First published on LabourList
The debate goes that Jeremy Corbyn is the heart, Liz Kendall is the head. He speaks to true Labour values. The latter can convince once-Tory voters – critical to Labour’s future prospects – back to our party. The others split the difference.
Many appear excited at the politics Corbyn’s is giving voice to. But the reality is that what he represents is not pure form of Labour politics but an extreme one.
Corbynistas, neo-Bennites, or just simply Bennites and I want the same ends: a fair and equality society where the postcode you are born in does not determine the achievements of your life. That much we can agree on.
But hard-left politics is so committed to the ‘means’ of achieving these ‘ends’, it’s forgets to check if the ‘ends’ have been met at all. As the weekend’s reform Clause IV debate showed – change Clause IV all you like but it is never right to uncritically put one policy solution, in this case nationalisation, into the rule book and treated as an article of faith. Never forget every school converted into an academy under the Blair/Adonis model was a local authority run comprehensive that had failed the kids in attendance, usually the poorest in our society. And when different means meet a socialist end, it is talked about as if it was somehow a fluke or nothing to do with what a Labour government actually did. It seems almost madness to say it in today’s Labour party but it was the last government’s reforms, as well as money, that gave the NHS the 88 per cent approval rating reached when leaving office. We are seemingly proud of this public support but not the lion’s share of reforms that made it possible. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Kendall each served in the Department for Health at some point in those 13 years and can take some share of the credit.
However, Corbyn’s positions are ones that Labour moderates and modernisers cannot come partway towards. For the Bennites there are only pure binaries.
Unilateral nuclear disarmament is an issue on which there is no compromise or middle ground.
Hamas and Hezbollah are antisemitic terrorists. Not much splitting the difference can be done here.
Spending (unfunded) billions of pounds on higher education may be a social good, but free is not. The fee amount can be debated, yes, but having no personal contribution to higher education, and the resulting cap on student numbers that comes about, is regressive and helps the most wealthy only. You cannot accommodate the Corbynistas here either, there is no ‘freeish education’.
Austerity itself has become a binary. Austerity and austerity-lite on one side, anti-austerity on the other. The line is clear to those on Labour’s far left but unclear to the rest. The Scottish National party government can cut more than Labour was ever planning and be anti-austerity, but Ed Miliband is somehow a sellout. Either way, Jon Cruddas’ post-election commission is unequivocal that the public have made their choice. Under Corbyn we will simple tell them they are wrong.
Equally, nationalised companies are not by virtue better, more efficient or egalitarian – look at the prison service in the first instance. Neither for that matter are private sector ones. Wholescale renationalised railway would not be better than what we have today – British Rail was hardly a national success story. Nor do I think that in a time of high public debt the secretary of state for health should have to bargain with the Treasury for a new hospital over a new train.
Crucially I would hazard a guess that Burnham and Cooper agree with me. Their voting record hardly suggests otherwise. Both must reject the notion that extreme politics is pure politics. Draw a line to their left to win, and they will still be in with a chance of winning the country, The next leader can be the genuine Labour article without adopting zero-sum positions. Any prospective leader who attempts to cosy up towards these no-compromise positions will soon learn a difficult lesson – you cannot haggle with the hard left.
Richard Angell is director of Progress