As Labour picks its new leader, large parts of the press are convinced that the party needs to be more right-wing to win. But there’s one problem: party members aren’t interested.
Liz Kendall, the candidate arguing for the sharpest move to the right, currently has the support of only ten local parties out of the 150-odd declared so far. Leftist Jeremy Corbyn is top with over five times as many, and leaked private polling purports to show he might even be in the running to win.
A Q&A session with party members earlier this week descended into farce as message after message asked Kendall why she hadn’t joined the Tories. Commentators have looked aghast as their favoured ‘moderate’ candidate flops at hustings and is shunned by local activists.
The horrified reaction from Labour’s retinue at Westminster has been patronising at best: the party’s supporters aren’t mature enough to win, have “lost their mind” or simply don’t understand, it is repeated.
The ‘moderates’ argue that policies like tax credit cuts, welfare caps, or pointless budget surpluses will be an easy sell to the wider public and so Labour should support them.
That, supporters are told, will get you one of those Labour governments you wanted. To have any principles is generally seen as a mixture of mad and quaint.
The argument is circular and misses the point: What the Labour machine doesn’t understand is that most people don’t actually intrinsically care what happens to it.
The people most desperate for a Labour government in May did not care whether the Downing Street kitchen is painted red, or what colour tie the Chancellor wears. Those were a means to an end. They wanted what a Labour government offered.
Labour’s loudest supporters wanted to stop welfare cuts that were ruining the lives of people they know; they wanted to stop landlords moving them on from their homes every couple of years at the whims of the property market; they wanted to safeguard their livelihoods, or the meals of their neighbours’ children.
If Labour gets into government and supports welfare cuts, victimises migrant workers, or sets fiscal policy in response to newspaper editorials, it won’t be a victory for people facing welfare cuts, for migrant workers, or public servants.
That’s why they’re not so keen on your strategy, guys.
Commentators can sling insults and brand the party’s members idiots for coming up with a different answer to them. The reason they’re coming up with a different answer is because they’re asking a different question – not necessarily how to get Labour elected at any cost, but how to stop the policies they see as ruining people’s lives. A party that pledges to continue ruining lives for strategic reasons is of no use to them.
The party is a tribal way of life and an income for a lot of people in and around Westminster – but for most of its supporters, it is a means to an end. The Vatican-sized slice of parliamentary territory controlled by Scottish Labour should be a reminder of how unsentimental even the deepest heartlands can be.
The views of Labour’s supporters do not change the fact that the party needs to win over people who voted Tory last time, and that its biggest weaknesses were economic competence and its approach to welfare.
But they do mean that the party is going to need to be more imaginative in its approach to winning more support than simply lurching to the right.
There is an art to broadening your appeal while still appealing to your core support, but it is possible: Margaret Thatcher pulled off the move artfully in the 1980s with Right To Buy, but the list of historical examples isn’t very long.
To do something similar will require a thoughtful radicalism that’s been absent in Labour for decades – but shaking your fist at Labour voters for not agreeing with you is as futile as shaking your fist at the rest of the electorate.Reuse content