BURNHAM CAN’T SAVE US: A RESPONSE TO ‘THE BEATING HEART OF LABOUR’

by Chris Jarvis

On August 21st, The Norwich Radical published an article — The Beating Heart of Labour — where the writer endorsed Andy Burnham in the Labour Leadership Election. Over the next 1,000 words, I intend to address the primary arguments in that article and why I believe them to be fundamentally wrong; why I believe Andy Burnham to be just as damaging to the Labour Party, its electoral prospects and likewise the country as Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, and why Jeremy Corbyn, albeit far from a political panacea, is without doubt the best candidate in the election and therefore the arguments presented in the previous piece are misguided and wrong.

The first major pitfall of the argument is rooted in what the article itself critiques —  that Corbyn is unelectable. While Senior is right to reject the mythical notion of ‘electability’ as the primary motivation a member should have in selecting one leadership candidate over another, by suggesting that ‘economic credibility’ is central to any successful general election strategy, she fails to dismiss the electability myth for what it is— a rhetorical creation designed by a right wing media and out of touch political commentators to silence radicalism and deviation from political norms. The concept of a candidate or a political perspective as being ‘electable’ as we commonly understand it relies on the assumption that public opinion is somehow unmovable — that the political position of the electorate is largely static, and the role of political parties is to move towards it, and whichever is best and simulating this elusive point of view will win any forthcoming election.

The great political gains throughout history have not been made by political leaders, campaigners and activists harking to the centre ground, and chasing public opinion.

Such an assumption is incorrect and dangerous. It ignores substantial shifts in public opinion that we have seen over the last few decades on issues as a varied as homosexuality, migration, trade unions, economic inequality and the role of the state in redistributing wealth, and defence spending. On all of these issues, public opinion has moved significantly over a small number of years. Similarly, attitudes towards the major public issues of the day can change. The great political gains throughout history have not been made by political leaders, campaigners and activists harking to the centre ground, and chasing public opinion. They have instead been made by standing firm for what is right, making and ultimately winning the argument. Had political actors throughout the movement for the liberation of LGBT+ people attempted to harness the political centre ground, homosexuality would have remained illegal, the age of consent never reduced, same sex marriage a complete fantasy.

(© Independent)

Moreover, a second major flaw in the argument of ‘economic credibility’ is that it makes an additional incorrect assumption — that the next general election can only be won for Labour by winning over people who voted Tory in the 2015 General Election.  Although the Conservatives won a slither of a majority in May, they did so with only 37% of the vote, just 6.5 points more than Labour won. Meanwhile, more than a quarter of people who voted cast their ballot for either UKIP, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP or the Greens. There are millions of voters in the British electorate Labour can appeal to who aren’t die hard Tories, not to mention the additional 34% of people who didn’t vote in the election at all. An electoral strategy that seeks to appeal to all of those people is just as credible as one which seeks to win over Tory voters, and is one in which allows Labour to hold true to its name and to its history.

fails to acknowledge some deeply unpleasant and reactionary points in his political record

Aside from the problematic concepts of electability and electoral credibility, in its endorsement of Andy Burnham and his supposed strengths as a potential leader, the piece ignores or fails to acknowledge some deeply unpleasant and reactionary points in his political record. Despite pontificating about the Tory welfare reform bill, Burnham followed Harriet Harman’s diktat and abstained on the bill, a bill which will slash the welfare budget by £12 billion, pushing the most vulnerable in our society further and further into abject poverty and hardship. Burnham was Health Secretary at the time of the scandal at Mid Staffs where patients were subject to ongoing neglect and abuse and reportedly turned down more than 80 attempts to trigger a public inquiry before the scandal blew up in the media. On LGBT+ issues, Burnham has a homophobic record regarding same sex adoption and IVF for lesbian couples.

(Andy Burnham © Guardian)

Examples such as these are supplemented by the nuance behind the specific policy positions Senior identifies as key progressive policies that are worthy of endorsement. Although it is right in one sense to say that Burnham supports the abolition of tuition fees, in reality, the Higher Education funding model he supports — a Graduate Tax — is nothing short of tuition fees through the back door. Likewise, while Burnham has claimed to support the renationalisation of the railways, he stops short of calling for the taking back of energy or water into public control. Supporting the newly introduced ‘national living wage’ (which of course, is anything but a living wage), for people of all ages, tackling the discriminatory approach to the young in the workplace is a good start, but as the Living Wage Foundation have pointed out, the new minimum wage still does not go far enough in making employment pay the very least that someone would need to live on.

Obviously Corbyn is not perfect.

If I were a member of the Labour Party participating in this leadership election, the culmination of a dodgy political record where homophobia, flip flopping over welfare reform,  at best turning a blind eye to abuse in our healthcare system and at worse trying to cover it up, and a lacklustre manifesto which would do little more than take the roughest edges off the Tory government and the excesses of capitalism, would be enough to make me reject Andy Burnham’s candidacy. A more zealous, radical and hopeful approach would inspire me to vote, and to some extent that has been offered by Jeremy Corbyn.

(Jeremy Corbyn © Guardian)

Obviously Corbyn is not perfect. The approach he proposes to tackling climate change is not sufficient, with his pledge to reopen Britain’s coal mines, a policy which would rely on ineffective technology and lock our energy future into fossil fuels. Corbyn is also a longstanding supporter of homeopathy and its funding by and inclusion in NHS services, in spite of the overwhelming scientific evidence against its effectiveness.

But Corbyn’s platform is without doubt the most progressive of the four contenders for the leadership. Whether it’s his pledge for a National Education Service which recognises the value of lifelong learning as well as the exploitation currently faced by apprentices, or the commitment to bring energy supply back into public ownership to stop the rigged market of the big six energy providers or his plans to scrap Trident nuclear weapons and build a foreign policy based on peacemaking rather than on warmongering, Corbyn has set out a compelling vision for a society that is socially just, that is caring and this is equitable. If we are to say that the leadership election is worth participating in at all, then there is only one candidate worth voting for and that is Jeremy Corbyn.

A vote for any other candidate is a vote for a return to the Miliband years — where there is no effective opposition to Tory misery, there is no clear alternative vision of what our society might look like and there is little chance of vast swathes of people understanding what a vote for Labour will do to improve their lives. With Corbyn you get clarity, you get hope, and you get a positive vision for the first step in the dismantling of the status quo and the establishment of a different world.

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