2015 11 – Labour Left, Right or Centre

Left, right or centre: Where should Corbyn and Labour be?

by Christopher Winch

Left and right in politics are metaphors. Unless they are given substance they mean little. The same goes for the centre in politics, which is supposed to be a region somewhere between left and right.

The centre of politics, is like a centre of gravity in physics, it moves according to the balance of forces within a body. There is no such thing as an absolute political centre. The centre is like a mirage, which as you approach it, moves away in the opposite direction.

If the centre of gravity moves to the right, under the ideological leadership of the Tories and liberalism more generally, then a Labour party struggling to move to the centre will actually shift that centre to the right in doing so. This is precisely the achievement of Blair, Brown and Miliband who, in seeking for the centre actually moved it away from the interests that they were supposed to be supporting (although whether they really wished to support those interests may be doubted).

An opposing force will bring the point of resolution of conflict and of compromise nearer towards itself, rather than towards its opponent, particularly if it is effective in expressing the interests of the people whom it claims to represent. This is the task that faces the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.

If the political term ‘left’ has any substance at all, it means acting in the interest of people whose source of well-being lies in having a secure and reasonably paid job. That is the vast majority of the electorate. So a Labour Party has to act in their interests in order to secure their confidence. This is not the same thing as following what it assumes to be their current opinions as expressed in surveys or focus groups, but rather starting from their most deeply felt desires and needs.

These include: job security and satisfaction, prospects for their children, security in ill health and old age, a decent home to live in, a civilised environment to enjoy and freedom from lifelong debt. Maintenance of these conditions also implies not living in a society marked by huge income and wealth differentials, one which is supported by an adequate level of taxation that is seen to be fair. A political movement that addresses these issues in a persuasive manner will not go without success and will move the political centre of gravity in its own direction.

To do this, Labour would need to commit to ensure a decent pension system, the building of affordable homes to buy and rent, adequate income for an efficient and stable NHS. To pay for this a proper progressive income and council tax, strict measures against tax evasion and avoidance and a tax on property, or at the very least a tax on the capital gains on property are needed. There is no point in pretending that such things do not need to be paid for, but every point in indicating how that could happen.

To do all these things will need a productive economy composed of good jobs. Firms need to be run in the interests of those who work in them, as well as those who own their capital and buy their products.

This is why industrial democracy, as supported by the TUC, should be an early priority for Labour. Government has a role to play by investing in and encouraging firms that orient themselves ambitiously on the value chain, producing high value, high specification goods and services, rather than pandering to deadbeat firms that use the taxpayer to subsidise their products. There is no good reason why buying bonds from firms that meet that criterion should not be a way of financing change in the economy if it is used carefully. This is what ‘people’s QE’ means and if explained properly it should be a popular policy.

The electorate will not look kindly on a party that creates money for banks to speculate with while refusing any serious help to the productive economy. Such a policy also needs to ensure that vocational education is there to supply the workforce that is needed for high value added companies. Even the Tories realise this. To take these issues seriously, to work with the trade unions to achieve them and to be politically astute, that is speaking to people clearly and honestly, making alliances with the like-minded and refusing to be intimidated by opponents and being serious about realising such objectives will move the political centre of gravity away from the Tories.

It is obvious that all these things require leadership. In recent decades, Labour politicians have assumed that their role is to find out what the public currently thinks, or thinks it wants and then devise policies to secure those things. But the public as an entity does not think these things through in a vacuum; they will respond to good ideas and arguments for policies which seem well articulated and look as if they stand a chance of being achieved. In the absence of such things they may well be influenced by what forces in their environment have the loudest and most plausible voices at a particular moment. When focus groups come to gauge their opinions, this is what they are likely to hear reflected back.

This means that political leaders must not only stand for something attractive, but be willing and able to persuade people that it is achievable and that they can produce the means for achieving it. Leadership means persuading people to adopt your views, not following views that you may not agree with yourself in the hope that that will lead to votes. Leadership is to a considerable extent the art of persuasion and of refusing to be intimidated. It also means not giving up at the first setback but persevering. The Labour party has lacked that kind of leadership for some time now; it is to be hoped that it has now received something more like what is needed.

In addition to this, the Labour leadership needs to engage again with the trade union movement. There are currents within this movement, most notably within the TUC, which want to work to make trade unionism relevant to current and future workers. The Labour leadership should give every encouragement to those who want the unions to engage with company governance, vocational education and working with local authorities to help revive communities economically. Without leadership and the willingness to persuade sceptics, this will not happen.

It is not possible to say when Labour will govern again. Events may make this happen sooner than most people think. But Labour will never govern to any purpose if it allows politics in Britain to go on drifting rightwards, in the direction of those who have insufficient interest in the welfare of most of the population. First of all it needs to be an effective opposition, offering leadership to those who look to it. After that it can start to think about being in government. The next two years will show whether Labour really is capable of changing its spots.