Labour must do everything that is necessary in order to win. So says Antony Tucker.
Of all the interventions in the Labour leadership contest, by the far the most valuable was that of Gordon Brown. Highlighting the need to compromise and build alliances to achieve real change, he hit the nail on the head when he said “power is the realisation of principles.” However alluring the “radical” label may be, Jeremy Corbyn must remember that even the greatest politicians were willing to trade a few policy aims for more electability, allowing for the implementation of the rest of their programmes.
Take Clement Attlee, for example. A true hero of the left, his governments of 1945-51 rebuilt Britain’s shattered cities and bankrupt economy after the Second World War, with nationalisation and government intervention guaranteeing full employment and the foundation of the NHS and welfare system. Yet for his age he was a moderate; embracing the mixed economy and following the USA into the Korean War and nuclear arms race, he was derided by the left of his party, whose fantasies of a Europe independent of superpower control and an entire economic and political system remodelled on their ideas clashed with the consensus of the age. Despite this, Attlee recognised what he had to do to enact his policies – and won more votes in 1950 and 1951 than in his 1945 landslide victory.
Whilst the 1950s saw Labour divide, the leadership of Harold Wilson saw the return to moderation and to government by 1964. Famously describing himself as “…best in a messy, middle-of-the-road muddle…” he favoured education rather than state intervention to change the prospects of the aspirational. Internally, Wilson was blamed by self-proclaimed “radicals” for failing to criticise the USA for the Vietnam War and for compromising over trade union reform and European diplomacy. But rather than pander to the demands of the extreme left, he kept his party firmly on the centre ground, winning four elections and allowing for (amongst many measures) the legalisation of divorce, abortion and homosexuality; the abolition of the death penalty; and a mass transfer of wealth from the richest to the poorest, along with huge investment in education.
Even the much-maligned Tony Blair and his infectiously electable New Labour brand achieved significant positive progress for the nation. After years of Tory misrule, Blair’s landslide victories brought peace in Northern Ireland, a minimum wage and tax credits to the working class and a newfound toleration that ended Section 28 (the Conservative’s own version of modern Russia’s “gay propaganda” laws) and introduced civil partnerships. The work of Kinnock, Smith and Blair combined rescued Labour from the self-righteous, unelectable mire of the early 1980s. Ending the irrelevant Clause Four (still a shibboleth of the far left), rejecting unilateral nuclear disarmament and recognising the popularity of mass home ownership and credit-driven consumerism, Labour were able to return to government and rescue the health and education systems from utter collapse – impossible in opposition.
Despite constant criticism from the far-left, these three men did more for Britain and socialism than any others. (Photos: Wikimedia Commons)
These three leaders won nine general elections between them. Whilst Blair was very media-savvy, Attlee and Wilson struggled with hostile press; the success of these men cannot be put down to mere presentation or weak opposition. Rather, they realised that their job as Leader of the Labour Party was not just to say the right things, but to do the right things too. That is only possible in government; and elections are only won if a party can show that it can best address the specific hopes and fears of the electorate of the day. No-one on the left should be able to stomach Tory rule – it is therefore necessary to do everything possible to win, and put our values and principles into action.
With the current debate around Labour’s future direction, it is more important than ever to regain credibility in the eyes of the electorate. Bringing back Clause Four, abandoning Nato and nuclear weapons and committing to renationalisation may salve many members’ consciences, but it will not put Jeremy Corbyn so much as an inch closer to Number Ten. Abandoning an outdated belief in state ownership of the “commanding heights” of industry during the 1990s did not lose Labour the last election; nor did the invasion of Iraq in 2003 turn many moderate voters to the Tories. Rather, the overcautious, ill-presented leadership’s inability to develop progressive approaches to dealing with public concerns over immigration, welfare and the budget deficit handed the Conservatives victory. Compassion will always lose to perceived competence, so long as the electorate see the Conservatives addressing public issues better than Labour.
Our compassion, our principles, and our aims will come to nought if we choose self-righteous opposition over government. Jeremy Corbyn and his team must appreciate the need for popularity and credibility over self-importance and inward satisfaction. Eighty percent of the votes needed to win in 2020 will have to come from those who voted for David Cameron in May; they will not be swayed by commitments to printing money or abolishing Trident.
By picking policy based on lost battles rather than the zeitgeist, Labour risks irrelevancy, talking to the membership rather than the nation. We cannot protect the NHS, public services or the education system from the opposition benches; only in government can true progress be achieved. Moderation is the key, with compromise coming from maturity and not desperation – to carry the country with us, we must first invite others aboard by addressing their concerns. The choice is between moderation and letting the Tories stay in power, free to destroy the NHS and the welfare state; the former maybe unpalatable, but the latter is unthinkable.