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Labour Must Move Further Left

In the wake of its poor electoral result, Labour's next move must be left, not right.

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Labour Must Move Further Left

Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

As we move away from the general election and into David Cameron's second term as Prime Minister, discussion has centred on the Labour Party's search for a new leader and, perhaps more importantly, the direction it will take following its heaviest defeat since 1987.

Ed Miliband diverted Labour away from the more centrist approach of his predecessors, departing from 'Blairist' politics and gaining the title 'Red Ed' in the process. That the recently resigned leader defeated his brother David to head Labour after the 2010 election was largely due to his more left-leaning tendencies being preferred to the elder Miliband's centrist focus.

However, in the aftermath of Labour's convincing defeat, many have begun to argue that this 'Blairist' approach is what is required in order to help Labour recover and regain power at the next election. Tristram Hunt, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education under Miliband's opposition, yesterday argued that Labour must make steps towards appealing to the 'John Lewis community', as well as those who aspired to shop there, whilst Lord Mandelson condemned the party's departure from its 'New Labour' stance as a terrible mistake.

This has led to the emergence of more centrist Labour MPs as candidates for the party leadership. Chuka Umunna, the Shadow Business Secretary, is highly touted, whilst the only person thus far to openly declare their intention to run, Liz Kendall, also has intentions of targeting 'middle England'. Hunt, too, seems likely to contest the leadership campaign with a centrist agenda. The most left-wing candidate, Andy Burnham, is the probable trade union poster boy; however, as today's Independent front-page noted, he is likely to be heavily challenged by those urging a move away from Miliband's 'red' image and a return to Blairist politics.

Indeed, Miliband was considerably more left-leaning that his predecessors in terms of social policy; the same cannot be said, however, of the economic strategy adopted by his Labour opposition. It was this which proved to be the obstacle for Miliband's governmental aspirations - Lord Mandelson said yesterday that the absence of plans to stimulate economic growth in Labour's manifesto was the 'big hole in the middle of the polo mint'.

Admittedly, this composed part of Mandelson's argument that Labour must re-occupy the central ground in order to recover lost seats in the House of Commons. It is just as applicable, however, when one uses it to justify a Labour move to the left.

Put simply, Labour's electoral woes stemmed largely from an economic policy too similar to that of the Conservatives' – the party failed offer an alternative plan, gave the electorate little justification to depart from a Tory government whose economic blueprints they seemed to generally support. Indeed, Dan Jarvis, the MP for Barnsley Central who has ruled himself out of Labour leadership despite a large base of support, said yesterday that the public's rejection of his party was a result of its failure to 'set out a positive alternative'.

Labour's economic similarities with the Conservatives were revealed most starkly in January; the party encouraged its MPs to vote in favour of George Osbourne's extended austerity measures, procedures which included a further £30 billion of public spending cuts. The motion passed with a resounding 515-18 victory. Ed Balls' justification for imploring his party to support the plans was that a failure to do so would enable the Conservatives to paint Labour as irresponsible during the election campaign.

What this really did was to convey the message that the economic policies of Labour and the Conservatives were almost homogenous. Rather that Labour being portrayed as economically reckless, their policy instead blended into the Conservatives'. Despite Balls' claims that there was a 'stark difference' between Labour's plans and the Tories', in reality the concessions to these spending cuts had the dual effect of increasing the extent to which the public viewed them as necessary, and, due to the similarities between the two parties' economic plans, instilling in the population a belief that change would be an unnecessary disruption.

This was noted by Diane Abbott, one of only five Labour MPs to vote against the whip, who said: 'Instead of simply mimicking current practices we should be offering a solid alternative through investment in public services to create real and sustainable growth.' Labour's lack of an alternative economic plan bred an acceptance of spending cuts within the political sphere's middle ground, contributing to the Conservative victory through Miliband's party's failure to even propose – let alone generate support for - a different economic approach. It was Labour's inability to propose a left-wing economic plan, highlighted during its aforementioned acquiescence of further austerity measures and continued throughout the election campaign, which caused their worst performance in a general election since 1987.

The case of the Scottish National Party demonstrates how Labour would be better served with an economic shift to the left. Whilst many have attributed Nicola Sturgeon's party's phenomenal surge in popularity to the intensified scrutiny it gained during the Scottish independence referendum, this ignores the dramatic effect of its vociferous opposition to austerity upon the SNP's gain of 50 seats. Its anti-austerity stance was unwavering, offering the Scottish public a supposed solution to the spending cuts imposed by the coalition government, a way out of cuts to public services and a path to investment which offered genuine economic growth.

Given the SNP offered a genuine alternative to the Conservative's economic plan, it is no surprise that the party experienced such dramatic gains at the expense of a Labour Party which failed to do so.

Anti-austerity parties witnessed a growth in support during the election campaign. Alongside the SNP's 50 seat gain, the Green Party, though failing to improve upon its sole parliamentary seat, experienced a 2.8% increase in number of votes and saw Caroline Lucas increase her majority in Brighton Pavillion; furthermore, Plaid Cymru's contribution to this opposition was heard and respected during the leadership debates. There was an emergence of a desire for an alternative economic option, and Labour's failure to recognise this was a key reason for its disastrous performance.

Moving closer to the centre ground is not currently the answer for Labour. With the Conservatives sticking to their 'long-term economic plan', it will be difficult for the new leader to make gains by following an outline similar to that of their main political rival's. Edging towards consensus politics through a leader such as Chuka Umunna, an advocate of the 'Blue Labour' approach, is not the method by which Labour can hope to challenge the Conservatives.

We have seen the success which parties offering a genuine alternative to austerity have enjoyed during this election campaign; it is this approach, rather than moving to re-occupy the centre of the political spectrum, which will give Labour the best chance of attracting more voters to their side in the aftermath of this catastrophic election result.

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