blair is hailed as a “moderniser”. But Blair was seen as “modern” in 1994 because he was making an explicit break with his party’s past. A new modernising Blair, standing for the leadership now, would not seek to copy the Blair that stood in a very different political world 20 years ago.

Of course, there are many lessons for future Labour leaders from the Blair era. Between 1994 and 1997, Blair looked beyond his parochial party, although he did not greatly reform it; framed arguments brilliantly and linked policies to those broader themes; recognised the centrality of proving economic competence, winning the trust of businesses and the media.

But there are limits to Blair as a guide. The famous mantra that “what matters is what works” does not get a new leader very far. I have yet to meet a leader on the left or right who advocates a policy that they believe would not work. The essence of the political divide is a debate about how and what makes something work, whether it is the provision of universal healthcare or the delivery of a more productive workforce. More widely, Iraq was not an aberration but absolutely part of Blair’s resolute expediency. As ever, when faced with a hotly contentious issue, he sought to navigate a third way and, in this particular case, came  up against an unyielding brick wall.

Here is a harsh reality for those who try to reduce a debate to banalities dressed up as insight. Every Labour leader seeks to win elections, believe it or not. One of Neil Kinnock’s big messages was about convincing those doing well and wanting to do better that Labour was also for them. Ed Miliband targeted partly the “squeezed middle”.

They failed to win, but the assertion that Labour must appeal beyond a core vote is not in itself a great insight. How this is done is the bigger question. It is not an answer to insist that Labour must focus its appeal on the South of England, or indeed the North of England or Scotland. It might be worth contemplating an appeal across the UK. The question, again, is how.