Head and heart in the leadership election
Kenryck Lloyd Jones was Labour’s candidate for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk at the last general election. He says Labour’s left and right are both needed to find the credibility that can win back voters for the party.
I have been a genuine ‘undecided’ voter in the UK party leadership election. I can see merits in all the candidates, but I have been increasingly concerned at the way the debate has turned. I’ll put my cards on the table. I am a centre left democratic socialist, and fairly at the centre of the party. I think our party has strength in being a broad church, and, like any phoenix, to rise from the election ashes in Scotland and the rest of the UK we are going to need a left wing and a right wing to fly.
Here is what I think each wing needs to consider.
First to the progressives on the right wing of the party. No-one should doubt the many achievements of the last Labour government in so many areas. Much of this was achieved by redefining the relevance of democratic socialism in a mixed economy. However, my problem with the dialogue about needing to ‘win’ rather than be ‘ideologically pure’ is that the case being made sounds to many ordinary members like ‘if only we had run on the Tory party manifesto we would have won the election!’.
Of course I exaggerate to make the point. But perhaps the argument about how we will win requires conviction, not just policy positioning. The Tory government may or may not have shifted the agenda. There is an argument to be had. But can there be any doubt that we need to shift the agenda back? The Tories have not won their argument on the NHS, or on zero hours contracts, or public sector pay freezes, or so much more.
And unlike party political apparatchiks, most voters can hold contradictory policies in their head without exploding. Less taxation and more public spending, more support for people forced out of work and cut backs for people just living on benefits. Whatever the reasons for Labour failing to win this year, not being more like the Tory party was not one of them. We have to address the same issues and concerns, but we must not mirror the solutions. And that means we need a political vision that transcends the percentage game of electoral politics.
And so to the left wing. The enthusiasm and energy that Jeremy Corbyn has brought to the leadership debate is staggering. His campaign has clearly resonated with tens of thousands of disillusioned and dejected Labour supporters and members. He has provided an alternative for which many people have been hungry, for many years. But my problem is that while it is for so many invigorating to call for fundamental change, actual change requires well considered policies, an eye for the law of unintended consequences, and the need not to alienate the people we should support, or fix on the wrong targets. It is what divides Labour from the SWP, Trotskyites and left revolutionaries.
My fear is that the message to ordinary Labour members sounds like, ‘by calling for radical change we can achieve change’. In championing minority causes, there is the danger that you remain a large minority. Giving voice to struggle without precise solution, defining strife without a workable answer, so often leads to factional fighting and disunity in the end. And in a democracy, a workable answer has to be one that stands a chance of persuading the electorate. Because government is a responsible job.
The British people want change. But it must be precise, measured and gradual. They will not vote for a complete radical overhaul and an unfamiliar future. In the (paraphrased) words of Karl Marx, the point is not to interpret the world, but to change it. To do so means being serious about achievable policies, not just serious about wanting change.
So, in my view, we need a radical heart, but we need a clear head. We need a sense of destination, not just knowing the next bus stop on the mystery tour. But we need a realistic programme too, that will bring us closer, not a destination without a route map. It is time for both sides of the debate to address these concerns, and win the credibility that members seek.
Our party is about to embark on a journey, and whoever wins the leadership will determine how we start that journey. I want the real politics of policies radical enough to engender change, but thought out, tested and persuasive, and capable of harnessing the support of the majority in the country.
And so we will need a left wing and a right wing. The debate must become more nuanced, and less polarised. We should not question the integrity or convictions of others.
I believe we have the talents, the ability and the courage to win. Only head and heart will take us forward, and the new leader will need to take heed of both.