After Defeat, Blairites Try to Forestall Lurch to the Left

Senior Labour Party figures say the only way to avoid another election defeat is to move back to the center.

Chuka Umunna, the British Labour Party's shadow business secretary, appears on the BBC's The Andrew Marr Show, May 10
Chuka Umunna, the British Labour Party’s shadow business secretary, appears on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, May 10

Senior Labour figures have said the party is “down but not out” following its defeat in Britain’s general election. Many call for a return to the centrist policies of the 1990s when Labour won three elections in a row under Tony Blair.

Liz Kendall became the first lawmaker to say she would stand for the party leadership on Sunday after Ed Miliband resigned two days earlier, having won only 232 seats for Labour in the House of Commons, down from 257.

Labour, she said, had to find a way of “keeping our working-class supporters while reaching out to Conservative supporters and Middle England.”

Kendall is a long-shot candidate. Two stronger contenders are Tristram Hunt, the left-wing shadow education secretary, and Chuka Umunna, the more centrist shadow business secretary. Both recognized on Sunday that their party had failed to woo moderate voters who backed Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party instead.

Hunt told Sky News that Labour’s proposals for a higher top rate of income tax and a new tax on expensive homes had “made people fearful about whether we were on their side.”

Umunna told the BBC’s Andrew Marr, “We often had a message which spoke to people on zero-hours contracts and the minimum wage. But for middle-income voters, there was not enough of an aspirational offer there.”

He made a similar argument in an article for The Guardian where he added, “you cannot be pro-business by beating up on the terms and conditions of their workers and the trade unions that play an important role representing them.”

In a rebuke to Ed Miliband’s late-game vow to curb immigration, Umunna also urged Labour to be the “party of internationalism and openness” and explain to voters “how global change can be harnessed” to improve their lives.

This is a far cry from the pandering to working-class anxieties that Miliband resorted to an in attempt to shore up Labour’s base.

Peter Mandelson, an architect of Labour’s three election victories under Blair, told Marr the socialists had been wrong to think they could “wave our fists angrily at the nasty Tories and wait for the public to realize how much they miss us.”

The party’s economic policy, he said, gave the impression Labour was “for the poor, hate the rich, ignoring completely the vast swathe of the population who exist in between who do have values like ours.”

Mandelson singled out the trade unions for criticism who played an outsized role in helping to get Ed Miliband elected leader.

We cannot open ourselves up to the sort of abuse and inappropriate influence that the trade unions waded in with in our leadership election in 2010.

The Labour Party has changed the way it elects its leaders, denying the unions the disproportionate influence they wielded five years ago. But they still command the loyalty of many party members.

Andy Burnham, the former health secretary, is seen as the unions’ favorite and the Financial Times reports that the burst of activity by the Blairites on Sunday was intended to stall any potential momentum behind him.

A bleeding-heart socialist, Burnham has resisted every liberalization in the National Health Service, insisting that the use of private contractors puts “people before profit” — even though they often do a better job that NHS-managed hospitals.

Burnham sees a contest between “NHS values” and business values in health care; between “collaboration” and “competition”; between “patient care” and profits. Seeing those things are mutually exclusive is a mistake and it does not suggest Burnham would be more business-friendly than Miliband who infamously derided “predatory” enterprises.

Another high-profile contender for the leadership is Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary. The Daily Mirror, a Labour-supporting tabloid, is sympathetic, suggesting she could appeal to middle-of-the-road and socially conservative voters. But it is still unclear how much more centrist her policy would actually be.

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