What is the Labour leadership race about? Read the papers, and you’d conclude the following: It’s Corbyn versus Smith. It’s old versus new. It’s the left versus the moderates. Or, in their own words for each other, it’s Trots versus Blairites.
It’s easy, though, to exaggerate the differences between the candidates. Corbyn is certainly hard left – and various of his allies are even more extreme than him – but does that really make Smith a “Labour moderate”, as he’s often described?
He may be more moderate than the man he is challenging, but that’s not hard. By the Corbynite yardstick, anyone more centrist than Michael Foot bears the taint of shameful Toryism.
Look at what Smith says, and he doesn’t seem very “moderate” at all. His avowedly socialist policy platform boasts higher income tax, higher inheritance tax, higher corporation tax, an additional “wealth tax”, £200 billion of extra public spending, the reintroduction of centralised wage controls for each industry and the abolition of turnout and timescale requirements for strike ballots. Like Corbyn, he describes himself as fundamentally anti-austerity. Indeed, his policies are so close to those of the current Labour leader that Corbyn has accused him of stealing his ideas. At best, he’s a little less moderate than Ed Miliband, and Ed Miliband just lost an election in part because he was too left wing.
We got another taster of Smith’s moderation yesterday, when he accused the Government of pursuing a “secret plan to privatise the NHS”. This is, of course, nuts. For a start, the “secret plan” he talks about was found hidden not inside Jeremy Hunt’s volcanic island lair, nor in the vault of a Swiss bank alongside loads of Nazi gold, and not even on the dark side of the moon along with the skeletons of Shergar and Lord Lucan. It was, boringly, hidden on a publicly accessible page on the NHS’s own website. Which is presumably how Smith found it.
Not only is it not secret, but on closer inspection it isn’t even a “plan to privatise the NHS” – it’s a document about how to get the best results for patients out of working more effectively with private sector providers who already work with the NHS. You know, the kind of thing the Labour Party used to pursue and boast about.
This is a well-worn Labour theme, of course. It’s easier to pretend the Conservatives are mere days or even hours away from selling the whole NHS for about £25 round the back of a pub than to actually come up with serious and appealing proposals for governing the country. The fact that none of the Conservative governments which they alleged were about to flog the health service have actually got round to doing so might hint to a sensible person that these warnings were bunkum, but that fact doesn’t seem to dull the attraction of a good bit of cheap alarmism.
It may be a standard act for the lazy left to issue such warnings, but it isn’t what we might expect of a true moderate. Smith’s hawking of this conspiracy theory further suggests that he is only a moderate in the context of the man he is running against.
Of course, it’s possible – even likely – that he doesn’t really believe any of this rubbish. Maybe he really is a Labour moderate, who recognises the crucial role that competitive free enterprise plays in improving the lot of British workers and delivering public services.
If he is a moderate in lefty clothing, that would be even more depressing. It would mean that the challengers to Corbyn already know that they have completely and utterly lost the battle of ideas within their party – instead of taking on his outdated, failed and unappealing ideology, they have opted to accept it all and simply dispute his competence. It doesn’t matter whether in their heart of hearts they are “moderates” or not if they believe that Labour has been irrevocably captured by the hard left and that their only chance of survival lies in playing along and parroting the same lines.
So what is the Labour leadership race about? Corbyn, the confirmed leftist who isn’t very effective, or Smith, the one who promises to be just as left-wing but a bit better at it. If so, then the genuine Labour moderates lost this war before their fightback began.