by Jonathan Todd
I am a liberal social democrat in a country full of liberal social democrats with no liberal social democrats to vote for. I briefly hoped that this would not be so after the general election. That Labour would turn away from the defeated soft leftism of Ed Miliband. Not to an arid New Labour that leaves even ardent Blairites cold. But to something more vibrant, contemporary yet classic, what I call liberal Labour, in tune with the increasingly liberal, broadly socially conscious UK that Jeremy Cliffe’s work for Policy Network charts.
There is no love for Conservatives in this country. They won the general election in spite of themselves. But they still won it. There is no route to Labour recovery that does not confront that. Yet paradoxical claims persist, which the Miliband years should have tested to destruction, including that Labour can win with the votes of non-voters.
The Conservative victory came in the country that we are, not the country that we might want it to be. We wish that non-voters voted and all voted – contrary to the experience from Australia’s compulsory voting system – Labour. But that’s not the country we live in.
The disjuncture between the portrait painted of the UK at Labour’s spring rally and the actual UK shocked me. If Labour elects Corbyn, we will have chosen to keep believing what the rally wanted us to believe and not the hard truths that defeat ought to have had us confront.
The spring rally wasn’t Corbyn’s rally. The pretence that it peddled wasn’t his. It was Miliband’s. From whom the silence deafens, as Corbyn rallies proliferate, based on a similarly sharp break between the UK lived outside the rallies and the UK believed at the rallies.
Corbyn threatens to become the leadership bullet that Labour ducked with Tony Benn, one of Miliband’s early employers. During the Glasgow Hillhead by-election of 1982, Roy Jenkins recalls, in his autobiography, Benn having some noticeable meetings. “His appearances in the constituency at once exciting those present and alienating those not.” Based on the chilly reception for Corbyn witnessed in Newsnight’s focus group of ex-Labour voters, we must worry that Corbyn is another divisive presence.
Yvette Cooper – or even, in a less whole hearted fashion, Andy Burnham, but sadly not, Liz Kendall – might play Denis Healey to Corbyn’s Benn. But this race has no Jenkins. Firmly rooted in the political centre, while capable of arousing passionate support.
The Jenkins autobiography makes the extraordinary claim that his, “meeting drawing power as one of the Gang of Four was about four times what it had been as a highly controversial and politically exposed Chancellor of the Exchequer twelve years before. Packed audiences in medium-sized halls became a guaranteed feature of life in the early SDP.”
Only Terrible Simplifiers now have such capacity to draw crowds. While a year ago, I encouraged Labour to overcome the simplifications of Nigel Farage and Alex Salmond, we would peddle our own simplifications under Corbyn. In the extreme economic circumstances of Greece, the simplifiers of Syriza hold and misuse power. Most contexts are not so extreme, keeping the simplifiers away from power. But, as Donald Trump to the right and Bernie Sanders to the left attest in the US, and many others do in other political systems, our times are growing more susceptible to simplifiers, as Moisés Naim anticipated a few years ago in his book on the changing character of power.
There is, as Simon Schama put it in the FT over the weekend, “an inspiration gap. As long as liberal politics is seen as nothing more than a contest for a fine-tuned status quo, it will continue to be shaken by ‘surprises’.” When Corbyn magnifies the simplifications that Miliband sought to trade on, which Miliband has subsequently failed to renounce, and when inspiration is lacking across the globe from centre left politicians, we should perhaps be less surprised than we have been by Corbyn.
We should, however, be consoled by Jenkins. He suffered no inspiration gap, while selling a liberal social democracy for his times. In the UK beyond the rallies of Miliband and Corbyn, there is a large gap in the political market for an updated liberal social democracy. Social democratic in being conscious of the opportunities and limitations of both government and market interventions. Liberal in seeking to pragmatically deploy whichever best empowers individuals, families and communities to be, in their own terms, all that they can be.
Reviewing Paul Mason’s new book on “postcapitalism”, the economist Diane Coyle assesses his concluding policy recommendations: “After the rhetoric and the grand theorising of the earlier parts of the book, you close by asking: is that it?” Mason contributes to the renewed energy around the far left that sustains Corbyn. But neither Mason nor Corbyn are truly radical.
Liberal social democracy contains the seeds of a more radical policy programme, as well as a more electable politics, given the latent support for such a politics that Cliffe identifies. Labour awaits a Jenkins to unlock this policy and politics. Irrespective of what happens on 12 September that is our task. Either to provide ballast to a Healey-esque leader or the possibility of a brighter future beyond a Benn-esque one.
Jonathan Todd is deputy editor of Labour Uncut