Last week saw the start of the Labour leadership contest, which now continues to take shape. Harriet Harman, Labour’s current acting leader, has argued for the importance of an open debate that prioritises public inclusion in Labour’s future, over and above the need to find swift opposition in the form of a new leader. While it is promising that debate has not been shut down, when taking a closer look at the candidates for Labour, we are forced to question how much range is offered to us in the current contest.
The standing candidates collectively share the sentiment that New Labour’s failure was by and large due to the movement’s inability to gain right-wing support. Post-election, many expected and hoped that a criticism of New Labour would centre on both Miliband’s ceaseless indulgence of and refusal to challenge right-wing policies – a criticism that would have authentically represented where public disillusionment with Labour lies. But the debate characterizing the contest has made it increasingly clear that the Left have no plans to move further away from the Right.
Andy Burnham, frontrunner to win the position following Chuka Umunna’s resignation, and considered to be the most left-wing of the leadership candidates, has argued that he is the ‘change candidate.’ If by ‘change’ he means aligning Labour with Tory values even more so than Miliband himself, then perhaps he is right. Burnham is offering a more robust guarantee of tougher immigration laws than his predecessor; he himself put pressure on Cameron to bring forward the EU referendum to 2016 in order for public immigration concerns to be promptly addressed. On the subject of mansion tax, he argued that ‘it spoke to something that the public don’t particularly like, which is the politics of envy’. Burnham’s choice of words rings alarm bells, marking Labour– whose political ideology is expected to dispel the myth that ‘envy’ of hard-earned money drives working-class apathy and alleged idleness – as shifting into the realm of the Right.
On the subject of welfare policy, Burnham’s fellow candidate and Blairite, Liz Kendall, extended solidarity to those ‘fed up’ with members of society lacking in contribution, arguing that ‘voters in my constituency do not feel people who are not working should get more than those in work’. This claim endorses distributive justice, which equates contribution and subsequent merit with justice. It is an inherently right-wing principle that both ignores and delegitimizes the impact of social exclusion on contribution. Although Kendall claims that the NHS is one of Labour’s greatest achievements to date, she endorses the right-wing view that the marginalized have a hand in their own destruction, arguing that the NHS ‘doesn’t do enough to help people to help themselves’.
Kendall suggests that Labour’s failure was largely down to the following: ‘We rarely said what was good about our last government and never dealt with the central economic case of our opponents where we really fell short’. Her suggestion that Labour should have championed aspects of Tory policy in order to strengthen their own case is concerning. Considering the news that the UK is the most unequal country in the EU under Tory government, coupled with recent claims made by two-thirds of economists that the former Coalition government’s austerity policies had an irrefutably negative effect on the economy, it is hard not to view Kendall’s speech as part of a larger strategy to win over the right-wing. One has to question Kendall’s performance as a candidate, in which her primary concern should be driving home the failures of the opposition.
In more recent news, following yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, Harriet Harman has argued that her party supports the government’s plans to lower the benefit cap to 23,000. Supporting the cap is a questionable move on behalf of Labour; it comes despite forewarning from researchers that it would have a undeniably negative impact on the well-being of children, which is already responsible for increasing homelessness.
While Labour will no doubt still have the support of many well-intentioned leftists, it is becoming increasingly difficult to be drawn in by the argument that we should first get mainstream parties into power (no matter how much they disappoint us), where they can then effect change once and for all. This is not how politics operates in reality; you vote for policies as drawn up in a manifesto, and those policies are what you will get. This is where supporting a Labour with increasingly right-wing policies becomes a gamble for the well-intentioned, who believe with blind faith that once in power, Labour will miraculously represent the Left in the way that they used to.
Although the Green Party are in an undoubtedly different situation from Labour, who are dealing with their worst electoral defeat since 1987, it is important to recognize the value in a political approach that resists temptation to imitate the winner in order to acquire the crown. In the face of their defeat, rather than giving into fear of the overwhelming presence of right-wing support, they are in the process of bolstering their campaign – which includes challenging looming limitations on free speech and arguing for electoral reform – and are ultimately fighting for ideals diametrically opposed to those that have triumphed.
Today, both Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, and Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, have voiced concerns over the false nature of Cameron’s ‘One-nation’ Conservatism – which is in fact exclusionary of all but a small percentage of society – as promoted in the Queen’s Speech. It is essential for Labour opposition leaders not to lose sight of the responsibility that comes with power: to educate the masses, not indulge them. Majority votes do not amount to justice; in fact, they have notoriously led to the greatest injustices in the world, and subsequently, the politics of pandering is a slippery slope that Labour is going down.
Michael Walzer famously argued that ‘dirty hands’ were an inevitable aspect of politics: the notion that the politician starts out with authentic commitment to a set of ideals, and, in seeing power slip away from them due to a failure to appeal to the majority, see no choice but to get their hands dirty. This would explain the defeatist attitude of Labour, who couldn’t have been quicker to distance themselves from the Left following election results. However, what Labour fail to realize is that power for their party is not guaranteed by appealing to the Right, who in embracing Ayn Rand’s Virtue of Selfishness are highly likely to stay loyal to the party that they (often misguidedly) believe has protected their economic and social status – namely the Tories.
It is disconcerting that losing further support from those who have long looked to Labour as an alternative is not considered a threat to their party’s success. Kendall argues that ‘real unity cannot be achieved by trying to fudge or dodge the difficult questions about the causes of our defeat’. Ironically, it is precisely the questions aimed at discerning the root causes of their defeat, which lie largely in the failure to act as a true opposition party, that both Kendall and her fellow opponents are dodging.
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Neda Tehrani is a 23-year-old graduate of Religion, Philosophy, Ethics BA from King’s College London. She has written on the subject of politics and current affairs for New Internationalist and Consented, and she is based in London. She has a strong interest in intersectional feminism. Find her on Twitter @neda_t92.
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