Rightward shift could further damage Labour

By Savi Hensman
May 11, 2015

After the Labour Party’s disappointing results in the UK General Election, some senior figures are urging it to move still further to the right. But this could be electorally damaging, as well as ethically questionable.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chuka Umunna, Shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills during the last parliament, are among those who have criticised the campaign for focusing too much on traditional supporters.

“The Labour party has to be for ambition as well as compassion and care. Hard-working families don’t just want us celebrating their hard work; they want to know that by hard work and effort they can rise up, achieve. They want to be better off and they need to know we don’t just tolerate that, we support it,” wrote Tony Blair in the Observer.

“We allowed the impression to arise that we were not on the side of those who are doing well,” wrote Chuka Umunna, a leadership contender. “We need a different, big-tent approach – one in which no one is too rich or poor to be part of our party.”

Yet the election campaign fronted by former party leader Ed Miliband was hardly radical. He planned to carry on with austerity policies which have badly harmed numerous people, though not to bring in further large-scale devastating cuts.

Age UK revealed in early 2015 that almost a third of older people in England needing help with essential activities like eating and going to the toilet did not get this. Measures such as the bedroom tax have caused widespread misery across the UK.

Labour’s reluctance to challenge the false belief that such cruelty was good for the economy did not help. It is perhaps not surprising that some individuals and families struggling to cope did not feel motivated to vote at all.

In addition, mugs urging ‘Controls on immigration’ may have put off some voters, especially from black and minority ethnic communities. Many of us are all too aware from experience that there are already strict controls, which sometimes divide families. Just getting a visitor’s visa to visit a dying relative or attend a wedding can be hard.

Admittedly Ed Miliband championed measures such as rent controls and ending zero-hour contracts. To those who mix largely with the rich and famous, these might seem focused on people on low incomes.

Yet in reality, even people on fairly good salaries struggle to afford private rents in many parts of the country. And quite a number of middle class people such as university lecturers are on zero hour contracts.

It is probably true that the richest fifth or so of voters would be unlikely to vote Labour for immediate personal gain, unless it moved still further to the right. But maybe the party’s appeal should go further, to enlightened self-interest based on the value of a society which is not too divided, or even to altruism.

The campaign was not particularly good at painting a picture of the kind of UK which Labour might have wanted, let alone at fostering empathy. Yet countering the negative emotions played on by some right-wing parties could help to shift the political balance.

Whatever party one supports, it is dispiriting when concern for the most disadvantaged is seen as outdated. Some faith traditions also highlight the fact that societies built on injustice are on shaky ground.

Ironically, after the Liberal Democrats’ very poor electoral performance, some influential members are calling for a shift to the left. “I think presenting ourselves as a coalition party rather than setting out our values and where we come from was a serious mistake”, said Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece. “We should be the centre-left party that this country desperately needs.”

For both principled and pragmatic reasons, the Labour Party might want to think carefully about whether to shift still further to the right.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator of politics, religion, welfare and allied topics. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.

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