Labour’s more centrist wing talks a lot about winning elections. Given our dismal result last September, I admit we should show some humility on that score.
In summer 2015, members and supporters wanted an Opposition which opposed. They wanted someone to be unapologetically anti-austerity; to speak up for left-wing values without blushing; to refuse to triangulate or fudge in the face of a right-wing Conservative Government. Most concluded no-one would do that except for Jeremy Corbyn; they felt like they were being asked to choose to give up everything they believed in if they voted for anyone else.
People like me failed to grasp that, and we just ended up lecturing the membership. We told everyone else to meet the voters on their ground and take their concerns seriously, and we completely failed to take our own advice. We failed with the best of intentions, we failed because we wanted a Labour Government, but still we failed. We have to learn from that.
10 months on, I can understand the anger now that Jeremy is facing a leadership challenge. He won by a landslide: I accept that. He won a mandate to move the debate in Labour to the left. He has done that, but I can see why many feel cheated.
But please don’t think that Labour moderates are the main threat to the Labour Left. We were trounced in 2015: Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper won 21.5% between them. Corbyn supporters cite the old saw that Tony Blair was Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement to illustrate the problems with Blairism. On that logic, Owen Smith is Jeremy Corbyn’s greatest achievement.
Owen is standing as an unabashed socialist, backed by all of Labour’s most centrist MPs. Labour members are not being offered insipid triangulation or Andy Burnham Mark II: Owen is putting forward an unambiguous, democratic socialist programme. He’ll also put flesh on the programme’s bones, which Jeremy never managed to do.
As Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Owen has led Labour’s opposition to the Tories’ welfare cuts. In the early days of his campaign, he’s set out 20 key policies to end austerity and make the wealthy pay their share. Bringing back the 50p rate; higher capital gains tax; a new wealth tax; raising corporation tax; £200 billion invested in a British New Deal: it is crystal clear which side of the fence he’s on. These are specific and costed, and they make a sharp contrast with 10 months in which, after last summer’s promises, practically no party policy emerged at all.
When Owen made his 20 pledges, Jeremy had set out one policy from our 2015 manifesto, one policy based on Owen’s pledge on investment, and one unworkable pledge on pharmaceuticals. Owen has now released a major programme for workers’ rights, too. We have heard a little more since then, but even then the difference stands out: one candidate translates the ideals into concrete policies; the other, unless pushed, does not. Now Labour has been jolted to the left, it needs to fight to make a leftward shift credible: Owen is the better candidate to do so.
Crucially, Owen will turn his fire on domestic policy. If you want to challenge the political consensus head-on, you need a clear target and a steady aim – not a scatter-gun assault on all positions at once. If we’re going to campaign from the Labour Left, we need a clear, overwhelming theme: Conservative cuts are not compulsory; working people shouldn’t pay for the hubris of a lucky few; the interests of those lucky few have railroaded everyone else’s for far too long. Owen will do that. If you wanted a clear, full-throated left-wing party, focused on taking the fight to the Tories: now you can vote for one.
Yes, Owen will stay nearer to the centre than Jeremy in some areas. In particular, Owen will not refuse to sing the national anthem, he will avoid foreign policy controversies (though he voted against military action in Syria), he will be a multilateralist on Trident and he will want to speak to people’s sense of national identity. I understand that these last two are a major compromise for many.
But once these are out of the way, Labour MPs and activists on all sides will rally round a radical domestic programme for government. Arguing about Trident, the Falklands or the IRA is a distraction. These issues alienate people who could otherwise vote Labour. Labour moderates like me will refuse to pretend we can accept them. The Tories will make hay with them. And all the while, the hope of an unequivocally left-wing government drifts further away.
I won’t lie to you: I would normally argue for a more moderate programme to take to the country. But in 2016, the Labour Left has won that battle within the Party, hands down. The biggest threat to that victory is not bedraggled Blairites. It’s crushing, repeated electoral defeat, with all the demoralisation that entails. Defeat will, if you let it, drag the Labour Party away from what you want. Jeremy Corbyn has done what members wanted him to do: to build on that, a new leader will have to take the message to the country, not just the party.
If Owen Smith wins the leadership contest, please don’t think Labour moderates won’t want to make it work. We will throw ourselves into selling him, and Labour, to the country, as we always do. If Labour wins on a manifesto substantially to the left of Ed Miliband, we will be delighted. We also want to tackle inequality – as slowly as we must, yes, but as fast as we can too.
There are two candidates from the Labour Left in this election. One has shown he cannot speak to the country as a whole; the other is champing at the bit to try. The second stands the best chance of showing what a more radical Labour can do.
A Labour moderate
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