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We Need Corbyn's Labour But It Must Avoid Miliband's 'Politics of Envy'

21/08/2015 13:53 BST | Updated 20/08/2016 10:59 BST

There were many reasons touted for Labour's resounding General Election loss in May. The Blairite self-affirming favourite was that Miliband's pitch was too far off-centre. Nobody wins an election based on left-wing policies they triumphantly stated. There is obviously some truth to what they say. Prior to Tony Blair hauling the party to the centre in 1997, Labour had not won an election for two decades. And (bacon sandwiches aside) Miliband's anti-big business and attack on wealth didn't seem to win him many fans in the more prosperous swing-seats.

But the 'too far left' argument ignores a number of other factors. Most obviously, it discards the circumstances that surrounded the 2015 election. There was the Tory's Lynton Crosby-led negative (but extremely effective) campaigning - first arguing that Labour couldn't be trusted with the economy, and second that a Labour victory would indirectly hand power to the SNP. Where the Tory campaign was effective, Labour's spectacularly failed to fire. It struggled to fend off Tory attacks, or to provide any clear narrative of its own. Criticism of cuts was watered down by support for austerity, outrage at the bedroom tax rendered impotent by silence on other welfare cuts. They rarely (if ever) attacked George Osborne's failure to meet his deficit targets, and were half-hearted in defending the achievements of their previous governments. The end result was a confused collection of ideas shaped by a media-led interpretation of the public mood. Miliband's failure to put-down Myleene Klass (let alone David Cameron at PMQs), the anti-migration mug, 'Ed's stone' and a visit to Russell Brand all point towards a party without direction, ideas or clear principles of their own.

The too far left argument also falls down when we consider today's political mood. It ignores the SNP's dramatic rise under a left-wing flag, the Green Surge and the working-class contingent within UKIP. It ignores austerity marches, public sector strikes, record inequality, tax evasion, expense scandals and a tyrannical banking sector. Above all, it ignores the carnage austerity has left in its wake - zero hour contracts, cuts to tax-credits, disability allowance reductions, social housing waiting lists, and 'generation rent'. All this in the face of screaming injustices - the top 1% becoming richer, bankers going unpunished, lower corporation tax, pensioners protected by a triple-lock state pension and home-owners benefitting from lottery winning house price rises. Few of these factors were present in the late 90s when Tony Blair came to power. Britain is as ready as ever for a left-wing opposition.

The main barrier to a successful left-wing opposition is not its policies but its 'politics of envy' tone. It was a 'politics of envy' approach that also contributed to Miliband's loss in May. His attack on Big Business paved the way for 100 (albeit dubious) businessmen writing a letter to The Telegraph. Add to that the mansion tax, 50p tax, zero-hour contracts, frozen energy bills and non-doms. As a collective, his admirable policies looked like a declaration of war on people with wealth and aspiration. He rarely (if ever) spoke about the benefits his reforms could bring to all of society. He gave those in the centre little reason to vote for him.

I don't think Corbyn will ever be accused of being led by the public mood. He has principles and direction in abundance and for these reasons alone is better-placed than the Miliband-paralysis of his leadership rivals. But as someone who has fought for the underdog for so many years, he is in danger of peddling the politics of envy. The middle class voter of the centre is clearly a different animal to the socialist, anti-war, LGBT rights campaigner. If Corbyn-led Labour is to stand a chance of winning the general election they will have to learn from Miliband's failure and resonate with both. Active trade unions, a strong welfare state, cheaper energy bills, higher taxes and greater public investment need to be promoted in the context of how they will help society on the whole. A Corbyn-led Labour must highlight that greater equality reduces a wide spectrum of social ills - from crime, to drug use, to poor education, to obesity. Far from pandering to the 'feckless skivers', they would be giving people in need a helping hand, making the streets safer, driving up productivity and improving everyone's quality of life. When challenged as supporters of a tired ideology, they need only point to Scandinavian countries where left-wing policies have led to an overall quality of life that we can only dream of. The Scandinavians I have spoken to understand the importance of taxation in protecting their society. This is in stark contrast to David Cameron who describes it as immoral. Corbyn's Labour would need to educate the nation away from Cameron's Darwinism. By doing so, he will succeed where Ed Miliband failed, reach out to the centre and halt the march to right-wing inequality.