Ideological Purity: Electoral Irrelevance?

This week, both Helen Lewis of The New Statesman, and Rafael Behr of the Guardian, have written very insightful pieces about the current debate raging within the Labour party about the ideological stance and policy positions of each of the candidates in the leadership contest, and the future direction of the party more generally. Essentially the current tension in the party is between principle and power; ideology and electability.

After May’s devastating election result, the Labour Party has turned in on itself, with MPs such as leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn, arguing that Labour needs to move even further to the left than the position adopted by the party in the last election and which resulted in Labour’s biggest defeat since 1983. Those on the right of the party (Chuka Umunna, Tristram Hunt etc.) are appalled at such a suggestion and are arguing for Labour to move back to the centre ground, territory they successfully held in British politics from 1997 to 2010. This is very much the view held by another leadership candidate, Liz Kendall. The other two candidates, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, both occupy territory somewhere in between the positions of Kendall and Corbyn. Neither is yet willing to take a stand as clear or principled as Corbyn on Kendall, with both appearing to play it safe to get in to the final round of voting, hoovering up the second preference votes of their opponents eliminated in the first round along the way.

This argument within the party does need to take place however, and all views must be heard (yes, even Tony Blair’s!) before party members cast their vote. It is only when these arguments are concluded and the party rallies behind the new leader, whoever that is, will the party be able to move forward. Let’s just hope it’s a decisive victory or the internecine warfare between different factions in the party will continue.

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The reality is this: Of the 3m defectors who voted Labour in 1997 “for every (one) Guardian or Mirror reader there are four who read a right-wing paper.” It is these voters that Labour needs to appeal to if it ever wants to win again and you can’t do that from the left. If Labour wants to implement anything resembling a centre-left agenda – a fairer society, a more equal distribution of wealth, a safety net for the most vulnerable, care for the environment, key public services free at the point of use – it has to win an election. However, this won’t be possible if it’s going to adopt policies that repel those very centre-right voters. First and foremost, Labour’s raisin d’etre needs to be winning elections, but this is going to require a change in the mindset of party members, only 27% of whom wanted a leader who understood what it took to win elections. It needs to become nimble, adaptable and relevant again; it needs to be the party of change, much like it was in 1945 and 1997. Only then will voters sit up, take notice and consider lending the party their vote again.

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