Why Labour must move to political centre if Tories lurch to right under Boris Johnson – Andrew Vine

A VETERAN Labour activist surprised me this week by expressing admiration for Boris Johnson. Strange sentiments indeed from a man who’s pounded the pavements of Yorkshire come rain or shine for his party these past 40 years, delivering leaflets and campaigning to put Labour candidates into Parliament and council seats.

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But he’s rooting for the favourite as Prime Minister as fervently as the most ardent Tory Brexiteer. “He’s brilliant, is Boris,” he said. “Looks like a winner to me, and I hope he gets it.” He laughed when my eyebrows shot up in astonishment at hearing that and elaborated. “It would be the best thing to happen for Labour for years. He’s a gift to us.”

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He isn’t alone in thinking this. His friends and fellow Labour members are quietly gleeful at the prospect of Prime Minister Johnson, believing that his hardline views on Brexit would be so off-putting to vast numbers of floating voters at a general election that it could nudge their party over the line to victory.

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And looking at a lot of Yorkshire constituencies to which Mr Johnson’s London-centric views and track record are almost as alien as those of a politician from overseas, they might just be right. The likely next Prime Minister as Labour’s secret weapon? Now there’s a thought to give the Conservative members deciding between Mr Johnson and Jeremy Hunt sleepless nights over who they choose.

Oddly for the official Opposition, Labour has rather faded into the background, the spotlight of public attention hogged by the soap opera of betrayals, rivalries and division that the Conservatives have become. Much of the party’s hard work is being done for it by the Government as it tears itself apart. There is an end-of-days air about the Tories, akin to the decline under John Major in the run-up to the 1997 Labour landslide.

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Irrespective of who becomes the next leader, this feels like a party that has run out of steam and ideas, exhausted by Brexit and what look like the climactic battles of a 30-year civil war over Europe, clinging to power rather than governing, and in need of a comprehensive rethink and reinvention.

Little wonder my activist friend is rubbing his hands in anticipation of an election he is more than ever convinced that Labour can win when it comes.

But if it is to do so, Labour cannot afford to simply sit back and wait for the Tories to implode, or rely on Boris Johnson alienating voters. It needs to have its own long, hard look at itself – and that should include a change of leadership.

The party has Jeremy Corbyn to thank for his engagement and mobilisation of young voters, but equally it needs to have serious concerns about the direction he has taken.

The ugly stain of anti-Semitism has appeared on his watch, and under him, Brexit policy has been a shambles. Even as the Tories descended into infighting, Mr Corbyn failed to set out a coherent alternative.

Despite the urgings of senior lieutenants, including deputy leader Tom Watson and shadow chancellor John McDonnell, he has failed to commit Labour to holding a second referendum on leaving the EU.

And the laudable attempts to break the Parliamentary deadlock over Brexit have come not from him, but from Labour backbenchers who have formed pragmatic cross-party alliances.

Nor must it be forgotten that Mr Corbyn has already lost one general election. Despite the euphoria of 2017, the party under his leadership came nowhere near winning power, despite being up against a Government already in disarray led by a weak, vacillating Prime Minister who conducted a disastrous campaign.

The hard-left policies on offer were simply too much for voters to stomach. Add that to lingering concerns about his commitment to Britain’s security and the moderate voters Labour needs to attract to win power stayed away. And they will again, even if Boris Johnson is Prime Minister and they can’t stomach him either.

If the local and European elections last month showed us anything apart from Conservative meltdown and a protest vote for the single-issue Brexit Party, they demonstrated a growing yearning for moderate centre-left policies.

It wasn’t Labour picking up new supporters, but the Lib Dems and Greens. If Labour is to win the next general election, it needs to muscle in on their territory with a return to the centre ground.

If it did, it could breeze back to power, and there is plainly an appetite within the Parliamentary party for change, as shown by Tom Watson’s grouping of centrist MPs which is seen as a necessary counterbalance to the leftists who are Mr Corbyn’s power base.

The Labour leadership’s repudiation of the electoral success of the Tony Blair years makes even less sense now than it ever did as the Tories march remorselessly to the right and alienate voters of moderate views.

All the people who gave Mr Blair three resounding election victories are still out there and looking for a party that reflects their values, and Labour under Mr Corbyn doesn’t.

But Labour could win them back. The benches behind Mr Corbyn are full of MPs of sensible, mainstream views who would appeal to a mass of voters.

Think of the cohort of Yorkshire Labour MPs – and this is not a comprehensive list – people such as Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn, Dan Jarvis, Diana Johnson, Caroline Flint and Rachel Reeves. Think Ed Miliband, with his priceless experience of leading the Opposition, to offer counsel on taking the fight to the Tories.

Labour has the talent to win and govern well. All it needs is the courage to re-occupy the centre ground that the Tories under Boris Johnson would abandon.

Read Andrew Vine in The Yorkshire Post every Tuesday.