Labour moderates need some fresh thinking

Published by the ipaper (26th September, 2016)

Before following his father into Westminster, Stephen Kinnock enjoyed the fruits of free movement that Britons see as their birthright. He worked as a researcher in Brussels, then a quangocrat in Russia and Sierra Leone before joining the World Economic Forum in Geneva. Now back in Britain the multi-lingual MP has been joined by his wife – former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt – who works in London as head of an aid charity.

Given such circumstances, Kinnock seems a strange person to start lecturing about the urgent need to curtail freedom of movement. Yet suddenly he says such practices are unsustainable and threaten ‘untold damage to our democracy and society.’ Perhaps he means for lesser people, not the likes of him. Regardless, this new Labour MP insists the prime minister in her Brexit negotiations must restrict the ability of people to move freely around Europe as he has done for much of his working life.

He was one of three Labour MPs jumping on the Ukip bandwagon in contributions to a Fabian Society paper claiming a ‘progressive’ response to Brexit. Instead of showing leadership, let alone determination to fight anti-foreigner rhetoric, the trio simply capitulate, joining other prominent appeasers in their party. Kinnock even tests credibility by saying ‘it’s no cheap imitation of Ukip, nor an electoral ploy, but an approach born of progressive values.’ Mind you, he defines global immigration as ‘the movement of people into Britain from all over the world,’ which seems a one-eyed view from such a well-travelled man.

This depressing Fabian document highlights the death of fresh ideas emerging from Labour’s moderate wing. As they lick wounds of defeat from Jeremy Corbyn’s latest crushing victory, perhaps they might like to pose themselves a question: why do they want to wrest back control of their party? Yes, they are right to argue elections are won in the centre. But parties also need credible policies – and Labour’s miserable mainstream seems paralysed by the twin triumphs of Corbynism and the Conservatives, leaving them devoid of plausible progressive alternatives to enthuse voters.

Corbyn is unlikely to win a general election barring some extraordinary cataclysm. He has the leadership abilities of a lemming while his reheated Seventies socialism leaves him out of touch with sensible voters. His views range from repellent in his idolatry of deplorable regimes through to the most naive economics, alongside unacceptable tolerance of anti-semitism. Yet he also offers liberal response to the migration crisis, support for refugees amid growing inhumanity, an alternative fiscal agenda and – unlike most of his colleagues – called Britain’s most disastrous foreign intervention correctly (even if for wrong reasons since fuelled by anti-Americanism).

Contrast this with his defeated rivals, seething so impotently over hardliners who seized their party but struck in a policy vacuum. Owen Smith tried tilting left in his leadership bid with tired talk on nationalisation, tragic opposition to tuition fees and fatuous demands for a ‘100 per cent’ publicly-owned National Health Service. Nothing new there; move along now Owen. But there is similar lack of originality or intellectual curiosity across Labour’s mainstream despite rampant corporate greed, stark inequality and alarming resurgence of nationalism.

Perhaps Labour needs to split to reignite that burning desire to change Britain, not just to govern, among pragmatic social democrats. The party most of those discontented Labour MPs joined – the party of Attlee, Wilson, Blair and Brown – has been transformed by huge influx of new members since the last election. Some are hard-left entryists, most simply looking for something different in politics and strangely attracted by Corbyn’s cast-iron certainties. Meanwhile militants tighten their grip on a party that has not won an election for more than four decades except as New Labour.

The shadow of the Social Democratic Party hangs heavy over such contemplations. I attended the party’s launch in 1981 as an excited student, seated next to the BBC’s famous bow-tied interrogator Sir Robin Day. The new party surged towards success only to end up subsumed into the Liberal Party. But these are different days, with a more fickle electorate, more febrile media and more fundamental divisions. A plodder like Corybn does not bear comparison with Michael Foot, a dazzling intellectual and diverting orator even if a dreadful leader. And if Theresa May continues to ditch her predecessor’s agenda and drift right, space will open up again in the centre.

Maybe the moderates might consider the flip side of Brexit. Instead of pandering to prejudice and echoing Little England rhetoric of Nigel Farage, they could offer voice to the 48 per cent who backed Remain. These voters may be a mixed bag and far from all are natural Labour, while clearly there are difficulties to such a strategy in some heartlands. But a huge chunk of the country is looking for leadership, bewildered by the referendum result and nervous over their nation’s future. These are people sharing a spirit of tolerance and sense of engagement with an interlocked world. They tend to be younger, better educated and metropolitan – the future of the country. Yet who speaks for them?

Britain desperately needs decent opposition as we reshape our relationship with the world. Those defeated Labour MPs need to stop moaning and accept reality: their old Labour party no longer exists. If they want to win over voters and retain relevance, whether in their own ranks or beyond, they must focus on the future by finding genuine progressive ideas rather than just jumping on jaded policies of populist rivals. Otherwise, they can have few complaints when consigned to history by the Corbynistas.

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