Labour’s muscular moderates must find their voice
The Conservatives have risked our prosperity and place in the world by indulging their internecine war over Europe. In past decades, this would mean Labour challenging for power, yet our own neuroses now risk the creation of one-party Tory rule for a generation. The Tories ruthlessly selected a capable, credible leader while we are paralysed by a leader who does not command the support of most of his members of parliament. The Tories are parking their tanks on the pragmatic, radical middle ground of politics while we display to the public a party increasingly captured by those who value protest above power. Now more than ever, it is in Labour’s interests, but more importantly, the national interest, for moderates to win the argument about the future of centre-left politics.
Adopting ‘muscular moderation’ is essential, given the current trend where politicians on the extremes create a veneer of ‘authenticity’ by offering inauthentic, simplistic solutions to complex problems or gain admiration for ‘speaking the truth’ by distorting the truth, or at worst, appealing to base prejudices. Yet there is hope, for the vacuum being filled by those on the extremes was in large part created by the absence of muscular, moderate voices. Political nature may abhor a vacuum, but prefers one to be filled by a strong centre.
In 2007, 2010 and 2015, Labour turned away from an election-winning constituency of voters in the middle ground. I wrote last July that we would step ‘through the looking glass’ if we elected Jeremy Corbyn. We remain trapped in this Wonderland, as the NEC vote showed yesterday. Yet amid the surreality, people ranging from MPs to ordinary members are regaining the confidence to call out the distortions. Hard facts are beginning to shatter the illusions that bewitched so many. Labour frontbenchers were right to resign and express publicly a conclusion that many reached last summer: Jeremy Corbyn is not a leader capable of winning a general election. This should be asserted without malice. I worked with him in 2003 when I was coordinator of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group of which he was vice-chair. Now as then, I respect him for his personal decency.
Our criticism must not be based on personality but on principle, something which the hard left do not monopolise. First, we must challenge the hypocrisy of Corbyn supporters who condemn his critics as ‘traitors’ despite his record of voting against the Labour whip 500 times and himself backing Tony Benn’s challenge against Neil Kinnock in 1988. We must utterly condemn violence and intimidation in our politics, whether it comes from the left or right, not least following the appalling murder of Jo Cox and the continuing intimidation of moderates within the Labour party. We must dismiss the distortion that ‘moderates’ are an aberration or ‘Tory-lite’. Collectively, moderates worked to ensure that Labour won three elections, putting our principles into action, showing that exercising political power beats protest politics.
We must assert that moderation is not weakness; rather it is a strength because it goes with the grain of life. It accepts that solutions to complex problems do not fit into neat boxes, that progress can only come through compromise, that opponents are not always wrong and that collaboration trumps conflict.
Only muscular moderates are capable of holding the Tories’ feet to the fire for the mess they created on the European Union while working constructively to protect the national interest, as shown by Chuka Umunna’s new Vote Leave Watch grassroots campaign, designed to hold Leave to account for its ‘overblown, misleading claims’. We must acknowledge that the British people might wish to express their democratic opinion about the final deal negotiated with Brussels, particularly if this exposes Brexit Britain as a false-promise land.
An improved policy programme must be developed urgently, not least in light of Theresa May’s leadership campaign speech that mimicked many of Ed Miliband’s best ideas on making our economy work for all and was firmly in the One Nation tradition. She is seeking to fill the vacuum on the centre-ground and we must not let her. We must rebuild relations with the business community, rediscover our reforming zeal based on what works rather than ideologies long abandoned by most voters, and above all we must champion aspiration by building a society with genuine equality of opportunity.
When the Brutus-like attacks subsided, May became prime minister, showing that in times of crisis parties serious about government turn to muscular moderation rather than ideology-infused rhetoric of protest. The post-referendum dawn is shining a light on our politics, exposing unpleasant contradictions in both major parties that we knew could not persist. In the final analysis, the country needs muscular moderation. It is not too late for Labour, but if we fail to pick up this mantle now, others will.
John Slinger is a Labour party member and chair of Pragmatic Radicalism. He is a former member of the national parliamentary panel. He tweets @JohnSlinger and blogs here.