It should be impossible for Labour to be worse than the Tories – yet Corbyn is managing it

The local elections are a reminder that our politics are at a depressingly low ebb.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

First, let’s cut the crap. Labour is failing massively and on a historical scale. When it comes to the gritty reality of winning in the country, Jeremy Corbyn and his crew have no clue. His gibbering, callow cheerleaders in the media, such as Owen Jones and Aaron Bastani, don’t know what they’re doing, or what they’re talking about.

This Conservative government is by far the worst administration of my lifetime, and I’m getting to the age where that’s a significant achievement. It is awful : easy to loathe, lacking appeal, charm, heart and intellect.

The Prime Minister’s a dud who, in six months, in one scandal or another, has lost her home secretary, first secretary of state, defence secretary, and international development secretary. Against this Labour, ’tis but a scratch. Her government looks and sounds racist, and appears not to care particularly. Her foreign secretary is a national and international joke who has given her ample reason to apply boot to backside, but she has been too weak to do so. There is no domestic agenda to speak of, merely an ongoing humiliation at the hands of the EU as we stagger blindly towards the cliff edge. Jacob Rees-Mogg somehow remains a serious contender to replace her.

It should be impossible for the Opposition to lose, to not win, shouldn’t it? I mean, you’d have to try really hard to be the less palatable option. And there we must give Corbyn due credit: “Think the other lot are bad? Watch this!”

From engrained anti-Semitism, to a front bench riddled with kooks and third-raters, to a malignantly Stalinist approach to party management – no man, no problem – to a foreign policy outlook that is alien not just to the vast majority of voters but to every significantly successful figure in Labour’s history, Corbyn and his string-pullers have created a vehicle that manages to be nasty, squalid and ridiculous all at once. His backbenchers have given up. Longterm local activists are engaged in a wrestling match with Momentum arrivistes. Len McCluskey is freakishly dominant.

Is Labour worse than the Tories? Is Michael Myers worse than Freddy Krueger? The poor bloody voters.

Such is the sorry state of the main parties. Unsurprisingly the quality and texture of our politics has reached a depressingly low ebb. No one leads, no one innovates or dazzles or thinks strategically – everything is reactive, a matter of damage limitation, a question of survival.

The most underemployed people in politics at the moment are the centrists of both parties. They are Not Wanted on Voyage, an embarrassing reminder of a past political era that suited neither the Brexiteering right nor the Brexiteering hard left. The centrists were outright winners, and big winners at that, who used their electoral success to reinvent Britain as a country hungrily focused on the opportunities of a progressive 21st century. Their insights and lessons should be as valuable now as they were then – they’re still right – but somehow the steering wheel is in the hands of proven losers: the nutters, the dummies, the craven.

There is one upside to this, and that is the gift of time and space. Neither the Corbynites nor the Brexiteers have much spare capacity (or, in too many cases, the ability) to think. They are tangled in the weeds of Brexit, trapped by the need to adopt hard and fast public stances on the issues of the day, distracted by internal party wars. As we attempt to make sense of our Brexited future, we must also wrestle with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, figure out its consequences, withstand its buffeting winds. Our politics as it stands is wholly unfit for this purpose.

This is where those underworked centrists come in. This is where their energies should be focused.

How to start? With an analogy. Let’s go back to the end of the 19th century, when Chicago won the right to stage the World’s Fair. All sorts of wonderful ideas came spilling from America’s best thinkers and architects and showmen, determined to show their nation in the best light. Stunning buildings were erected in grounds surrounded by canals and lagoons. There were displays of scientific marvels and global culture in all its diversity. Buffalo Bill set up his famous show nearby.

But there was a problem. The Americans were determined to outdo or at least match the French, who a few years before had held a World’s Fair in Paris. Its centrepiece had been the Eiffel Tower, designed and built especially for the occasion, which had quickly become the subject of worldwide awe.

Proposal after proposal was made by entrepreneurial Yanks, but everything seemed just a pale imitation of Paris’s extraordinary tower. That had already been done. Something different was needed, but with a similar wow factor. Then a young man came up with an idea that would be an audacious and perhaps impossible feat of engineering. It was initially rejected as too risky, but just wouldn’t go away. In the end – and in the absence of anything better – they decided to go for it. The young man’s name was George Ferris jr, and the Ferris Wheel was about to be born. Eighty metres high, it was ambitious, risky, and a massive success – not a rerun of the Eiffel Tower, but an adaptation of its spirit and ambition to create something new and of its time.

Centrists need a similar outlook. If New Labour built the Eiffel Tower, they need a Ferris Wheel. They need to remember their own history and success, their enduring values, the spirit it was all built on, and adapt it all to the challenges of the times. No one wants a straight rerun of Blairism, despite the carping of the cynics, but Britain would benefit greatly from a movement that understands its achievements and rediscovers its activating positivity, radicalism, and willingness to tackle the world as it is rather than as one might want it to be.

First, though painful, accept that Brexit is happening. Attempt to shape it, but not to prevent it: Lord Adonis’s Twitter frenzy is doing the centre no favours, and in any case Britain will have left the EU by the time Labour can conceivably compete for power again. What is the correct centrist response to Brexit’s challenges? What does our trading and economic future look like, now the machinery and marketplace are being exploded? Where do we stand on future trade deals – on, say, fair trade versus the need for Britain to win the best deals it can? What will it mean for workers here and abroad as we strike deals that open up new markets and rejig existing relationships with more powerful allies? How far does international solidarity stretch?

What is the humane and intelligent position on immigration that recognises the legitimate desire for some form of tightening while pulling Britain out of its current pathology? It clearly can’t be left to the Tories, and Corbyn lacks the gumption.

Artificial intelligence is going to transform the workplace – what is the grown-up trade union response that matches necessary progress with protecting workers’ rights? How can a McCluskey-dominated, computer-says-no environment be anything but an obstacle? What should a modern trade-union community look like? Not this, certainly.

What’s the centrist mechanism for properly funding a 21st century NHS? Can we get back to a serious, mainstream, what-works argument on education (still the most important policy area – Labour has nothing much to say). The advent of metro mayors is the most interesting policy development of recent years, and is full of potential – how does the centre further empower this new and welcome regionalism?

These are 21st century challenges that neither right nor left is currently facing up to. There are many, many more where those came from. These are the debates that Britain needs to have, and is being denied by the failure of our politics. Only the centre has the intellectual firepower, the values and the space to work it all through. So let’s leave Corbyn and Theresa May to puff themselves out in their calamitous present, and seek instead to own the future.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

Free trial CSS