We hear a lot from Labour MPs about how the only way to win the next General Election is to take the “centre ground” — not to be seen as a left-wing party. Jeremy Corbyn, then, as a “hard left” politician, is the last thing the Labour Party needs, so the reasoning goes. Labour need to take the centre.
What is this centre?
The political centre in the UK is defined as the midpoint between Labour and Conservative policy. If Labour think the top tax rate should be 60% and the Conservatives think it should be 40%, then the centrist position on this question is that it should be 50%.
The problem is, as soon as you take up the centre ground, the centre shifts away from you. And this is what Labour have been doing ever since the ascendency of Tony Blair. Say that, all right then, the top tax rate should be 50%, and suddenly the centrist position is that it should be 45%. Accept that, and the centrist rate becomes 42.5%. And so, inevitably, we proceed to 40% by the Bolzano–Weierstrass method of setting tax rates.
This the the problem with being centrist. There is no such thing as an inherently centrist position, because the centre moves whenever you do.
The Conservative party, understanding this, have simply stood firm on essentially all their policy goals — refused to compromise on tax-rates, benefit cuts, funding cuts, and so on. And Labour, seeking this mythical ground, have converged more and more closely on the Conservative position — which is why, I have argued, they lost the last election. They didn’t present an alternative to Tory policies, just a different and less competent-seeming group of people to implement them.
That is why, I argue, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a Labour leader is good news for the party. Unless his own party deliberately undermine him (and I wouldn’t put it past them), a Corbyn-led party will stand for specific, recognisable policies that are distinct from those offered by the Conservatives.
Whether or not you like the Corbyn policies, I think you have to agree that this is a good thing. It gives the electorate, for the first time in many years, an actual choice. Among other things, it means that if the Conservatives win the next election against a true Labour-party slate of policies, they will have a genuine mandate — a real sense that the country has chosen their policies rather than an alternative.
(Speaking as one who prefers taking money from rich people over taking it from poor people, I hope that the Conservatives don’t win next time. But even if they do, I will be happier if their policies are implemented on the basis of an expressed preference from the population.)
Of course the irony here is that when presented with choices of policies, rather than of political parties, there is a pretty uniform trend for most people to prefer the more progressive option (or the more “left wing” option if you prefer). Most UK citizens support a higher top tax rate, rent controls, renationalised railways, a higher mandatory minimum wage, the abolition of tuition fees, etc. Yet experience shows that those same people vote in Conservative governments, who are opposed to all these things.
Why? I can only see one reason: because the other major political party (Labour) has not offered them the policies they want. (As I’ve noted before, the Scottish people did choose those policies, when offered them by a party that the rest of the UK couldn’t vote for.)
What does all this mean?
Just this. Labour should abandon their doomed quest for “the centre”, and figure out what they actually stand for. In some areas, it will be the things that Jeremy Corbyn supports. In others, it won’t. That’s fine. I don’t think Corbyn is some mythical saviour who’s got it all figured out, in fact I think he is dead wrong on several important issues. But I do think he’s a valuable catalyst for forcing a long-overdue rethink from a party that had completely lost its political compass – and even its sense that it ought to have a political compass.
I want all the political parties (Conservative and Lib Dem as well as Labour) to start with what they believe, and then go on from there to see if they can win an election on that basis. I am simply not interested in a party that wants to win an election, and will tailor its values to what it thinks will achieve that.