The Speaker
Wednesday, 29 May 2024 – 21:55

Opinion: Debunking the myth that Labour should pursue a centrist leader

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

Thursday’s general election was a rout for the Conservative Party. The political logjam that has crippled Britain’s political arena was shattered with devastating effect. Prime Minister Boris Johnson now has a majority of 80 and will be hoping this provides a platform to kick on and actually ‘Get Brexit Done’.

But for the Labour Party, the rebuilding process begins. The third election in four years and the third straight defeat for Labour. But this one was the most damaging. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour had the worst showing for the opposition in nearly 100 years.

Inevitably, Corbyn has announced he will stand down and will not lead the party in any future general election but will continue to lead the party during a period of transition.

So, the search for a new party leader begins. The common tendency appears to be that the party should veer back towards the centre-left. But such attitudes are dictated not by rationality, but rather the nostalgia of the Tony Blair years.

Hence the names being mentioned are those associated with the centre-ground. Keir Starmer, Jess Phillips, Yvette Cooper and Lisa Nandy are the names that keep surfacing.

The suggestion that Labour should appoint a centrist candidate implies that the ‘hard left’ approach often attributed to Corbyn’s Labour was ineffective. But such assumptions are erroneous and illustrate a lack of understanding of the political landscape.

Labour’s manifesto was overladen with radical social policies aimed at reversing the effects of 9 years of unrelenting austerity. And those policies actually garnered significant support across the political spectrum. In fact, research shows support for nationalisation and public ownership increased across the board during Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader. The public is now even more likely to want the railways, water companies, buses, energy companies, Royal Mail, and the health service to be run in the public sector than they were at the last election – to the extent that there is now a political consensus among voters.

But the policy which prompted lifelong Labour seats in the ‘red wall’ to turn blue was Brexit. And Labour’s policy of offering another referendum in which their negotiated deal would be against Remain, was viewed as an effort to hamper Brexit, or at least engineer the softest Brexit possible. That is precisely what induced the North East town Blyth Valley, Labour since 1935, to swing to the Tories. From Blyth Valley, to Workington, to Wrexham and Sedgefield. The list of historically robust Labour seats switching to the Tories was endless.

Those who knew nothing but red when it came to polling day lent their vote to the blue side for the first time because their traditional party had abandoned them when it came to respecting the result of the one vote that they felt represented in.

And that Brexit policy was that which was vigorously advocated for by the right-wing of the party. Those same figures are now slamming Labour for a disastrous night and throwing their hats in the ring for the leadership contest.

Jess Phillips, clearly devastated by the outcome of the election, wasted no time as she launched her leadership bid with an article in The Guardian, proclaiming that working-class voters did not trust or believe Labour. Yet it was only as recently as April this year, in the same newspaper, she was accentuating the need to offer a second referendum to overcome the parliamentary deadlock. The very trust that was palpably non-existent, was born out of the policy she pioneered for.

Indeed, there was unyielding pressure from the centrists, both internally and externally to make a second referendum official party policy. When the European Union granted former Prime Minister Theresa May an extension in April, former Downing Street Director of Communications and Strategy under Blair, Alistair Campbell, wrote that of a second referendum, ‘it’s time is coming’.

Fast forward a few months, and after Corbyn took heed and offered this referendum that was so staunchly craved and it backfired spectacularly, Campbell, clearly not weighed down by his brass neck, was one of the first to lambast Labour because they did not ‘adequately address the topic’ when it came to Brexit.

In the 2017 election, against all the odds, Labour stripped May of her governing majority, winning 32 seats and taking their total to 262. Their Brexit policy in 2017? Honouring the result of the referendum.

Two years later they were decimated and humiliated. The Brexit policy in 2019? To pander to the centrists and offer an undemocratic and alienating second referendum.

It does not take a genius to work out where Labour went wrong this time. Ian Lavery, Labour Party chair, made this abundantly clear when he stressed that the decision to offer a second referendum proved fatal to the party.

Thus, it is bizarre and disingenuous to suggest that Labour should be rushing back to the centre-ground, considering it was the one middle ground and compromise policy in their entire manifesto which cost them the election.

It is even more puzzling that Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, is even mentioned as a potential successor to Corbyn, seeing as the department he overlooks proved to be a calamity in the election.

And to compound matters, when traditional Labour voters did flee, they did not go to the centre, rather they flocked to the far right. The current political terrain is akin to a hectic motorway. You pick a side and drive in that direction. Dithering in the middle gets you obliterated. The fact that all the centrist MP’s who defected from Labour or the Tories – from Luciana Berger to Anna Soubry to Chuka Umunna – lost their seats, and the sole middle ground party in the UK, the Liberal Democrats, decreased their number of seats, reinforces that there is no deep yearning for centrism to return.

So, as Labour commences the soul-searching process, it would be wise if the blinkers were removed before the centrists dig an even deeper hole than the current one they burrowed in the party. 


Photo: Outgoing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn | Credit: Socialist Appeal via Flickr under licence (CC BY 2.0)

Skip to content