During the first televised Labour leadership hustings featuring Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendal and Jeremy Corbyn, a trend emerged. As panellists answered a broad range of questions from voters who had self-identified as sympathetic to Labour, we began to learn more about how each contender would lead the party.
One audience member provided the perfect example. A middle-aged man sat in the first row stated his concern for the future of the country, expressing his worry that we are ‘letting people in despite public services such as the police and NHS being at rock bottom’, following his statement by outlining how ‘he wasn’t racist but being sensible’.
Corbyn answered first, defending how immigration has benefited the NHS, transport and education; taking a combative approach against the audience member and the premise of his statement. An approach that received widespread applause from the audience. Burnham then interjected to suggest that as a country we had failed to train enough young people to fill available roles in the NHS and had failed to provide the technical education that was needed and more should be done to reduce the need for migrant workers in the NHS.
Yvette Cooper sided with the audience member’s suggestion that we should aim for controlled immigration and took a rather all things to all people approach. Arguing that we needed more support for areas with high levels of immigration, more technical education for services such as the NHS whilst recognising the benefits immigration has brought to the UK. Liz Kendal was not provided an opportunity to answer the question.
The contenders answer to this question, and other answers throughout the debate summarised Labours approach to policy over the last decade. An approach based around following public feeling rather than shaping it. When confronted by an angry audience member with widely held, but not necessarily accurate views, those candidates with extensive cabinet experience such as Burnham and Cooper, took a similar approach to each other.
Their approach, like many politicians, revolves around placating the audience member, justifying their not so justifiable views and then working their way down a list of soundbite policy suggestions. An approach which helps to foster unsavoury views rather than demolish them whilst giving the public no real indication of what politicians believe.
Policies and party positions have been dictated by the extensive use of focus groups. Small groups of people, handpicked to be representative of the population and used as a sounding board for ideas. Gordon Brown was a huge fan of the focus group, frequently testing policies on select groups of voters before going public with them.
Here lies the problem. By attempting to side with populist positions, rather than sticking by principles, by justifying unsavoury views rather than confronting them, you no longer set the agenda; you end up trying to catch up to public opinion rather than shape it.
Corbyns’ willingness to stand by principles and openly oppose those he does not agree with stands against the recent tendencies of Labour. Though not all his views are popular, there might be a lot leadership contenders and the party as a whole could learn from his style. Less of the focus groups and more of the meaningful principles. The Conservatives over the past couple of elections, have managed to set to agenda of politics, decided what topics are the battle grounds and have shaped public opinion, rather than follow it and it’s been paying off.