Christopher Young writes: Conventional wisdom can be a straitjacket, as anyone who has argued for change can testify. We have all become familiar with the argument that says in a democracy, you govern from the centre, that elections are won on the middle ground and the party which only appeals to its base is doomed to opposition. With the election of Jeremy Corbyn, and a groundswell of opinion carrying the Labour Party to the left, we can expect to hear the lessons of the 1980s endlessly repeated as a justification for more right wing policies, but in the wake ofLeveson, Chilcot, Saville, the expenses scandal and the banking crash, the comparison is fatally misleading.
Because the “centre ground” is not the fixed point some imagine it to be, and the party which insists on fighting the last election is surely doomed to fail. The balance of opinion changes over time, sometimes with astonishing rapidity, under pressure of events, and it is generally the political and media establishment who are the last to grasp the nature of the new consensus.
The country has suffered four decades of Thatcherism. The flaws inherent in that model have become apparent, and even middle England is now suffering from rising costs and incomes which have failed to keep pace with inflation in the housing market. A succession of scandals and crises have destroyed the public’s trust in Parliament, the media, the banks and the police. The fanciful assumption that the free market will provide the answer to all problems has been seen to fail, and any party offering the same solutions will be rejected by a country that is clearly crying out for change.
The phenomenon is not confined to Britain. The selfsame insurrection has been seen in mainland Europe and the USA, where mainstream candidates and parties have been struggling to compete with “unelectable” outsiders such as Saunders, Trump or Marie le Pen. The lesson for the Labour Party should be crystal clear. The fact that Trump could make a plausible appeal to working class Americans, or that UKIP have attracted disillusioned Labour voters illustrates the underlying force at work; a fundamental and inchoate rage against the status quo, and upsurge of dissatisfaction which the party would be suicidal to ignore.
In such a situation, then, the lessons of the 1980s or the 1990s are misleading. Labour would do better to consider what occurred in 1945, and then again in 1979. Churchill, at the zenith of his popularity, was defeated by Attlee, not because that wise and decent man was charismatic or appealing, but because the Labour Party offered change. A generation later, in 1979, Thatcher (far being the electoral juggernaut that she became) was rightly seen as unappealing and dogmatic, while Callaghan, for all his qualities, had come to represent a broken and discredited establishment. In both cases policy proved more significant than personality, and experience in government a liability.
The Blairites and their policies have led us to defeat in two elections, while in Scotland Labour have been reduced to a single MP. It seems that the experience has taught them nothing. A generation of new voters have emerged, demanding something better than the status quo, and under Corbyn’s leadership they have turned to us. Far from trying to deter the influx of new members, Labour should be welcoming this new infusion of fresh blood and offering a practical alternative to the neo liberal agenda which has failed so thoroughly. Radical solutions to the nation’s ills are far more likely to appeal than platitudes and sound bites, while clinging stubbornly to what was once the middle ground can only be a ticket to oblivion. Win or lose, we will have altered the debate, and by offering the public an alternative, we will have done a service to democracy in Britain which will reinvigorate a whole new generation.