Comment: Labour can only win from the centre

We need to appeal to the whole country, not just odd sections of it


Harriet Harman’s comments today that the leadership contest should be ‘public facing’ should be welcomed by all in the Labour movement.

While the party needs to have a deep inward think about how it operates, we cannot forget that ultimately the lessons to learn from defeat will be learnt not from any one candidate or union. Instead they will come from the public that, when it came to it, could not put their trust in us.

But within it all, we have to be prepared to stand up for our proud legacy in government. We should not seek to define ourselves by putting distance between the party we are now and the party that won three successive general elections.

How can we ever hope to secure the reins of power again if we cannot give a clear and robust defence of what we did when we were last in government?

For all the problems of the Iraq War, we would never have got a minimum wage and record investment in our public services had it not been for Tony Blair’s achievement in getting Labour into government. He did this by challenging the party to reach out to areas of the country that had previously been written off as no-go areas.

The peace process in Northern Ireland, the Human Rights Act and a Britain more confident in the world are all legacies of Labour. We must shout from the roof tops about the difference a Labour government could make come 2020, pointing to the radical changes we made when last held the levers of power.

The Labour party now stands at a crossroads, and the reality is that we will only get back into government by taking on and defeating the Conservatives in those marginal seats we should have won – seats like Nuneaton, Lincoln, Broxtowe and Hastings.

Let ‘s not forget that even if the party had kept its seats in Scotland, it would still be in opposition.

As a party we need to stop navel-gazing and reach out across the whole country, engaging with all those voters in marginal seats who could not bring themselves to put a cross next to their Labour candidate.

The blunt truth is that it is only by persuading voters as a whole that Labour is credible will we get back into power; not by persuading ourselves.

And for those in any doubt, have a look at this weekend’s polling by YouGov for the Sunday Times. Forty per cent of voters said the next Labour leader needs to position the party firmly in the centre ground of British politics, with just 21 per cent saying they should take it to the left.

In an interview with the Economist prior to the recent election, Tony Blair observed that May’s election was shaping up to be one ‘in which a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party, with the traditional result’.

He was right then and he is right now. Whatever people think of Blair, the fact remains that he won three resounding victories, one of only two Labour leaders since 1974 to have won elections for the party.

If opposition is what the party ,then, let’s pick up where we left off.

But if power, and the ability to actually change things, is what we want then we need to be challenged, we need to be modernised and we need to be reformed into a pro-aspiration party. We need to be a party that talks to the whole country and not to odd sections of it.

Ed Jacobs is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.

31 Responses to “Comment: Labour can only win from the centre”

  1. SimonB

    Time to rebrand to Centre Foot Forward? What does that mean? Surely Labour needs to stand for something? Blair was elected because people were sick of the Tories. By all means consider the impact on middle classes but dont take your core supporters for granted or they will fall into the arms of UKIP as many did in the North especially. An ideology is required for people to make sense of Labour, not a random kitbag of policies conjured up in opinion polls. There’s never been a more important time to know where the Labour Party came from to help orientate where it is going.

  2. GTE

    So own up to how much the welfare state is in debt?

    Just one number you will never admit too.

    As such you will not be elected.

  3. Torybushhug

    ‘As a party we need to stop navel-gazing and reach out across the whole country, engaging with all those voters in marginal seats’

    The left tends to talk in the abstract as the above passage demonstrates, and both Blair and Brown went on weeks of ‘listening’ charm offensives which us on the right knew were just a pretence at listening.
    How will you listen when it comes to massive concern over mass immigration?
    I put it to the left that you won’t listen, you will instead as ever hand down correct thinking.

    The key problem you have is that you do not understand life at the coal face. To give but one example; You rely on academic papers written by the like of the LSE to determine your immigration world view.
    Like WW1 Generals relied on boffins back home when planning for battle, boffins that had no concept of trench reality.

    So instead of a genuine insight into the actual effects of mass immigration you rely on dry academia.
    Those academics when compiling their ‘benefits of immigration’ surveys wont have interviewed the countless cash in hand migrants out there that work for example as day rate building site workers, or for individuals like you as self employed gardeners and plasters completely beyond the reach of Labours naive ‘gang master’ regulations.
    The naive academics will not have interviewed the army that work in fried chicken shops, take aways and hand car washes. Thus when it concludes immigration is a net contributory factor, it relies on only halve a picture of reality.

    The public are more wiley though and first hand experience the reality of mass immigration.
    You will still spout on about enrichment and fool yourselves into thinking you can build enough homes to soak up demand (more new shiny resources such as homes would simply attract even more migration so you never solve a thing|).
    Are you truly ready to listen?

  4. stevep

    The centre of what, The mire? because any move to the right will leave us there, up to our necks and sinking.
    Scotland would never vote Labour again and increasing amounts of post-industrial constituencies where Labour used to be a shoe-in are beginning to lose patience that a Labour government that will represent their interests will ever exist again.
    No, we need to reclaim the higher ground of standing for a fair, decent and democratic society, create a radical manifesto to achieve this and use the power of the internet to bypass the mainstream media and kickstart a modern social movement dedicated to people power.
    Let the tories have their hate,greed and division. We`ll have fairness, decency and democracy on our side.

  5. Torybushhug

    ‘we need to reclaim the higher ground of standing for a fair, decent and democratic society’

    The left is never fair, it always rewards those that do all the wrong things be they retired or of working age. The left always rewards those that fail to take personal responsibility.
    The left starts out in the belief we now have 3 times more sick people than in 1975. On the right we are much more prone to being sceptical of such nonsense.
    The left asserts within us all a strong sense of rights but a weak sense of personal responsibility, one where malcontent disruptive workers are rewarded compensation, and baby producers are rewarded with ever more money.
    Always the wrong people are rewarded, whilst the decent people that struggle to set aside a little money are penalised.

    Instead of telling fat people they eat too much, instead the left excuses them with new fangled memes such as asserting these victims live in food deserts (whilst poor immigrants in the same locale manage to find fresh food on a budget).

    Mass welfare dependency is not progressive, it entrenches hopelessness and dims horizons, especially where children are growing up in long term workless households.
    The left has no 360 vision of fairness in a modern age.

  6. stevep

    Please feel free to contribute negatively to the debate if you wish, it is inclusive, however, not everyone shares your point of view. Perhaps you would be more gainfully employed contributing to a more right-wing website.

  7. Lewys Hall

    I don’t think Blair’s assessment of what happened is right because it didn’t factor Labour losing Scotland and the knock on effect of that in the English marginals. I really don’t think a ‘lurch to the left’ (which didn’t really happen) is the problem here.

  8. Ian

    God alfuckingmighty. This from a website called Left Foot Forward?

    Depressing, myopic, self-serving shite.

    Will all you centrist, New Labour, Blue Labour, Red Tory nuisances just go away and join the Lib Dems and leave the rest of us to our party, please? You don’t belong, you aren’t Labour by nature, you have no real beliefs and you’re making the place smell funny. Politics is a career to you people, Labour should be about more than that and if you aren’t up to the job just bugger off and be deputy managers of WH Smith and Staples and the likes. Politics, especially left wing politics, is not for you, regardless of how entitled you think you are.

    If you want to grab the centre (and centre is right, in reality these days) to gain power, what would be the point of having the power? What would be the point of Labour’s existence? The middle classes have enough people fighting over each other to represent them, they don’t need any more, it’s the working class that needs reprepresenting, exactly the reason Labour was formed.

  9. damon

    I won’t vote Labour because of the views of sites like this one.
    The best thing to happen maybe is to have PR and then you wouldn’t have to be so obsessed about winning an election Each party in parliament would be as big as they deserved to be. So Labour could be a fighting interest block, and quite left wing and a champion of the working class and people who support the Labour ethos. I’d probably vote for it or some other smaller left wing party that would be able to get MPs.
    But having to do this be beauty contest and a leader and party having to parade in front of the media and ”Middle England” is just going to be frustrating every time. It would be better if everyone just campaigned on what they believed in and stuff the rest. You win what you win and then try to build on that for the next time.

  10. James Chilton

    The leadership contest in the Labour party is being depicted as a choice between “modernisers” and, for the want of a better word, “reactionaries”.

    “Modernism” is another political panacea that some people are clutching at: it’s more complicated than that.

  11. James Chilton

    Well, yes. But as someone once observed, philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

    You can’t change anything from inside a talking shop. You must have political power.

  12. Ian

    Staying n the ‘centre’ is not changing anything, it’s merely faffing about around the edges so, essentially, you’re arguing for power for its own sake. That’s not good enough, even as a Jobs For Spads scheme, which the Labour Party currently is.

    Make the genuine Labour case forcefully or betray your roots and the working class.

    PS. Sorry to bring the word ‘class’ into things, Very gauche of me.

  13. madasafish

    In other words, Poeple will not vote for a party which thinks it knows best what people want and ignores what people actually want.

    And the comments below suggest that simple simpe message is thoroughly rejected..

    Referendum ; NO
    Welfare Cap: NO
    Control immigration: NO

    Menawhile in the real world, people reject you..

  14. RobD

    I believe that Labour made one colossal error as far back as 2010 which I contacted them about twice. They did not dispute strongly enough the Tory lie that their spending caused the recession. They needed to stress that much of their spending was to rebuild public services such as schools and hospitals which had been grossly underfunded by the Tories. Cameron and Osborne has pledged to match Labour’s spending when in opposition. But Labour seemed to hesitate in defending their record, allowing the Tory press to press home the lie through repetition. I don’t believe the Tories won the policy arguments during the election campaign – they won as they usually do, through repetition of a fear message – this time the fear of a Labour/SNP coalition and pure speculation over what might/might not have happened. So Labour shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to policy. The freezing of energy prices, cutting of university fees, action on zero hours contracts, repealing of Lansley’s health bill – these are things Labour needs to keep. I don’t dispute Tony Blair’s achievements in setting up the minimum wage (though I think he set it too low) and investment in public services, but I objected to his “public service reforms” which basically just meant getting the private sector involved which I don’t agree with. These services should be accountable to the people and publicly provided not turned into profit-making businesses. This is what seemed to be happening more and more when Blair took us into the “centre”. I remember the Tory benches cheering Blair on when he brought in free (unaccountable) schools and foundation (first step to privatisation) hospitals. A Tory opposition cheering a “Labour” government? Blair had two massive majorities where he could have moved the centre ground away from privatisation and back towards public service but he chose not to. He also adopted Tory policies like PFI. Is this what we can expect if Labour moves back to the “centre”? Miliband’s policies were modestly left of centre and were pilloried in the press and by some in his own party – yet the Tories can be as right wing and extreme as they like and don’t get challenged. Very depressing.

  15. RobD

    Blair and Brown DID listen to business. Probably too much, hence they didn’t regulate the banks enough, contributing to the crash when the banks world-wide took the piss. They also adopted Tory policies like PFI which has saddled the NHS with vast debts. The Tories in opposition pledged to match Labour’s spending targets…but they also wanted even more deregulation of the banks. And you accuse the left of not living in the real world? On immigration, what has Cameron done? Apart from miss every target he set, hence the rise of UKIP. The reason why is that most of the right, especially big business, does not want immigration clamped down on because it supplies cheap labour, undercutting British workers and leading to bigger profits for the companies that fund the Tories. I am in favour of withdrawal from the EU. That way we will be able to regulate our borders better, but you will find Cameron campaigning to stay in. So migration from within the EU will continue.

  16. James Chilton

    When was the last Labour government elected on what you would describe as “the genuine Labour case forcefully made?”

  17. sarntcrip

    labour cannot win by being the sameas the tories or iliberal democrats, it must have a different propersition, or why bother, it must encourage people to better themselves as blair did with education but it must not be frightened of having a social conscience and look to protect the vulnerable as it always has it should look to encourage egalitarian businesses such as mutuals and co ops bust stamp out tax avoidance and bring in the robin hood tax to help rebuild post tory britain if the membership and voting support do.n’t support trident it must set out it’s position in a clear concise manner pointing out alternatives furthermore it must support more social housing and not b afraid to legislate against rogue private landlords it must build an economy not built around house ownership which inevitably results in boom and bust but organise for a mixed economy much less dependent on the city of london climate change must be delt with on a longterm basis with investment in renewables at a level nt dissimilar to the level of investment given to to nuclear industry during the60s,7os and 80s investment borrowing should be conducted but not for day to day running of the country immediate funds should be made available to housing associations at preferential rates to encourage a mass social housing investment programme.there ought to be recognition that unskilled worki s vital to the running of public and local services if everyone is going to get a degree who is going to keep the streets clean maintain the sewers and do all those nasty jobs that are forgotten in amongst the ambition of people media and governments those jobs will not be going away a law should be introduced to peg benefit rises to the consumer prices index as long as it is positive any necessary austerity measures should come equally across the whole of society based on the ability to pay not merely focus on those who can’t fight back profit should not be a dirty word but people should always come before it

  18. Ian

    The last ‘Labour’ government continued NHS privatisation, brought us Atos and the WCA, pandered to the financial sector, increased inequality, killed hundreds of thousands Iraqis, played fast and loose with civil rights, gave us hideous immigration centres… So what exactly was the point of them being elected if they’re going to behave like right wing bastards and what would be the point ofof the party if it goes right now? What do you want Labour elected for if they’re just another right wing neoliberal party?

    Seems you’re more attached to the Labour name than any ideology or real hope of change.

  19. James Chilton

    You didn’t answer my question. I asked when was the last Labour government elected on a manifesto that you would approve of?

    You’re more interested in trying to label me as a “right-winger” or some such, rather than say clearly which Labour government got into office with policies that meet your criteria of what the Labour party stands for.

  20. Ian

    Not in my lifetime is the answer (I’m 43). Having said that, a much more left wing Labour party would have won in ’97 because pretty much enyone would have beaten the Tories, it just happened that Blair was leader at the time. Once Labour was in government people would have seen they weren’t the communist bogeymen they were portrayed as.

    Now you answer my point – what is the point of a Labour party that mimics the Tories? Why vote for it? Why even join the Labour Party if you fundamentally disagree with its reason to exist?

    If you want to be in a neoliberal, right wing, warmongering, poor-persecuting party then go join one. Right now, Labour is a vehicle for the political ambitions of career-minded cryptoTories, these people need to shape up or piss off.

    It’s no coincidence the Labour vote has diminished since 2001 as they moved right. That’s because the party is making itself redundant and not speaking up for the people it was meant to represent.

  21. James Chilton

    You’ve had to admit that no Labour government since the time of Attlee has been elected on a left wing manifesto or anything like one. They’ve all been, at best, centre-left administrations.

    If you believe that a Labour government could still be elected with a set of socialist
    policies which would amount to a full frontal attack on capitalism, then you should give some evidence in support of your belief.

    It’s easy to cite at least half a dozen major things a “true Labour government” ought
    to do, but it’s getting a majority of the people to vote for them – that’s the problem.

    Power for its own sake isn’t the only alternative to a Labour victory based on political principles that you’d approve. There’s always an argument inside the Labour movement between the “purists” and the “realists”. While the purists can claim to stick to their principles, what use is that if they can’t apply them because they’re never in power?

    We live in an imperfect world and all politics is the art of the possible. Unless Labour adapts to the political possibilities now, the Tories will remain in power indefinitely. Cameron’s attack on the right to strike is just a beginning. If they’re in office long enough, the only freedom left to trade unionists will be the right to obey the police.

  22. Ian

    What’s the point of being in power if you have no principles (or only have Tory principles)? I don’t want hard left, I’m a realist in that sense, but many of the things I do want are fully supported by the public when questioned on policies. Renationalised transport and utilities, no more baseless wars, a decent wage, a fully nationalised NHS… These are all things that are perfectly in tune with the public mood and all things Ed Miliband was not offering. He didn’t offer an alternative and his leadership was weak and ineffectual. Those are the two big reasons (IMO) why Labour lost. This talk of Miliband having moved left is absolute tripe. He showed perfectly what I’m talking about; many traditional Labour voters just stayed home because they had no-one to vote for.

    This has been happening since 2001, pretty much straight after people realised what the Labour Party had become after 4 years of Blair. They stuck with it for a while but the last election was the time of reckoning. New Blue Labour’s time has been and gone. A further rightward shift will just put the tin hat on it come 2020.

    Time to get with the Greens, folks. Labour is almost dead.

  23. James Chilton

    I think we understand why Miliband lost, so let’s not get into that.

    I would like to see, for starters, a Labour pledge to renationalise all public utilities plus the Post Office and BT without compensation. I won’t bore you with further details from “my manifesto”, but I just slipped that one in to show that I’m far from satisfied with the wishy-washy centre-left standpoint.

    It’s a question of what a majority of the public will vote for these days. I don’t think there’s any evidence to show that a hard left manifesto, promising significant redistribution, stood a chance in any election of modern times.

    So it’s wishful thinking to believe that a big shift to the left is the way to power in future. If that was true, it would have been tried and succeeded already – and we shouldn’t have had to put up with the likes of Mandelson’s yapping in the Labour party.

  24. Ian

    There’s the rub; a more left wing manifesto wouldn’t have been tried because there’s barely a left wing MP in the party now, Blair stuffed the pace with drones in his image.

    If the majority of people will only vote for policies from the right – which I doubt, given the amount of people who want nationalisation etc mentioned earlier – and the Labour Party moves right to meet them then it renders itself pointless. There are two other parties covering that ground, there is absolutely no need for another.

    One practical problem is Labour would have to chase the Mail/Telegraph voters and there is no way in many millions of lifetimes those people will trust anything with Labour in its name. I mean, how far to the right do you want to go before you realise you’re not voting for Labour in any real sense of the name? This tribalism gone mental.

  25. James Chilton

    The reason why New Labour has invented was because latter day Whigs like Blair, knew they couldn’t get the party elected on a left wing ticket. So the Prince of Darkness was consulted – to lay out a ‘centrist’ political scheme which would put them in government three consecutive times.

    It’s a political fact that Labour can’t get enough votes to win from its traditional supporters. It has to get support from a chunk of the population who would not feel threatened if the Tories were in power. In other words, it needs the support of many people who would vote Labour, not out of self interest but on the basis of a social conscience. It can’t afford to frighten them.

    I don’t much like the situation any more than you do. But unless we bear in mind what’s possible for Labour, we can end up thinking it’s “better” to have the Tories in power than have a Labour government which isn’t left wing enough. That’s crazy.

  26. Ian

    It’s not that Labour will be ‘not left wing enough’, it’s that they won’t be at all left wing, therefore rendering themselves pointless. More to the point they’ll be abandoning their real supporters, the people the the party was formed by and for. We can’t have the middle class co-opting, gentrifying and ruining what is not theirs, that would be to the disadvantage of every low paid, struggling person in this country and would leave the march of the neoliberal right entirely unhindered.

    We will not have a permanent Tory government, every two r three elections they will have pushed their look too far. That’s when a proper Labour party – and I’m not calling for communism, popular centre left will suffice – will be there to take the reigns. Once in government they can prove themselves worthy of peoples trust.

    We cannot possibly have a permanent Conservative government, the country would be looking like a post-apocalypse hellhole within two decades and we need a Labour party as a remedy. The vote Labour would need from the centre right will not materialise, as has been proven, they would have to move so far to the right they would be worthless decaf Tories. Even then, the voters they would be chasing would stick with the Tories.

    Moving right is both pointless and traitorous and will leave millions without a voice.

  27. James Chilton

    It’s foolish to label anyone as ‘traitorous’ who’s made observations (that you don’t agree with) on the current political situation, and Labour’s prospects of returning to power. Your opinions are not the gospel truth.

    The rest of what you have to say has too many unexamined assumptions and unsupported assertions on which to base a coherent argument.

    Unless a Labour government can extend its appeal beyond it core vote – which is too small now – it will be out of power indefinitely, and the people at the bottom of the pile will suffer. In that very probable event, at least you would have the consolation of knowing that while they suffer, your political faith is untarnished by considerations of the state we’re in.

  28. Lerge Bimsy

    Labour should move to the centre and appeal to the beloved marginal seat voters. Then we can have another election decided by dithering, clueless, self-interested idiots and I can vote for a proper left wing party which actually gives a shit about principles – The Green Party. I wonder if the unions are brave enough to prise themselves away from doomed Labour’s neoliberal tit and join me too?
    The democratic system in this country is broken beyond repair. In five years time the Tories will have wrecked as much as they can. In ten years time – a desert for progressive politics.

  29. Peter Martin

    This is exactly right. The arithmetic for moving to the right doesn’t make any sense either. The Tories received the support of about 25% of the electorate (counting the DNVs), Labour about 20%.

    So, 75% of the electorate didn’t vote Tory. So how about NOT trying to appeal more to the 25% who did and instead trying to appeal more to the 75% who didn’t?

  30. Keith Rowley

    Maybe you prefer a left wing echo-chamber to decent debate!

  31. Keith Rowley

    I do enjoy the points you have made in this discussion. You and I are poles apart politically, but I respect an honest man no matter what his opinions may be. It is people like you who can rebuild the Labour party – not the wannabe Tories with whom you are debating. Even though I am personally gratified at the current fairly center/ right wing majority opinion in Britain, I wish you well because politics needs a balance of counterpoised philosophies and tensions if any form of justice is to prevail.

Leave a Reply