Tuesday, 2 August 2016

How moderate MPs have ended up dragging Labour leftwards

One of the things we automatically assumed about the Labour leadership race was that it provided one last chance to drag the party back into the mainstream. Jeremy Corbyn would be faced down by concerned MPs with a clear political agenda to make Labour electable once again. And if they failed – and Jez’s numerical strength within the party proved too much – at least the rebels would have laid down a clear marker for the possible launch of a centre-left alternative.

But something rather bizarre and unforeseen appears to be taking place.

Rather than shifting the centre of gravity back to the middle ground, this election is actually pushing Labour even further to the left.

Owen Smith, the MP for Pontypridd, managed to persuade his colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party that he should be chosen as the challenger to Corbyn, rather the much more experienced Angela Eagle.  Part of his pitch was that he could appeal more readily to the ‘soft’ Jez fans, who admired the current leader’s ideological zeal but despaired at his lack of competence.

Angela Eagle, Smith reminded his fellow MPs, had supported the Iraq War and the bombing raids on Syria. She was closely associated with the former Labour governments of Blair and Brown. The Welshman would come along with a clean pair of hands and make a direct appeal to the wayward and left-leaning party members.

What Smith didn’t make clear was just how much he would pander to the hard left.

First of all, there was the excruciating beatification of Corbyn as an individual. Jeremy had been ‘right’ about so many things, argued Smith in his leadership launch speech. This praise somewhat perplexed other parliamentarians, who were under the impression that the incumbent leader’s sole achievement had been to drive a 116-year-old party to the brink of extinction.

Before long, we were told that Corbyn was to be offered a non-existent Presidential role in recognition of his non-existent contribution to the Labour Party.  This status of spiritual leader presumably implies that his philosophy is to guide the movement’s political direction, even after he is relieved of any practical control.  It’s a little like removing an incompetent teacher from the classroom because he can’t keep control and follows his own curriculum, but then giving him an armchair in the staffroom from which to lecture his colleagues on best practice.

The second alarming aspect of Smith’s campaign is the challenger’s confident and bold assurances that he is an unashamed left-winger. This positioning has come as something of a surprise to people who have observed his more moderate pronouncements in past years.

Exactly how far was Smith prepared to take his posturing? 

Well, when asked, he stated that he was ‘massively to the left of Blair’. When I hear this claim, my first worry is that he may be lying, in which case I really don’t want to vote for him.  My next worry is that he may be telling the truth. In which case, I really, really don’t want to vote for him.

And then, of course, there are the policies.

As far as I can tell, there is only one area in which Smith is clearly to the right of Corbyn and that is on defence and security. The former Pfizer executive has made clear that he supports the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent and implied that he would launch the Trident missiles if required. 

While such talk will undoubtedly be reassuring to many of the voters Labour hopes to win back, Smith’s economic programme certainly won’t be.  It’s a hotch-potch of glib socialist soundbites, involving significant increases in borrowing, as well as higher taxes and renationalisation.

And now comes the interesting bit.

Corbyn is clearly alarmed that Smith might gain a foothold among some of his former supporters with all this radical talk. So Jez’s response is to is to try to outflank the former shadow cabinet member from the left.

It’s like a polarising game of proletarian poker.  I’ll see your spending plan and raise it.

Two particular contributions in recent days from the Corbyn camp have jumped out at me. The first is a commitment to compulsory collective bargaining by trade unions in organisations employing more than 250 people.  This involves the repeal of a piece of Blairite legislation from the late 1990s.

Corbyn is so bloody-minded and full of bitterness towards Blair, that he wants to cast aside the legislation of his own party.

He then talked about restricting the Prime Minister’s right to deploy special forces without parliamentary scrutiny.  This policy would not only be highly unpopular, because it would tie the hands of the UK in responding quickly to a crisis, but it is also thoroughly disingenuous, as Corbyn has never supported any military action by British forces at any time.

Smith’s leftward drift isn't genius, but more of a genie released from a bottle. If the would-be leader ousts Corbyn, he will be committed to a range of policies which are considerably more radical than those offered by Ed Miliband in 2015. Even if he only stuck to half of them, Labour would struggle to break the 30% barrier in a national poll.

If Jeremy comes through the election, on the other hand, he will claim a mandate for an even more outlandishly radical platform than the one which brought him victory last year. At that stage, all bets are off on how far Labour’s ratings may slump.

It reminds me of Michael Heseltine’s attack on the Labour government in 1976, in which he described the march of a ‘one-legged army, limping away from the storm they have created’. 

Left... left... left left left.

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