Fabians reveal the lack of debate amongst Labour leader candidates
Of all the speakers at the Fabian’s Summer Conference, it was the President of YouGov, Peter Kellner that provoked most controversy. His argument that Labour must modernise, building on the best of the Tony Blair years, while rejecting the worst, split the room. The Labour Party can now go in one of three directions, he argued, but only one direction, modernisation, will mean that the Party has any chance in the 2020 General Election. The other two ways, turning to the left or ignoring the existential questions Labour faces completely, he argued, would doom the party to fifteen years of opposition.
This argument, alongside his claim that in fifteen years’ time introducing tuition fees will be seen as one of the most successful measures of the Blair Government, provoked passionate debate with many to the left of the Party angrily challenging him.
This kind of fundamental discussion about Labour’s future has been sadly lacking amongst the potential Labour leaders so far, with all of them seeking consensus in order to win the top position. But to get the top post in the country, Labour needs to answer these questions, including the one Peter Kellner set out: how does Labour address Blair’s legacy and what is its purpose in modern Britain?
This debate is failing to materialise. Apart from Jeremy Corbyn, the four other candidates have all developed similar, vague arguments: Labour needs a strong economic message; it needs a strong narrative alongside good policies; it needs to strongly put forward a pro-EU and pro-UK case; it needs to have definition while appealing to a broad base (surely a contradiction); it needs more diverse candidates; it needs to be more radical with devolution and so on.
During the Fabian’s Question Time event, there were only two minor disagreements between these four candidates, around tuition fees and whether the Party should aim to turn it into a graduate tax instead (what’s the difference?), and whether to continue with the expansion of academies and free schools. On every other issue their views converged around a bland consensus. Similarly, when I got home and started reading Progress Magazine (I’m a geek I know) an article asking questions to these four candidates produced answers so similar they again started to merge into one unconvincing argument.
Although he will not have my vote, despite being my MP, I am glad that Jeremy Corbyn has entered the debate. His arguments for Labour to adopt anti-austerity policies, I hope, will rouse the other candidates from their slumber and they will have to respond to the nagging question of the purpose of the Labour Party in a time of austerity.
Party unity is needed to win an election, as Ed Miliband was only too aware, but it is also necessary for an open debate, a winnable message and credible policies. Based on Saturday’s hustings, the Labour Party looks likely to duck Peter Kellner’s challenge and spend another five years not addressing the fundamental questions it needs to. If so, Kellner’s prediction of fifteen years of Opposition looks likely.