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In the Battle for Labour's Soul, Only Corbyn Has a Chance Of Saving It

26/07/2015 20:56 BST | Updated 24/07/2016 10:59 BST

History will remember George Osborne as a terrible economist, but a masterful politician. He has skilfully manipulated the debate and checkmated his opponents at every turn. Bizarrely, he also seems to understand what Labour needs to be doing better than most senior Labour figures do, and is doing something that isn't quite as good but looks a bit like it before they get a chance to. There's a reason why such a calculating individual felt able to risk the £9 an hour minimum wage announcement in the Budget (I refuse to call it a living wage, because it isn't). He understood that it would go down well with the public and traditional Labour voters, staving off criticism from the Left about leaving the poor behind and ensuring that he once again puts Labour on the back-foot. This was a move he would never have been able to pull off if Labour had been engaged in a meaningful discourse around what the country needed over the past 5 years, instead of offering empty platitudes to an unimpressed electorate.

Now Labour seems to be stuck in some sort of reactionary spasm as one of their number suggests that they begin once more to represent, you know, labour. Yes, Corbyn has caused a bit of a stir. Many Tories are now rubbing their hands together in glee at the socialist firebrand's unexpected rise to popularity, but those of them that understand that recent Conservative success has relied upon a stumbling and uncertain Labour will only be thrilled because of the discord that such a man will create within the party. The idea of him actually emerging as a leader with the backing of the majority of the party, running a principled campaign of actual opposition: this terrifies them.

Look at how he's captured the leadership debate and put all the other candidates on the back-foot: exactly what Labour has singularly failed to do in opposition over the last five years. He's made what was beginning to sound a bit like a Republican Party primary into something genuinely exciting. There is large public (and even, in some cases, cross-party) support for many of his stances too, such as on higher taxation, nuclear weapons and renationalisation, and he is managing to command large amounts of support within the grassroots of the party, particularly the hard to engage younger generation, leaving the other candidates drawing straws for who needs to bow out as a sacrifice to stop him.

Between straw drawing they compete with each other to see who can sound the least committal and most vague on the most policy areas. Unfortunately the fabled centre ground that this is meant to appeal to might not be all it's cracked up to be. As Rachel Ward writes in the Independent, the Lib Dems went to painstaking lengths to position themselves as moderate centrists in the recent election, and were duly obliterated. It may be argued that was more to do with the fact that they were in coalition and reneged on the tuition fee pledge but this is precisely the point: the public care deeply about integrity, coherence and honesty, above and beyond a centrist 'please all' position.

Key to this is how much Blairites underestimate the damage that appearing to be the same as the Tories has done to them electorally. The biggest reason non-voters cite for not turning out was 'because they're all the same' and that there was 'no point in voting'. This suggests that there could be real electoral pay offs for a policy direction that clearly marks Labour out as being different, and could entice more non-voters into the booths in 2020.

The 'back to Blairism' argument is also a bit confusing because if the problem with Labour is that it 'spent too much' then this is the man under whom they would have done it (and also the man who is now drastically unpopular thanks to the Iraq war). As Owen Jones points out, it is now the Left (including Corbyn) that is left defending the achievements of the Blair years, whilst his supporters take his name but few of his policies. Miliband, on the other hand, did not run on a left-wing agenda: he ran on a muddled platform that told the electorate how terrible the system was whilst also supporting policy that actively sought to maintain it. Miliband's campaign didn't make much sense to anyone but him (and even that statement might be too generous).

Even when Labour try and play the Tory game (and try they have), in the case of no additional borrowing, the public don't believe them. This is because it turns its back on decades of Labour policy, and if someone has an appetite for austerity, the Tories just do it so much better. Labour are tying their hands behind their back by pursuing this dangerous dogma, leaving themselves unable to offer anything much to the electorate because they are accepting terms that severely restrict them from being able to invest in people's futures. They need to stop trying to play everyone else's game and get back to their own.

Investment is a word Labour needs to embrace. Polls suggest that a pitch that emphasises education and investment goes down well with the public. The biggest single factor that stopped people voting Labour was that they didn't see them as competent enough on the economy. Far from this meaning having to ape an economic policy that has hampered growth and destroyed lives, it should suggest a bold and alternative economic vision that can really offer people improvement in their lives is what is needed.

Fighting against austerity means fighting for publically retained services, for struggling families and for social mobility: it is those who think this won't win votes that are living in a bubble protected from the harsh realities of Tory rule, not the Corbynites. The real path for sustained electoral success for Labour is in directly challenging the straw man the Tories have erected around governmental spending, not caging themselves into a stifling economic paradigm that offers little room for innovation and investment. Expenditure is not a shackle from our recent past, but a bridge to a better future, and done properly is the choice of both a compassionate and a responsible government.

The stakes are much higher than who will win in 2020: inequality and climate change are real issues simply not getting addressed. Tuition fees are but one example in many of how continued concessions and disingenuous electioneering have made the prospect of paying £6,000 a year pass as progressive, when the generation before paid not a penny. Someone, somewhere simply must take a stand against this inexorable decline into a Friedmanite utopia, and if doing so leads to short term defeat, so be it. Now more than ever this country needs an Opposition prepared to engage in the difficult questions and the bold solutions. To be sure it won't be an easy argument to make, not after five years of persistent lies about left wing economic ideals, but it is one that both Labour and the country need and one that Corbyn alone seems willing to make.