Peter Mandelson delivers a speech at the Policy Network conference held in the Science Museum last week. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The centre ground isn't where Peter Mandelson thinks it is

The claim that Labour has moved too far to the left is based on a misreading of public opinion. 

There has been no more vociferous critic of Labour's direction in recent years than Peter Mandelson. In an interview in the new issue of Progress, he repeats a familiar charge against Ed Miliband (albeit without mentioning him by name): that he has vacated the centre ground in pursuit of an imaginary left-wing majority. 

Those who don’t give their political loyalty automatically to left or right – whose votes, therefore, are up for grabs – are a greater segment of the electorate now than they were when New Labour was being created in the 1990s. Therefore, it is even more important now to win the centre-ground to win electoral victory. Just as it is essential still to win on leadership and the economy, and to demonstrate that we are a party of conscience and reform that will talk to people’s values and concerns, not simply keep driving an agenda of our own regardless of the electorate’s views. That is why I get frustrated sometimes when people argue now that the country has moved to the left, therefore if we are more unambiguously leftwing and raise our ideological vigour, we are more likely to win the next election. 

For "people", read Miliband and his supporters. 

It is an echo of the point made by Tony Blair in his article for the centenary edition of the New Statesman last year, in which he wrote: "The paradox of the financial crisis is that, despite being widely held to have been caused by under-regulated markets, it has not brought a decisive shift to the left. But what might happen is that the left believes such a shift has occurred and behaves accordingly." Blair is likely to repeat this warning when he delivers the Philip Gould Lecture on 21 July to mark the 20th anniversary of his election as Labour leader. 

For the former PM and Mandelson, remaining in the centre ground means, among other things, refusing to support higher taxes on the rich, avoiding policies that could be attacked as "anti-business" and advocating increased use of the private sector in public services. Labour's leftwards trajectory is, they argue, one of the main reasons why it may struggle to win next year. 

The party has certainly moved to the left under Miliband, but it is wrong to suggest that it is now further from the centre. As I’ve noted before, if the Labour leader is a "socialist", so are most of the public. Around two-thirds of voters support a 50p tax rate, a mansion tax, stronger workers’ rights, a compulsory living wage and the renationalisation of the railways and the privatised utilities (actually putting them well to the left of Labour leader). 

The insight that defines Miliband's project is less that the centre has moved leftwards since the financial crisis, but that it was further to the left to begin with. It was New Labour's failure to accurately reflect public opinion that led to the loss of five million votes between 1997 and 2010. Too often, for Blair and Mandelson (as for others), the "centre ground" simply means "policies that I support". 

While voters continue to lean right on issues such as immigration, the deficit and welfare, Labour's stances have reflected this. It has pledged to reduce low-skilled migration (and apologised for refusing to impose transitional controls) and has promised to eliminate the current deficit by the end of the next parliament. The only welfare cut that it has committed to reversing is the unpopular "bedroom tax". 

Labour needs to do more to improve its credibility as a government-in-waiting, to win back economic trust, and to attract voters with a vision of national renewal. But the suggestion that this can only be achieved on a Blairite policy platform remains devoid of evidence. 

 

See more:

Have we become more left-wing? (8 July 2014)

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo:Getty
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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.