The Labour Party’s distinct move to the left has helped it to a fourth consecutive electoral defeat. Now is the time to move back to the centre-ground, and adopt a more moderate policy programme that appeals to the wider electorate, rather than its own activist base.
In my previous article I warned that the Labour Party leadership was ignorant of the intimate relationship between Brexit and their traditional working-class voter base, and that this could spell the beginning of the end of the party in its current form. Seats such as Wrexham and Derby North, as predicted, turned blue on a dramatic election night that saw scores of Labour MPs lose their seats as the Tories romped to an empowering 80-seat majority in the Commons. Labour infighting has seen blame placed on ‘Corbynism’, Corbyn himself and Labour’s Brexit policy amongst other issues. With the party divided and likely out of office at the very least until 2024, it is now time to regroup and adopt a more moderate stance if they want to survive — and they owe it to the British public to finally present a credible alternative to government.
Arrogance of the Labour National Executive Committee
The NEC ultimately decides the strategic direction of the Labour Party, and its members are elected by the wider Labour Party membership. As a result, Labour’s move to the left has become an internal self-fulfilling prophecy. The membership, having been packed with radical left-wing activists since 2015, has demanded that the party moves further to the left and this has been reflected in the Committee’s own move to adopt more socialist policies for Labour’s manifestos. While the membership and Committee clearly have faith in this, despite losing to the Conservatives in 2015, 2017 and 2019, the opinion of the wider public is far more important in determining the party’s suitability for office. The arrogance of forgetting this has proven to be Labour’s downfall once more and has seen the main opposition party lose four consecutive elections for the first time in British politics. The party needs to move further towards the centre-ground, if it wants to appeal to a wider voter base than its own membership.
Pivotal leadership contest
With Corbyn announcing he will step down once a new leader has been decided, the gap left provides an opportunity either for the new leader to further trap Labour with unelectable socialist policies or begin reforming the party further back to the centre-ground.
As potential candidates will likely stem from the various ideological splinters of the Labour Party, the winner will need to stand out to the Labour Party membership in their vision for the future direction of the party. Keir Starmer, one of the most senior Labour MPs, is currently touted to be the favourite to win, and thankfully he is placed nearer to the centre than many of the other candidates. However, the party membership may once again be drawn to support left-wing candidates, such as Rebecca Long-Bailey, as the membership has done before when it backed Ed Miliband over David Miliband and Corbyn over a range of moderate candidates. This would be a grave mistake, considering that the socialist agenda put forward in 2019 failed to convince many of the working class and many of the more affluent, which together constitute a great part of the electorate. The fact is, there is a rather bleak historical track record of failed socialist manifestos in the UK. A further worry though, is that even if a moderate were to succeed Corbyn, the NEC would retain Labour’s left-wing policy agenda, thus leaving the party stuck in the unelectable mud.
The Party Membership – Out of Touch, Out of Mind?
On the one hand, the democratic structure of the Labour Party is admirable in facilitating grassroots organisations and allowing membership votes on the leader and NEC. Yet, the problem of Labour’s current predicament derives ultimately from the ideological persuasions of many from this generous base.
Corbyn, while remarkably uninspiring to the wider electorate, proved particularly popular with a distinct bracket of the membership: the metropolitan, young, socialist activists. With the party swelling to a membership of 564,000 in December 2017, many of its supporters derived from this base. The bracket has also propelled Momentum to one of the most influential grassroot organisations of the party and has seen youthful social media (such as snapchat and Instagram) dominated by left-wing support and views.
The Labour shift to the left has been as much about ideology as it has been about pleasing this group of people, with desires of a Green New Deal and a £10 minimum wage reflecting this. The party membership, as a result, has diluted moderate influence and thus hindered rather than helped the party’s chances of electoral success. There is, too, a distinct disconnect between the young activists living in major cities and the wider traditional socialist voter base, where many come from industrial cities or small towns that feel forgotten. The membership, in their self-fulfilling radicalism, has forgotten. They now need to remember, and reflect on this in electing a moderate leader.
To ensure that Labour becomes a credible option to many British voters, a move to the centre-ground is pivotal. With Brexit likely to have been finalised by the next election in 2024, the Labour Party should campaign on a moderate programme that balances some market principles with left-wing social policy. The idea of ‘equality of opportunity’, so often branded by Blair’s New Labour but never fully delivered, could be revisited with an added emphasis on areas of the UK with little investment, such as Wales, the Midlands and parts of the North.
Furthermore, the party needs to prove it can be trusted to protect and contribute to a healthy economic atmosphere with incentives for innovation, temperate spending plans that do not exacerbate the national debt, and a positive outlook on trade. The concern is, however, that the Conservatives may take the centre-ground of voters first — particularly with their current standing promises to invest in towns and cities previously neglected by the national government. But, just as the opportunity for a moderate Labour Party presented itself in 1997 after 12 years of Tory rule, so in 2024 there could be a similar watershed moment if the party can finally become electable again after a likely 14 years out of government.