Since 2010, the Labour Party has faced a dichotomy of views: whether or not to defend the party's record in Government, or whether to reject traditional economic thinking and being to embrace austerity. For many Labour MPs, the decision was made easier by the infamous "I'm afraid there is no money" note, and the prevalence of the narrative that 'reckless Labour spending' had created the economic crisis.
Cameron holding 'Exhibit A'.
The struggle has been best epitomised by the party's abstention on the Conservative welfare bill. Andy Burnham pushed hard for Harriet Harman to refuse to back the cuts, as did many other Labour MPs. However, when it came time to vote, the party whip's instruction was to abstain. Burnham, along with the majority of Labour MPs followed this instruction, but there were 48 for whom this instruction just was not acceptable. Clearly Burnham, despite being opposed to this bill, wished to show loyalty to the party whip in case he wins leadership; the problem though, is that leaders lead, Burnham chose to follow an instruction in which he plainly did not believe.
Herein lies Labour's biggest problem: its MPs are choosing to not oppose the Government's austerity, just because they believe that it makes them more electable. This is surely not the case. At its peaks, the party has been radical, they established the National Health Service, a welfare state aimed at helping the worst off in society, and a National Minimum Wage. The Labour that this country seems to have lost led from the front and remained true to its values.
Now, instead of leading, the party follows. Public opinion, right-wing ideology, Tony Blair: you name it, the Labour Party will take it into consideration before offering weak proposals that most often amount to diluted Conservative policy.
The scientific argument for austerity died in 2013 and what remains is purely driven by ideology and fear. This fear is due to the harmful conflation of the idea of public debt with credit card debt perpetuated by the media. Labour's solution to this problem is not to tackle the issue and take on the argument, but instead, to offer 'austerity-lite'.
Hotelling's law (the principle of minimum differentiation) could only work for Labour if their policies are every bit as attractive as the Conservative party's, but given the party's perceived record on the economy, and given that 'austerity-lite' is just a repackaged and slower method of achieving the same goal, a budget surplus, there is little to no incentive for voters primarily concerned with cutting the deficit to vote for Labour over the Conservatives. Essentially, if the electorate wanted austerity, they'd vote for austerity.
Corbyn's popularity has shown that honest value-based politics definitely do still have a place on the British political landscape, but if Labour continue to allow their values to be defined by public opinion rather than letting their values help to inform and shape public opinion, they will surely become an irrelevance in the years to come. Their abstention on the welfare cuts was derided for good reason, they are the official opposition party in Parliament, but have become too preoccupied with imitation to oppose.