Labour Leadership Contest: Nowhere To Run For Labour's Centrists

21/08/2016 20:14 | Updated 21 August 2016
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Whether Jeremy Corbyn or Owen Smith wins the Labour leadership election in September one thing is clear already - Labour has moved decidedly away from the political centre ground. This is not an election about policies and ideas; in fact, had Corbyn been kept off the ballot, Smith would have been the most left-wing of a range of candidates.

I was one of the first to sign a councillors' letter endorsing Owen Smith. In fairness, this was before he published his set of twenty policy pledges. I won't offer a critique of these here (the Tories and right-wing media will do so in due course with a devastating effect). Suffice to say that Corbyn's ten-point plan at least has the advantage of lacking any detail - more aspirations than firm policy commitments. Smith, by contrast, has come up with a firm left-wing manifesto, complete with promises of new and higher taxes. Then there is his unapologetic opposition to Brexit and potentially dangerous promise of another EU referendum...

The wisdom of promising tax rises on businesses just as the country may be about to enter another, post-Brexit, recession is doubtful. Last month even Paul Mason was cheering George Osborne's decision to cut corporation tax. Because the priority should, of course, be to encourage economic growth and investment, both public and private. But it seems that for Corbyn and Smith the answer is simply "more state" - from new public sector bureaucracies such as the National Investment Bank (Corbyn) to new government departments (Smith); and, of course, more taxes and higher spending (Corbyn and Smith).

The "aspiration agenda" once championed by New Labour has been almost abandoned - home ownership, for example, is barely mentioned by either candidate. Meanwhile, London-bashing is all the rage, with both Corbyn and Smith trying to outdo each other in who can promise to take more wealth and power away from the capital and the "hated" City of London - the country's economic engine, responsible for much of its wealth creation.

Neither candidate hasn't had many positive things to say about private sector investment, or supporting small businesses and the self-employed. There is little, if anything, in either policy document about promoting diversified economic growth, supporting the digital economy and incentivising enterprise. Instead there is a lot of anti-austerity, which on its own is not a credible policy, especially since many voters appear quite enthusiastic about government belt-tightening (that's one reason they voted Tory in 2010 and 2015).

The truth is, welfare is meant to be a hand-up, not a hand-out. Previous Labour governments' welfare reform agenda has always been about making work pay, promoting personal independence and improving people's standard of living e.g. Welfare to Work programme. Tory policies since 2010 have instead been aimed at rolling back the reform agenda in favour of principled austerity. By allowing Conservatives to monopolise social policy reform discourse we have enabled them to make it simply about cutting spending on benefits. This is our - Labour's - ongoing political failure, which the poorest and most vulnerable members of the society have ended up paying for.

On the whole array of other issues Labour's leadership candidates appear to be far removed from the mainstream general public opinion. We're no longer tough on crime and on its causes - we're not even talking about it. Just as we're not talking about how immigration policy should be balanced with promotion of social integration of immigrant and host communities; or how we will tackle social and ethno-cultural fragmentation; or how we will listen to the majority who voted for Brexit.

On foreign policy and defence Labour is all over the place. One the one hand, there is Corbyn's opposition to Britain's nuclear deterrent, past (or, perhaps, continued) support for questionable international causes and ambivalence towards UK's NATO obligations. On the other hand, there is Owen Smith's clumsy suggestions on negotiations with ISIS... Leaving aside the moral weakness of these positions and arguments, I can almost see Tory election posters - "Labour cannot be trusted to fight terrorism!", "Labour will undermine national security and betray our allies!" etc.

I will still be voting for Owen Smith on the assumption that he is the more pragmatic of the two left-wing candidates. Yet it is increasingly apparent that whether with Smith or Corbyn the Labour Party finds itself in a bubble, engaging in conversation only with itself. This is a disastrous situation, as the party risks becoming not only unelectable but irrelevant.