Labour moderates must fight their corner - but Liam Byrne has the wrong approach
Who speaks for the 50.4 per cent? The 50.4 per cent are the Labour party’s forgotten majority. That large but strangely irrelevant group of Labour party members who didn’t cast a first preference for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest.
Time, it seems, has wearied them. In fact, time has airbrushed them completely out of existence. The dramatic nature of Corbyn’s triumph has swept them away. Almost everybody in the Labour party voted for Jeremy Corbyn. And those that didn’t, well, they don’t count. They’d be better off sodding off and joining the Tories.
But say they don’t? Who gives a voice to those brave souls who remain steadfastly immune to the charms of the Bearded One, but stubbornly within the Labour fold?
Yesterday Liam Byrne attempted to give them that voice. Or he attempted to at least speak with a different voice to Jeremy Corbyn. Or a different tone to Jeremy Corbyn. Or something.
The pre-briefing was quite tasty stuff. “Labour bigwig Liam Byrne is to tell Jeremy Corbyn his figures don’t add up” reported the Mirror’s Nigel Nelson.
“The former Treasury Secretary will spark a new bout of party infighting by rejecting his leader’s economic plans. And he is calling on moderate Labour MPs to rally behind him and his new financial formula. In a major speech this week, Mr Byrne will say Mr Corbyn’s proposals fail to tackle inequality. He is expected to say: ‘I don’t like what some call Corbynomics. Printing money, nationalising things, and spiraling public spending isn’t going to work.’
But then by the time the actual text of the speech was being distributed, the emphasis had changed a little bit. Quite a lot, actually.
“I like Jeremy Corbyn”, was one of his key lines, “I love his passion to challenge inequality. That idealism unites us”.
Another was: “It’s now clear neo-liberalism isn’t working. So we need to end neo-liberalism. That, ultimately, is why new Labour is over”.
And he concluded with a demand the totemic Clause 4 of his party’s constitution be re-written: “Idealism and anger at inequality and injustice unites every single one of us in the Labour Party. So I think it’s time our Party's aims and values reflect this simple truth. Today’s Clause Four doesn’t even mention the word ‘inequality’. It’s got to change. We need to say what we mean, and mean what we say”.
Which brings us to the nub of the issue. People saying what they mean. And meaning what they say.
On the same day Liam Byrne stood up to deliver that speech, the CBI was announcing Jeremy Corbyn had declined an invitation to address its annual conference. No shadow minister would be representing him.
It was then revealed that in an interview with ITN, Jeremy Corbyn had said he wanted to look again at British military intervention against ISIS in Iraq. Not Syria, Iraq.
Then Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell tweeted a response to Byrne’s speech. Actually, he openly mocked him: ‘Told Liam Byrne last night that I welcome his speech today as contribution to our debate on economy tho repeats much of what I've been saying.’ Essentially: ‘Look at that Liam Byrne. He’s dancing to my tune now.’
When Liam Byrne says he likes Jeremy Corbyn, I don’t think he is saying what he means, or meaning what he says.
He may like Jeremy Corbyn personally, (though I suspect he hardly knows him), but that’s irrelevant. Politically there is no love lost between either man. There can’t be. Because when Liam Byrne says he and Jeremy Corbyn are united in their idealism I don’t think he means that either. Because they’re not united. As we saw yesterday – on foreign policy, on defence policy, on economic policy, on the Labour party’s relationship with business – their ideals are in diametric opposition.
Jeremy Corbyn speaks for the fifty percent of Labour party members and supporters who want an isolationist foreign policy, want Trident scrapped, believe in printing and spending more money, and believe in demonizing the business community. Liam Byrne speaks for the fifty percent who support liberal interventionism, want to retain an independent nuclear deterrent, think it’s vital Labour has a credible economic policy, and think it’s equally vital Labour builds a good relationship with business.
The difference – and the fundamental problem facing Labour pragmatists and modernisers at the moment – is Jeremy Corbyn and his allies are prepared to honestly and proudly speak to and for their half of that constituency, and Liam Byrne and his allies are not.
I completely understand what Liam Byrne is trying to do. He’s trying to be a smart politician. He understands the Blairite brand is dead. He recognises he currently represents a minority viewpoint within the Labour movement. And he’s trying to position himself so he can adapt to this new political reality, and earn the right to a hearing.
But everyone else can see what Liam Byrne is trying to do as well. They too can see he’s trying to be a smart politician. And people don’t want smart politicians any more. What they want are politicians with honesty and credibility and authenticity.
This the defining difference between the Labour Left and the Labour Right at the moment. The Left have secured a monopoly on political conviction. And how have they achieved this? They have fought. They have dug in. They – not to put too fine a point on it – have done the opposite of what Liam Byrne tried to do in his speech yesterday.
When the Blairites and Brownites were ascendant the Left did not try to position themselves as clever politicians. They did not allow themselves to be caught working the angles, or triangulating, or attempting to reach an accommodation with their internal political opponents.
They did so of course – just look at Ken Livingstone’s political success. But they kept the politics hidden, and appeared to stand on high principle. And they always stood by their own constituency. I don’t recall the speech from Jeremy Corbyn that began with the words ‘I like Tony Blair’ or contained the line ‘I love his electability”.
The modernisers and the pragmatists have to do the same now. They have to stop working the angles. They have to stop genuflecting to ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate’. And they have to give a voice to the fifty per cent of Labour members and supporters who didn’t back Labour’s new leader.
Or, to quote Liam Byrne, the have to say what they mean and mean what they say.
Yes, Labour’s modernising wing is going to have to start to redefine itself. But that means re-defining themselves, not allowing the Corbnites to redefine them. When Liam Byrne suddenly jumps up and says Labour ‘has got to change’ Clause 4 to include a commitment to fighting inequality, he needs to realise he is playing directly into the Corbynites’ hands. Does he think people will say: ‘Wow, look at Liam Byrne, he really does have a passion for social justice after all?’ Or does he think they will say: ‘Look at Liam Byrne. Typically Blairite, now he thinks he’s facing de-selection he’s pretending to be a champion of the poor’?
The truth is Liam Byrne always has had a passion for tackling injustice. So did Ed Miliband, so did Gordon Brown, so, (whisper it), did Tony Blair. The difference is, they all had different strategies for tackling it. The key to the modernisers' strategy being it involved winning a general election first.
If they want to be relevant again, if they want to earn the right to a hearing, if they want to be influential within their party again, there is one thing Labour’s pragmatists and modernisers have to do more than anything else. They have to demonstrate political conviction. They have to demonstrate political courage. And to do that they have to be true – and be seen to be true – to themselves. And that means speaking out for the fifty per cent who didn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn, but who opposed him.
And that will be hard. The fifty percent may not be fifty percent any more. Some will already have drifted away. Others will have thrown in their lot with the Corbynites for the sake of party unity. Some may even have been genuinely impressed with their new leader’s bold refusal to countenance any compromise with the electorate.
So say it isn’t fifty percent. Maybe it’s forty percent. Or thirty percent. Whatever the number, Liam Byrne and his modernising allies have to speak for them now. Because if they don’t, they will be found out. What they say won’t pass this most basic sniff test. It will be seen for what it is, an attempt at political calculation at a time when a premium is being placed on political principle and conviction.
Liam Byrne does not like Jeremy Corbyn. He does not share Jeremy Corbyn’s ideals, or his political world-view. And if he really is a smart politician, next time he stands up to deliver a speech, he will say so.