30 July 2015

Labour in Vain

by J R Thomas

In another article in this week’s Shaw Sheet, we look at the exciting world of opera in modern Britain. Followers of politics in the UK may be under the impression that they are watching a live opera, albeit without the singing (so far), as the Labour Party leadership contest moves across the stage with increasingly dramatic flourishes. The party seems to have a liking for exciting productions when it comes to selecting leaders. In 2007 the dark, scowling young pretender overthrew the handsome older (oh, alright, younger) King to seize the throne, only to find his new Kingdom slip away from him. Then in 2010, in a classic tale of fratricide, two formerly loving brothers fought for the crown, with dire results for the winner. And now, in a new production, a tale of civil war among the gods as former friends stalk the land hurling thunderbolts and threats.

To understand what is going on, we probably need to step back a little, to the day after the election on 8th May. Ed Miliband, the then leader, shocked by Labour’s unexpected and “overwhelming” defeat and facing a flood of criticism, immediately resigned and left for a vacation in Ibiza.

When the smoke obscuring the events of May 2015 finally blows away (and that may well take a few years) and Mr Miliband can be reassessed as leader, there may well be a different view taken of his time at the helm of his party: firstly, that the Labour defeat was not particularly overwhelming – the party has suffered much greater defeats in the past, not least the 1983 election when led by Michael Foot (we will come back to him). What was most shocking for Labour was its almost total wipe-out in its former heartland of Scotland, reduced to one seat by the Scots-Nats. In England Labour actually did quite well, advancing its position in London and holding on in many Northern and Midland seats. Secondly, that actually Mr Miliband was quite a skilled leader, holding his fractious political movement together, avoiding internal dissent by increasingly polished and firm leadership and growing considerably in stature and confidence during the election campaign. Any leader of a modern political party needs a strong chin to take the endless insults of modern media, and Ed was robust in this; but one suspects that he and indeed Nick Clegg over at the Lib-Dems had both had enough of this modern form of torture and were relieved to retire immediately from the fray.

But by that, Mr Miliband did the Labour Party no favours. By going so quickly, he prevented any period of calm reflection, any thoughtful analysis of what had actually gone on at the polls that May day and any regrouping and discussion as to how the party should move forward. The Labour veteran minister Harriet Harman, deputy party leader, took temporary charge (also announcing that she would not stand for either the leadership or deputy leadership). Even under her calm authority, the need to immediately find another leader descended into a sort of hysteria, with much intrigue and manoeuvre. Candidates approached and withdrew. Candidates threw their hats into the ring, then promptly retrieved them and left. By the time formal proceedings got underway there were three shadow ministers jostling for the job – and a little known backbencher of mature years.

Galloping through the list, Andy Burnham, a former Blairite who has tacked considerably to the left, might be characterised as the establishment candidate and original front runner. He is polished and personally well-regarded, though his repositioning politically has raised some suspicion from both the left and what are remains of the Blairites. Yvette Cooper was the main threat to Burnham; another skilful political operator, well regarded at Westminster, energetic and intelligent, and of an encompassing centre-left ideology. Liz Kendall is less well known and a Blairite, which is not a strong starting position in current Labour politics; she was clearly the outsider candidate. Though not as outside as Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran left winger, an energetic supporter of left wing causes and a long serving London MP. He only scrambled onto to the ballot list at all because there was a sort of nominations whip-round amongst Labour M.P’s to ensure a left wing candidate was on the list to “broaden the debate”. Some of those who nominated him are openly regretting their choice now.

For, astonishing though it may seem, the current front runner by a very large margin is Mr Corbyn, the man from Islington North. The debate has indeed been broadened. The reasons for Mr Corbyn’s surge to the top of the list are not hard to find. He immediately became the union’s chosen candidate, especially Len McCluskey’s Unite, the largest and richest trade union in the country, divorcing Andy Burnham from what he expected to be a key component of his support. Corbyn, as well as being ideologically to the taste of many trade union leaders, is a former trade union activist and is personally close to many of the current generation of leaders.

To the pure in heart, Corbyn is also appealing. It is clear what he believes – ending the nuclear deterrent, more taxes on the rich, more expenditure on social services and help for the poor, more controls over private enterprise, abolition of private education and moving Britain towards becoming a republic. For the old left and many of the new that ideological purity is very true to Labour’s founding principles and it strikes a deep chord. And it is a life Mr Corbyn has lived and preached throughout all his political career. His opponents and detractors point to the terrible example of Michael Foot’s defeat (by Mrs Thatcher, no less) in 1983. But leftist politicians would often prefer to loose and remain pure of soul than win by trimming their beliefs. And Mr Corbyn has a certain appeal against politicians who look as though they were put through a grooming course for media acceptability of appearance. He is bearded, chilled, informal, witty, almost a jolly grandfather; a genuine man of passion and tested belief. In the Labour Party as it is at the moment he is a breath of fresh air.

There is a long time to go yet. The election itself is not until 10th September, and much will undoubtedly happen in the meantime. Mr Corbyn may well have peaked too soon and at some point one suspects that he will be attacked in places that he could be expected to be weak: his competence administratively, given that he has never held a ministerial job; his approach to recovering Labour’s position in Scotland (he is very London-centric); and as to how he will form effective working relationships within the parliamentary party which is ideologically very remote from him (remember that he could not get enough nominations to even put his candidature forward without some selfless help from ideological opponents).

At the moment the contest has moved into some remarkable mud slinging, with the latest suggestion from unknown “sources high up in the Party” that if Mr Corbyn wins there will be a parliamentary party revolution within days to eject him as leader. Nobody has yet set out what would then happen, apart from a Conservative Party dancing gleefully, unable to believe its luck.

It is certainly unclear who among his rivals will be able to gain a clear enough advantage to unite the anti-Corbyn vote and storm through. Clearly not Ms Kendall, and things are split pretty evenly between Mr Burnham and Ms Cooper. What should happen is that two candidates should withdraw (customary future place-trading having been done) and move to a straight fight of two.

At the moment, the clever operators are those candidates (step forward Chuka Umunna) who decided to pull out at an early stage. Their reward may come sooner than they expect.


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