• Seeking The Middle Ground

    Labour has made its choice. The question now is, will that choice be shared and endorsed by the wider electorate? Ed Miliband must now not only re-energise a party that has been sapped of confidence and enthusiasm, but at the same time reach out to a range of voters who will vote Labour only when they are satisfied that they can do so without prejudicing their interests.

    That unavoidable battle for the middle ground has always been more difficult for the left than for the right. Individual rights and interests – so much the focus of the right – have always had a clearer identity in the forefront of people’s minds and seem to be more directly at risk and impacted by political action than the more diffuse and less clearly defined social concerns highlighted by the left.

    The left’s response to this challenge has often been uncertain. On the one hand, there was the stance that dominated in the early 1980s and that was memorably characterised by Denis Healey as “no compromise with the electorate”. At the other extreme has been New Labour’s adoption of Clintonian triangulation and the conviction that power could be won and held only if Labour’s traditional opponents in the City and the Murdoch press could be placated by conceding to them in advance.

    It was of course the issue of how the Labour party might appeal to the middle ground that prompted the Guardian’s leader-writer, no less, to argue that the supposed greater ability of the elder Miliband to reach out to middle England was enough to get him the nod over his younger brother. It was feared that Ed Miliband’s use of language that would resonate with Labour loyalists would handicap the party in making that essential pitch for uncommitted votes.

    It is certainly true that a leader who fails in that respect can be fatal to Labour’s electoral chances. When Neil Kinnock lost a second general election – and the second, one that could have been won – he concluded that it was his inability, despite his considerable qualities, to reach out to the English middle-class that had cost victory and, to his great credit, he resigned rather than fail again.

    The question is, however, whether the contest for the middle ground necessarily demands a Labour leader who is prepared to dissemble on the core values that brought most Labour activists into politics in the first place. Is it really a pre-condition of a Labour victory that the clear outlines of a programme for reform should be smoothed over so that it is unrecognisable? Is it really the case that the English middle-class is so set in its ways that it will vote for a departure from extreme free-market orthodoxy, despite all its manifest deficiencies, only if it is presented in a sanitised and ersatz form?

    What is it, in any case, that is thought to be so frightening to middle voters about a return to Labour’s core message? Is it the commitment to building an economy on a stronger foundation than the greedy irresponsibility of the City? Or to reducing the inequality that now disfigures and splinters our society? What about ensuring the delivery of high-quality, publicly funded health services and education so that everyone has a fair chance? Or restoring an ethical foundation to the way we deal with the rights and freedoms of our own citizens and those of other countries? And are Keynesian economics really so revolutionary that they cannot be trusted as a guide to resolving our economic problems without asking the most vulnerable to bear the burden? Are these so frightening to uncommitted voters that they cannot be articulated clearly and persuasively?

    The authentic voice of social democracy – humane, moderate, inclusive – should surely be heard again. People can be inspired with a vision that does not place the naked individualism of “grab all you can” above all else but sees the fulfilment of every individual’s potential as not only valuable in itself but as an essential element in building a stronger, happier and more successful society in which everyone can prosper.

    So, let us celebrate the election of a leader who promises to do exactly that. There could be rich dividends to be reaped in the face of a coalition government of disparate parts and an uncertain policy stance adopted by default rather than conviction. There is nothing to fear and everything to gain from speaking clearly and confidently – from the heart as well as the mind – to voters from right across the spectrum. New Labour is dead. Long live Labour renewed!

    Bryan Gould

    26 September 2010