Apart from one piece shortly after the election I have resisted blogging about Britain’s Labour Party after Ed Miliband’s departure as leader. It felt too much like displacement activity from confronting the predicament of the Liberal Democrats, to say nothing of a depressing turn of world events. I am glad I did so. Because I had not foreseen the turn that the leadership election has just taken.
To start with there seemed be just three serious contenders: Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. They all stuck to a standard Westminster narrative that Labour needs to move to right to draw back voters that they had lost to Ukip and the Conservatives. These, it was thought, were put off by Labour’s perceived softness on austerity policies. Ms Kendall attracted real momentum amongst the small circle of media commentators because she proposed a sharper move rightwards than the other two. And she was a fresh face, untainted by the the years of Brown and Blair. But neither of the other candidates was exactly left-wing, though Mr Burnham tried to nuance is message a bit to the left to draw in leftist support.
But as nominations closed a fourth candidate was let in: Jeremy Corbyn, a paid up metropolitan leftist who used to be a trade union organiser, before starting a long parliamentary career in 1983 representing Islington North – and whose views have no moved on since. Some Labour MPs nominated him apparently to liven things up a bit rather than because they actually wanted him as leader. There was a precedent for this. Another left-winger, Diane Abbott, was “lent” nominations by other candidates, embarrassed that the field otherwise consisted of white male ex-ministers. Ms Abbott lived up to her token status and did not get very far. No doubt MPs thought the same would happen to Mr Corbyn.
This has turned out not to be the case. Mr Corbyn quickly attracted nominations from many constituency parties, as well as the support of the vast Unite union. A private poll has reportedly shown him actually leading first preference votes at 33%; the same poll showed Ms Kendal nowhere at 4%. Quite why Mr Corbyn proved a more effective candidate than Ms Abbott I cannot say. Ms Abbott is an engaging, intelligent and colourful individual. It may simply reflect the mediocrity of the other candidates. Perhaps it’s good old fashion sex and race bias (the male candidates were well ahead). Maybe Labour grassroots supporters have moved to the left. No matter, Mr Corbyn is free from the conventions and coded messaging of normal Westminster politics, and speaks his mind more clearly than the other candidates, giving him the prize of “authenticity”. And he is unambiguously of the left – attacking austerity, promoting free university tuition, and so on. His appeal to Labour activists and trade unionists is not hard to see. At last somebody is articulating what they are thinking.
Labour’s opponents amongst the Westminster elite can hardly contain their glee at this turn of events. Mr Corbyn is regarded by them as unelectable. Some are urging Tory supporters to join Labour temporarily to vote for him. They may be right about his electability, but that would be to underestimate the significance of this turn of events. The Labour leadership contest has been turned into a real battle of ideas.
This is unusual in such contests. Usually contenders are mindful of the need to unite the party after their election, and so they tend to deal in coded messages. The recent Lib Dem leadership contest was like that. And that was the case with the contest before Mr Corbyn entered it, apart from Ms Kendall, perhaps. This poses a challenge for the middle of the road candidates, Mr Burnham and Ms Cooper. Do they sharpen up their act and challenge the fantasies upon which Mr Corbyn’s campaign is based? Or do they give Labour members another helping of fudge, hoping to pick up second preference votes of left-leaning members?
If it is the former, it could be good for the party. Unity is prized too much by party leaders; sometimes it is important to have big row and trample over people’s sensitivities. Otherwise conflict is not properly resolved and breaks out at a much less convenient point. This is something that Tony Blair understood very well in the 1990s. He had an easy victory in the leadership contest, but he then took the trouble of rubbing the leftists’ noses in it by changing Clause 4 of the party constitution. Mr Miliband’s focus on party unity simply left lack of clarity and muddle. The Labour leadership contest has a while to run yet. This gives party members plenty of time for the cold hard logic of a move to the political centre to sink in and elect Mr Burnham (still considered the front-runner) or Ms Cooper (for my money a much better choice); but the leftists will at least have had their moment of glory and been beaten in a fair fight.
But there are risks. If Mr Burnham or Ms Cooper wins by means of artful fudging, rather than challenging the left, they will be stuck in the same mire than Mr Miliband left the party in. They will then need to take on the left in some symbolic fight on a policy issue; they may well not have the courage to do so. And it might risk a fatal split.
Or Mr Corbyn might actually win. With a tiny power base in the parliamentary party, and no experience as a front line politician, this is not likely to go well. He might well turn out to be an Iain Duncan Smith or a Ming Campbell, leaders (Conservative and Lib Dem respectively) who were forced out because they couldn’t take the pace. Or else there might be a split in the party and the more “moderate” elements form their own centre party, seeking an alliance with the Lib Dems.
All this looks very good for the Conservatives. There seems to be a hollowness at the heart of Labour, which makes it very hard to bind together the pragmatic wing of the party with the left wing ideologues who provide the footsoldiers, and, through the trade unions, much of its funding. This is leaving the current Tory creed of economic liberalism without any serious opposition, unless you count the vacuous anger of the left. A landslide win in 2020 beckons.
Of course I believe that there is an alternative political and economic narrative that can offer a credible challenge to this conventional wisdom. The Liberal Democrats are closest to understanding it. The Greens are likely to take it up once somebody else starts to promote it. But almost nobody in the Labour Party is looking for it, as they furiously debate a false choice between economic liberalism and death by tax and bureaucracy.