Throughout the Labour leadership contest, one thing has struck me more than any other. It is perhaps the key factor in Corbyn’s rise to become the heir apparent, in fact. It’s that Corbyn’s ideas have been presented over and over again by pretty much every campaign and centre-left voice of any description as mostly being ideally the right ones were the world a less right-wing place and all of that, but they just aren’t politically pragmatic enough. Not that Corbyn is wrong – good heavens, no – he’s just naive.
You can see it in the articles of commentators like Polly Toynbee; Burnham’s camp still pretty much toes this line; Cooper reversed away from this, only too late in the day. This has made Corbyn seem like a shining beacon of Labour values as compared to the others who only care about power.
The roots of this are long, which is why Burnham and Cooper thought they could get away with it this time round, at least pre-Corbynmania. Blair indulged in this sort of thing all throughout his leadership. A mode of thought and communication that said that while the tenets of democratic socialism were wonderful and great and all of that, they wouldn’t fly in the real world. So if Labour wanted to wrest power away from the Tories, they needed to triangulate on key issues – water themselves down, essentially, although Blair and his people would obviously never have put it like that.
The problem with this is that the party was never really changed fundamentally; updating the roots of what it meant to be left of centre was something that never happened. The Left was never forced to re-think itself for the 21st century as a result. It’s why so many of the battles they harp on about have a distinctly ancient flavour to them. Corbyn’s bid to re-open the coal mines is a great example – the emotional core of that is the desire to return to the battles with Thatcher in the 1980s, only to win this time round.
If the centre-left wants to rule the country again, it needs to figure out how to deal with the challenges the country faces today, not what was hot in the late 70s. How do you ensure employees rights are updated and improved in an era when most people will have multiple careers, never mind jobs, in their lifetimes? Particularly given the vast majority of these people will not have any involvement in trade unionism? What are the novel new ideas for keeping the NHS a great health service in a time of an aging population? “Just throw more money at it” isn’t a solution to this that people are going to buy.
It’s a problem for all centre-left parties throughout Europe, and it’s why so many of them cannot get back into government: either you’d really like to be socialists or you’d really like to be something else. Hiding behind terms you don’t really mean anymore isn’t going to cut it. And an overtly socialist party is never going to get into power in this country, so the centre-left needs to define itself as something else and mean it this time. Not being the Tories isn’t enough – there needs to be a vision of what it means to be centre-left in, dare I say it, a post-socialist society.