An open letter to a Labour Party losing its way

Dear Labour,

You don’t know me. I am not part of the Labour family. I have voted for you once, from memory. So you might dismiss this letter out of hand. Keep your nose out of our business. Fair enough.

But while I’m not blood, I am a friend. Not an ideological ally as such but someone who believes good government requires effective opposition and smart policymaking needs nudges from the centre-left as well as the centre-right.

I come from a Labour family and retain a sentimental attachment to your party and your cause. I have written about this before, in case you doubt my intentions.

That’s why I look at what has become of you with despair and some anger. You are the only social democratic party of any prominence in British politics. You founded the NHS and created much of the welfare state. You granted colonies their independence and helped to form Nato, then a great bulwark of free nations.

Race and sex discrimination are illegal because of you and you are the reason employers are liable for their employees’ health and safety. You introduced the minimum wage, civil partnerships, free childcare, the Human Rights Act, and devolution. How is it that you find yourself still debating the merits of power versus ideological purity?

Jeremy Corbyn obviously strikes a chord with many of you. I can’t claim to understand it but I know the feeling is sincere. You need passion in politics but don’t confuse it with emotion. I teared up too when they sang Bread and Roses in Pride. Then I remembered that the miners’ strike happened because there was a Tory government and there was a Tory government because there wasn’t a Labour government and there wasn’t a Labour government because Labour had lurched far from the mainstream.

Labour people talk about these years as “Thatcherism” but it’s more complicated than that. Privatising state monopolies, selling council houses, and trade union reform – that was Thatcherism. But the excesses – race riots, unemployment, wholesale destruction of industrial heartlands – deserve a name that reflects deeper culpability. We should call them Bennism, for it was Labour’s ideological self-indulgence that kept Mrs Thatcher in power for so long.

Bennism is getting a 2015 upgrade. The electoral result will be much the same as will be the responsibility for the social fall-out: Osbornite economics, Corbynite enablers.

I know this leadership contest isn’t all you might have hoped for. You wanted big beasts and big ideas and neither is on offer here. All the same, you have to make a choice – and a realistic one.

Jeremy Corbyn can’t win a general election in Britain. Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t win a general election in a remake of A Very British Coup. His elevation to the leadership would be followed by a whirr of publicity, maybe a spike in the opinion polls, “he tells it like it is, he does”, by-election pick-up here, nice bit of Commons oratory there, then disaster. The British like eccentrics but they don’t want them anywhere near their wallets or their national defence.

What of the alternatives? Andy Burnham’s main policy is that he’s a northerner; if you cut him he bleeds pie and mash. Yvette Cooper is an earnest Brownite wonk but at least she’s more substantial. If either of them becomes Labour leader, the next time we’ll hear from them will be their concession speech to George Osborne five years from now.

Liz Kendall is the only candidate who can talk to Middle England and you seem to hold that against her. You sneer at Middle England, ridicule their aspirations, and think people who save to send their kids to private school are the enemy. They’re not the enemy; they’re the country. Before you can win back their trust, and their vote, you’ll have to stop resenting them.

So I sympathise with you but while I hug you with one hand, I feel like slapping you with the other.

It’s time to grow up and realise it’s not about you, how you feel, or which candidate most faithfully echoes your views. It’s about picking a leader who can beat the Tories in 2020. And don’t tell me you’d rather lose on principle than win by compromising. Because you aren’t the ones who will lose; it’ll be those who need a Labour government: The poor, the vulnerable, the unemployed. Don’t spin me a line about Labour benefiting from more time in opposition to decide what it stands for. Labour stands for a strong economy and a fair society. There. That’s your mission. Get on with it.

The test of a political programme is whether it is sufficiently in earnest about the objectives to adopt the means needed to realise them. It is very easy to set out a list of aims. What matters is whether it is backed up by a genuine workmanlike plan conceived without regard to sectional vested interests and carried through.

Not my words. The words of your 1945 manifesto, a paean to practical progressive politics.

The Labour Party exists to do good, not to feel good. You have to rediscover the place where principles and pragmatism meet. That is the place where Labour wins.

And if you are no longer for winning, what are you for?

Yours,

Stephen

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Peerybingle by Creative Commons 4.0.

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