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25.11.15

Where is Liam Byrne headed?

Liam Byrne is nothing if not industrious. After a hotly contested by-election, a minister five minutes after becoming an MP. The hard work continued on the opposition front bench, even if he felt too Blairite to be in vogue during the Miliband years. When he might have been expected to back the more Blairite Liz Kendall, he enthusiastically supported Yvette Cooper.

Cooper outperformed Kendall but Byrne’s candidate was left to eat Corbyn’s dust, as a much changed party from the one that Byrne was first elected to represent was created. Back then Byrne was the poster boy for Blair’s ability to win by-elections in the face of impassioned campaigning by parties, the Liberal Democrats and Respect, opposed to the Iraq war. Now Labour has a leader who can seem to be willing Blair toward the Hague.

No defeat or indignity, it appears, deters Byrne. The grafting just persists. He wants to make the best of Corbyn, as he made the best of Blair, Brown and Miliband. But not from the frontbench. No longer does he defend the leadership on all fronts. A big olive branch was, nonetheless, offered in his recent Policy Network speech.

This conciliation was Tony Crosland shaped. In the 1950s, a civil war waged between Bevanites and Gaitskellites. Europe and nuclear deterrence loomed large. As, oddly enough, they did during the convulsions of the 1980s. And they do again now. There must be something about these issues that brings them to renewed prominence at times of heightened Labour flux.

Crosland’s The Future of Socialism sought to cut through these differences by appealing to a shared commitment to equality. What divided Bevanites and Gaitskellites was merely the means; the end of equality united them, argued Crosland.

“I love Jeremy’s passion for tackling inequality,” Byrne insisted at Policy Network. “He is not a Trot. I am not a Tory. We are both Labour.” Reaching beyond the differences, like Crosland sixty years ago, to find the common conviction.

But on the terrain of policy, as oppose to underlying values, Byrne does have disagreements with Corbyn. He doesn’t, for example, like People’s QE. That is certainly a highly unconventional monetary policy tool. But so is QE itself. And it is not clear that QE has worked as effectively as other tools, such as People’s QE, might have.

We should, though, only reach for such extreme medicine in extreme circumstances. John McDonnell – in a speech to Labour party conference so sober that it wouldn’t have been a massive stretch to imagine Ed Balls delivering it – has been clear that these circumstances no longer prevail. Labour is not, therefore, calling for People’s QE to now be deployed but to be added to the Bank of England toolkit and used in sufficiently dire circumstances.

In other words, Byrne was attacking a straw man of McDonnell, whose views on People’s QE have become more nuanced. As he picks at a straw man of New Labour by equating it with neoliberalism in the Guardian.

With the straw man of McDonnell to his left and the straw man of Blair to his right, Byrne seeks to define himself by that most Blairite of methods: triangulation. Using McDonnell and Blair as props in this way, however, leaves Byrne in a place that he has not traditionally been associated with: the soft left.

Byrne titled his Policy Network speech ‘entrepreneurial socialism’, which sounds a lot like the ‘aspirational socialism’ that Andy Burnham spoke about in the 2010 leadership election, as he was beginning a journey from Blairism to soft left. In the Miliband years, the soft left held the commanding heights of the party, while the decision of soft left members to veer further leftwards this summer was integral to Corbyn’s triumph.

The past five years have reminded us what was more widely understood pre-Blair: the hearts and minds of the soft left are the battleground upon which the right and left of Labour contest the party’s direction. Byrne is stepping away from the Blarism that he rode to the Cabinet and seeking to place himself at the centre of this battleground.

In so doing, he recalled many of the core themes of the Miliband years: an emphasis on long-termism over short-termism, with strong Germanic undertones; a strong rejection of the “old rules”, very Milibandite rhetoric; an insistence that a more robust form of equality than equality of opportunity is required; and a hint of Blue Labour with a Pope Benedict quotation.

What Byrne mixed, therefore, was a cocktail of Crosland’s equality, Blair’s triangulation, and Burnham/Miliband’s soft leftism. The real question is what Byrne thinks he gains from serving this. His ceaseless hard work has never been its own reward. It has always served some ambition.

Byrne often has the urgent air of someone keen to impress at a job interview but where he sees himself in five years time is the unanswered question.