What is so disappointing (so far) about the Labour leadership contest is the failure to edge the party to any significant degree away from a look-alike Tory posture. Osborne launches the biggest cuts programme of the last century, and we are told that if we wish to be taken seriously we must be as fiscally conservative as the government. Osborne preens himself with running the economy on a permanent surplus, and Labour, not to be outdone, endorses the idea, absurd and unworkable as it is. The Tories taunt Labour for being on the side of shirkers against strivers – a ridiculous claim when Osborne has just impoverished millions of workers in poverty by severe cutbacks in working tax credits – but Labour, for fear of being lampooned by the Mail for being soft on ‘lifestyle’ benefit recipients, lamely echoes its support for tightening the benefit cap. When is Labour going to stand up and assert what it really believes in?
What do the leadership candidates feel about the egregious degree of inequality that now tarnishes British society, and how exactly would they tackle it? Do they feel market forces are working well, and if not, how would they introduce a counter-balancing morality, justice and accountability into the economic system? if the banks have too much power which they have now been shown to have grossly abused, how should be restructured? Does Labour still believe in full employment, and if so, how should it be restored? Can Britain ever really prosper again without a long-term industrial revival, and how should that be brought about? As the Tories pile on pressure on the unions to try to make them wholly subservient to neoliberal capitalism, will Labour restore them to their rightful place as full partners in the industrial workplace?
Has Labour lost its real voice? The public doesn’t want to hear how ‘responsible’ we are in clinging close to the prevailing ideology, or how readily we adopt the caricatures that the rampaging Tories are foisting on the public consciousness. They want to hear what we truly believe in and proclaim out loud. This may sometimes involve defending a stance which the Tory propaganda machine has made unpopular – like arguing why a welfare state is needed, why more money should be spent on rehabilitation rather than just banging up offenders in prison, or why Britain should contribute towards reducing migrant loss of life in the Mediterranean. But that is what political leaders are for – not assuring the public they’re on side with every passing prejudice that the right-wing press has magnified, but declaring boldly and vigorously the values and principles that capture the imagination for any worthwhile society.