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Why are Labour’s would-be leaders so right-wing?

Labour Leadership Candidates and now they are 4_edited-1Why does a Labour party whose proclaimed raison d’etre is to offer a brave and radical alternative to current orthodoxy throw up would-be leaders who are clearly so reluctant to rock the boat? These are, after all, people who no doubt entered politics with lofty intentions. They would have felt concern – even righteous anger – at the Tory defence of privilege, the Tory contempt for the disadvantaged, the Tory neglect of what a decent society might look like. They would have been determined to do something about it. So when, and how, did that bright flame dim?

Some critics will say that they are merely careerists who were never true believers and that their allegiance to Labour and its principles was only ever skin-deep, to be discarded as they got nearer the top of the greasy pole. But it is not as simple as that.

I have no doubt that the impulses that took them into politics were good and true, and that their intentions were to act on those impulses so as to make a difference. But they discovered that noble impulses and good intentions are not enough, and are in any case easily displaced by apparently more pressing considerations.

What takes people into politics is not just political conviction. Many people have strong political views, but practising politicians tend to be self-selecting on grounds of temperament. These are the people who want to see their ideas carried into practice and who have the ambition and self-confidence to believe that they are the people do it.

But when they get to Westminster, they discover that the team game – one side against another, Labour against Tory – is only part of the story. There is also a whole series of individual contests, as the more able begin to distinguish themselves, and the possibility of influencing, even eventually leading, one’s party becomes apparent.

The skills that the Westminster arena requires are not necessarily those of commitment and consistency, innovation and courage. They are those of the debater and speaker, the media performer and glad-hander. The minutiae of politics, rather than the clarity and strength of vision, become increasingly important in determining who is up and who is down.

And the day-by-day requirements of Westminster become more and more pressing and absorbing. Our leading MPs work very hard; they put in long hours, spinning from one difficult topic to another at often half-hourly intervals. It is not surprising that the hand-to-hand, close-quarters combat across party lines takes virtually all of their attention, and they find it easy to persuade themselves that they must be fighting the good fight because they are so busy.

The influences brought to bear on them as they become more senior and more influential are equally short-term. The focus is on the latest newspaper headline or television interview. And, as they are drawn into the party’s higher councils, they are made privy to the findings of the pollsters, each nuance of which is given great weight.

The polls are treated, not as a snapshot of opinion at a given moment, but as signposts to future action that can be ignored only at one’s peril. So they will, in the case of Labour politicians, tell them that Labour is not trusted on the economy; this is seen as immediately requiring redoubled efforts to assure voters that Labour will be prudent and responsible – prudent and responsible, that is, as seen in the context of the current orthodoxy.

The way to win, it is accepted, is to find out what people think, and then frame policies accordingly – to follow rather than lead. An attempt to change the way people think is doomed to failure. The best that can be done is to follow the much-admired Clintonian “triangulation”.

The original impulses and intentions are taken as a given and are rarely reviewed. They are submerged by the new imperatives – to perform well, to get good notices, to raise one’s standing in the eyes of one’s colleagues.

As to actual analysis and policy, there is no time – and even less incentive – to go beyond an increasingly automatic recital of vague objectives that are disconnected from any of the hard work and thinking that would be required if orthodoxy is to be effectively challenged. And that is in any case unlikely. Today’s generation of leaders were brought up in a world where voters were consumers rather than citizens, where the market would deliver better outcomes than could be expected of public provision, where running a country was best done according to business principles and where spending and borrowing in the public interest was dangerously irresponsible and imprudent.

Today’s leaders, in other words, are totally ill-equipped to advance any persuasive account of how they could run the economy better so as to deliver the commendable objectives that took them into politics in the first place. They are still capable of reciting the old catechisms about social justice and helping the disadvantaged but are at a loss as to how these are to be achieved – largely because, in their heart of hearts, whether they know it or not, they accept so much of the Tory analysis and agenda.

Labour’s would-be leaders have never done the hard work needed to mount a proper challenge to the neo-liberal hegemony. That is why, for example, when Labour entered the last election prioritising a commitment to eliminate the deficit, most of those who endorsed that commitment had no idea which deficit – the country’s or the government’s – they were actually talking about and why it was in any case entirely beside the point if we are seeking a well-performing economy that serves the interests of the great majority of voters.

This article first appeared on Bryan Gould’s own blog



  1. syzygy says:

    ‘Why are Labour’s would-be leaders so right-wing?’

    The simple answer is because John Smith won and not Bryan Gould. A great shame.

    1. Neil Stretton says:

      What ‘syzygy’ said !

  2. the labour party, which celebrates its 110th birthday next January, started as the Labour Representation COmmittee in 1900 and only became a party in 1906. A federal party even as the LRC, it hived off its thinking to small socialist parties including the Fabians. It has never had an intellectual current of any standing and the two major currents in forming the 1945 election manifesto, the most radical ever, where the Liberal tradition of Keynes and Beveridge, and some elements of the Soviet system notably nationalization. While Bryan is right that the day to day pressures and the adaptation to the Westminster consensus make their grasp of the bigger picture impossible for them, the fact that the party as such does not have even a think tank to generate ideas has become an Achilles heel. The Fabians today do not have any thinkers of note, unlike the founders including especially the Webbs.

    Since 1992 the leaders have been terrified of the media, particularly the Sun, and approach all encounters with the media in fear of being accused on being left wing. They do believe intellectually in neo liberalism and austerity and Thatcherism but there is no pressure on them to do otherwise as they have no back up forces that could appear on TV – even a programme like Question Time which is dire, but attracts 8m people to watch it.

    The leadership candidates are people who think that if they deviate from the orthodoxy of the Westminster Bubble they will be eviscerated by the media and there is no support mechanism to back them up.

    I have yet to meet any MP who does not think that in 1992 John SMiths moderate increase in Ntional INsurance did not trigger the media onslaught that put John Major back in.

    Until we have a counter-force that can defend the anti austerity agenda then this will remain the case. The Labour Party was built out of a committee, not a fighting force for Justice. Keir Hardie accepted the Labour Representation committee to get the unions on board. He had failed to build the independent Labour Party, and his failure which was not his fault defines the party to the very present. But he never had to deal with 24 hour media.

    Trevor Fisher

  3. Chris says:

    I know we can change how people think rather than merely follow opinion, because we have done it before.

    The first two Labour governments stuck to orthodox policies and achieved little, but in 1945 were finally elected on a programme of radical change. That government was the greatest of the twentieth century.

  4. Jeffery Davies says:

    Hum you say tony blair killed this party untill the blair babies are shown the door then this party will not survive its that bad many many electorate have lost the will to vote for this party not one is worth thier salt not alot difference to their big brother the torys its called greed and ridding themselves of it is like asking them to pass through the eye of the needle yep greed

  5. gerry says:

    Why are Labour’s leaders so right wing? Easy…it’s because since universal suffrage in 1928 the UK – electorally speaking- has voted for conservative or Tory led coalitions by a mile!

    And, 1945 apart, when we did put proper socialist or Left manifestoes to the electorate, as we did in 1983 and 1987 (both of which I supported) , we got hammered and the Tories and Alliance got nearly 70% of the vote!

    And it was the same demographics -working class older voters, C2 skilled workers – who turned against us, just like in 2015….simple really!

    1. John P Reid says:

      What Gerry said

    2. Matty says:

      Conveniently forgetting the 1974 manifesto which won and also that the right allowed the 83 manifesto to be left-wing in order to have a scapegoat for the defeat.

      1. gerry says:

        Matty – what I wrote are electoral facts, not just my opinion. You should deal with reality, which is this: Labour is still the furthest left most voters will go, and – apart from 1945 – seem to only give us majority governments when we appeal to ” modernisation” and ” the whole country”.

        As a socialist I would love to delude myself that the UK electorate ( and esp the skilled worker/C2s and older voters) as a whole have been crying out for socialist policies – but in 2015 that clearly is a delusion, as it has been at least since 1979.

        1. Matty says:

          Labour gets hammered when it’s Governments fail particularly on economic policies. That is what led to defeat in 1979 and 2010. I haven’t said that the electorate is crying out for socialism but the situation is not so clear-cut as you seem to believe. I can’t find the link right now but John Curtice has recently said that left-wing policies can be popular. Opinion polls consistently show support for public ownership

          1. gerry says:

            Matty – yes have seen that linked report. But if voters felt that nationalisation was their most important issue, they would have voted for the left-of-Labour parties that stood everywhere like the Greens, or TUSC, but most did not…. these voters’ MOST important issues were no tax rises, benefit cuts, Europe and reducing immigration.

            This is why they voted Tory or UKIP – and without doubt why most skilled workers and pensioners voted for those 2 parties.

            Lets move on, Matty – we all agree that we as a party need to reconnect with millions of voters, it is all really about HOW we do that, and what sort of approach or policies or leader who can help us reconnect and convince as many as we can…

          2. Mervyn Hyde says:


            You absolutely fail to understand that the Tories were actually only elected by 25% of the vote, there were millions that did not vote at all, the support for the kind of policies you actually support has been in decline year after year, and yet you persist in believing that the left should be just like the rest in the party, like lambs being led to slaughter.

          3. Matty says:

            “these voters’ MOST important issues were no tax rises, benefit cuts, Europe and reducing immigration. ” Any evidence for this eg survey evidence?

      2. John P Reid says:

        If the right of labour had argued and managed to convince the left not to have any of the 83 manifesto,which I doubt could have happened anyway, surely it was the far left for having those policies in the first place
        Labour win in 74 with Ted Heath,losing it by misjudging public mood,it was a low turnout,and Healey Williams etc presenting a sensible front, the manifesto when implemented shocked the public,who rejected it forever 5 years later, and winning in 38% of the vote wasn’t anything special,

  6. Mervyn Hyde says:

    The Labour leadership started to change when they adopted the Neo-Liberal philosophy of the likes of Milton Friedman in the 1970s.

    It became apparent under Dennis Healey around 1976 when he started making cuts in public services, balancing the books and progressed to where we are today.

    The other small point is that our Universities propagate the same theories in economics, even to the point that a Bank of England bulletin pointed out that economic students at Oxford and Cambridge are not taught how money is actually created, and that Thatcher’s Kitchen sink economics is actually wrong.

    Which is why students today have set up their own learning groups to find out what Karl Marx actually said and what is actually happening in economics.

    All the leaders in office today have been educated in Neo-Liberal theory and don’t have the wit to see what University students themselves do.

  7. gerry says:

    Matty – I don’t want this to get too academic, but there’s loads of survey evidence (if we can trust the polls after May!) about why people vote the way they do – the best I have read are from the British Election study, who have analysed all this for every election since 1964 I think, and though their definitive analysis of the 2015 election is not fully out, I came across in December 2014 their “All roads lead to UKIP” report which covers the main issues why voters vote UKIP, esp ex Labour voters…theres also yougov’s polling reports and just one of those I remember reading was in Prospect, March 2014, which looked at the social groups most likely to vote UKIP, and the main issues important to them – immigration, economy, Europe, benefit cuts as I stated. It is called “Where UKIP gets its support”. And Labour support amongst C2s has collapsed from 50% and 49% (1997, 2001) to 29% and 30% (2010 and 2015).

    Phil Burton Cartledge has also flagged up many voter survey polls which show how popular benefits cuts, benefit caps etc are – and amongst working class and skilled working class groups, they are – sadly – very popular.

    This we all know….the question is: knowing this reality, how can we change these popular political views, and if we can’t, how – to answer Mervyn Hyde too- we neutralise them?

    What we should NOT do, though, is to hide our heads in the sand, and pretend that Tory/UKIP policies on these areas are not popular….they clearly are!

    1. Mervyn Hyde says:


      I was active in the Labour Party for the best part of 35 years, the first ward that I took part in was a Labour ward that has always turned in a Labour candidate, I actually became a Labour councillor there, until I moved to a Tory ward and decided to put my efforts into removing them from there.

      It took a number of years but I promise you we campaigned on left wing views and actively rebutted everything the Tories stood for, that meant printing leaflets and using cartoon humour to destroy Thatcher and what she stood for.

      During a campaign in the eighties we spelled out to local residents exactly what the agenda was, and I met a gentleman in the posher part of our constituency, that had voted Tory all his life, believing that enterprise and free markets was essential for a prosperous society, and he told us in his then 90th year that he would be voting Labour for the first time in his life, as he said, “he realised that we were right all along,” his own words. Meaning that socialism worked and capitalism doesn’t.

      We can change people, it takes a lot of hard work but it can be done.

      Later moved on again with more children and we transformed two more Tory wards into strong Labour, I became disenchanted with Blair followed by Brown and stopped being active, since then those wards have reverted back to being Tory strongholds once again, and no-one campaigns for Labour here any more.

      If we all sing off the same hymn sheet as the Tories, we get Tories not Labour.

      1. gerry says:

        Mervyn – that’s a great reply: I really love and respect what you have done, and your description of the long hard slog in changing local politics in your areas rings true and powerful.

        If you really believe in 2015 that millions of people who didn’t vote in the last election can be won over to socialist or Left views, then I would never disparage your perspective…we need to get at least 3-4 million more people everywhere voting Labour for us to have even a possibility of forming a government in the next few years.

        I would vote for Jeremy – as I have said elsewhere – if I really believe that as leader he could help us reconnect on a massive scale, and for me the jury is out on that. In all honesty I am of those Labour people who would prefer any sort of Labour government, even a Liz Kendall led one, to a Tory one: pragmatist and realist I suppose. Its great that both you and I am in the same party – long may that continue!

    2. Matty says:

      You are right in a lot of what you say eg benefit cuts are popular but a lot of this is based on misconceptions which we need to challenge not accept. See
      Eg Benefit fraud: the public think that £24 of every £100 of benefits is fraudulently claimed. Official estimates are that just 70 pence in every £100 is fraudulent – so the public conception is out by a factor of 34.

      Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, said: How can you develop good policy when public perceptions can be so out of kilter with the evidence?.. politicians need to be better at talking about the real state of affairs of the country, rather than spinning the numbers.”

      1. gerry says:

        Matty – I couldn’t agree more: those facts about benefit fraud in the Indy article are well known to lefties like us, but most working class people believe that fraud is widespread, that benefit claimants are scroungers as shown on all those Channel 4 and Channel 5 Benefits programmes – Owen Jones wrote it well recently: the power of these scrounger stories – drip fed every day in the papers, and on these Jeremy Kyle/Benefits Britain programmes – has destroyed still further any sort of working class solidarity or empathy.

        And of course the Tories and UKIP overtly exclude pensioners from their welfare cuts, knowing full well that so many pensioners vote Tory or UKIP (60% in 2015 voted for these parties). Cynical, amoral but wickedly effective!

        It is truly depressing, and there are no easy answers….but I know that to find any answers at all we must not deny these realities.

  8. the popularity of the anti spending policies for the C2- skilled workers has never been in doubt. The reason why they backed the Labour Party was that there were other reasons to do so, notably the support for trade unions which gave them a living wage. When the unions lost their position at the high table, the C2s began to drift away. Its also the case that the C2s were never keen on immigration and not just black immigration. No Irish need apply was a well known bed and breakfast poster landladies would put up. Competition for jobs.

    However the bigger issue of the lack of economic literacy at all levels, and if Mervyn and colleague are really going to debate these issues then sources are vital. A Bank of England bulletin? which one?

    And the students who set up their own study groups…. Which universities? And can we help them with their studies?

    Trevor Fisher

    1. Mervyn Hyde says:

      You will find the bulletin in this article under the link, Money creation in a modern society, but I would want you to read the article itself as I think it so relevant.

      Hope you find this article interesting as many academics around the world critical of Neo-Liberalism and austerity, say what these students are actively doing, which is to challenge academic institutions for misinforming them about the very subject they are supposed to be learning.

  9. Roy Stanton says:

    They don’t really want to change anything, they just want their turn kicking the ball about, the game goes on

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