The Labour Party are currently holding their leadership election following the resignation of Ed Miliband after he lost the general election in May. The four candidates are Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Jeremy Corbyn, the last being the only left-wing candidate who has been widely ridiculed as a throwback to the early 80s and a certain election loser. Meanwhile, the others are being condemned as closet Tories at worst and uninspiring Blairite functionaries at best. As Corbyn is deemed the most likely candidate to lose the 2020 election, there has been a campaign to encourage Tories to join the party as “supporters” so as to get a vote in the leadership election. That the party’s rules allow this is pretty stupid; most parties (including, for example, the Tories at the time David Cameron was elected leader) do not allow new members to vote.
One of the themes that has been constantly repeated in the criticism of Corbyn and his supporters is that he represents a retreat to idealism, to the ‘freedom’ of being a principled opposition rather than having to make compromises to win and keep power, and a “delusion” that the party lost because it was not left-wing enough. Examples include Saturday’s piece in the Guardian by Jonathan Freedland, in which he claims that the Corbyn ‘tribe’ cares about “identity, not power” and about being true to themselves; Andrew Rawnsley in Sunday’s Observer suggests that the current debate reflects a party which has already resigned itself to losing the next election. Much as in the coverage of Lib Dem party members who opposed their MPs’ caving-in to the Tories’ coalition demands in the last parliament, we have the same language of maturity and of ‘sensible’, ‘realistic’ compromises versus ‘protest’ — a dirty word — and opposition. Freedland even talks of Blair and others who “tried to sit the kids down” and persuade them that Corbyn will never get elected.
Both raise the spectre of the 1980s, with Rawnsley opining that although 1983 was “a mathematically more severe defeat, in some ways Labour’s predicament is worse today”. How is it? In the 1980s Labour faced an infiltration from Militant; there is no such threat today; Militant are a spent force even on the hard left and even Socialist Worker are a shadow of what they were in 2005, let alone the 1980s, as a result of the rape scandal. There are still a few Marxists knocking around, but they are not regarded as the threat that they once were because the USSR no longer exists and cannot fund Marxist entryist groups abroad. So, the press can throw around a few insults but they cannot make left-wingers in the Labour party out to be a threat as they could in the 1980s; and as nobody under 40 remembers the early 1980s (or anything of the Cold War) anyway, the insults have much less resonance than they used to. The world is a totally different place, and it is not Corbyn’s supporters who are living in the past.
Rawnsley accuses Miliband of taking the party to the left “on the basis that the party’s 13 years in office were essentially a terrible mistake” while conceding that Blairites are “not being more vigorous or persuasive in defending their record”. But that’s the whole point. The Blairites have not learned the lessons of the mistakes of Blair’s time in office and in some cases regard them as Blair’s good points. Thatcher and Major fought two wars between them, both of which were popular and generally considered to be just wars. Blair (and Brown) also fought two, both of them (Iraq in particular) unpopular affairs which dragged on for years and did not achieve much. Blair scraped a win in the 2005 election, having won a landslide in 1997 and a respectable majority in 2001. The tendency to centralise everything and to slap down local leaders who make too much noise was already in evidence in the mid-1990s, and is what lost the confidence of Scottish voters in Labour (and in turn, costing the confidence of many English ones).
But by far the biggest New Labour flaw is its timidity, which is what led us into the Iraq war and into accepting humiliations like the 2003 extradition treaty, and it is really what stops the supposed Blairites from defending Blair’s own legacy. Let’s remember that when Blair was in office, there was no serious criticism of his and Brown’s handling of the economy except from people who were regarded as cranks. (The New Statesman carried adverts for books like Gordon is a Moron which predicted a dire economic future, but I don’t recall these books ever getting a review.) It’s generally understood that the deregulation of the banking industry both here and in the USA is what led to the failures of major banks that led to the 2008 crash or “credit crunch”, but despite a change of government, there has been no move to seriously reform the finance industry to prevent another crash. Now, we hear supporters of Liz Kendall, as on the BBC Breakfast programme the other day, claim that Labour have to convince the public that they can be trusted with the economy, which means going along with every ideological Tory benefit ‘reform’ and never challenging the lie, repeated so often in the media that people assume it is true, that Blair and Brown governed as socialist spendthrifts.
The neo-Blairites are very inventive in thinking for reasons why Labour supporters might want a leader who stands for social justice rather than just getting into power. It must be about purity, or identity, or about reducing one’s role in evil rather than reducing evil (which requires power, and thus compromise). Labour supporters usually did not join the party to change the colour of the government or to put some particular individual in office for its own sake. Red does not equal socialism. In the USA a “red state” is one that voted for Bush and then McCain, and in China the ruling party calls itself Communist (and flies a red flag) but implements capitalism, albeit in some respects state capitalism. They joined the party to fight for social justice, for people to have an opportunity to better themselves, for workers’ rights, for better education and healthcare. With three of the four current leadership candidates, people see these things slipping further out of reach as they refuse to defend even their former leader’s legacy and oppose Tory plans to shrink the state. The best we can hope for from them is that they will mind the shop for the Tories when they are down, maybe for ten or fifteen years or so, until the Tories regroup, as they did in the last term of Blair and Brown’s government. And it’s not much to hope for.
It could be true that Corbyn is unelectable. It could be that by 2020, the Tories might be discredited enough for any donkey with a red ribbon to win the election; this is, after all, why governments usually change (those elections in the 1980s were not only Labour losses; the Tories won, because enough people were satisfied with them — something critics of Labour so often fail to take account of). But if the so-called modernisers (who aren’t really all that modern, as Paul Bernal notes) fear Corbyn, they had better start offering a serious alternative. Much like the Liberal Democrats, they need to stop blaming voters and start looking at what they are doing wrong. They may win back a few extra votes in Middle England now, but their supporter base is drifting off in favour of disaffection or UKIP.
Image credit: “The People’s Assembly National Demonstration Jeremy Corbyn MP 21 June 2014 124” by DAVID HOLT from London, England - The People’s Assembly National Demonstration Jeremy Corbyn MP 21 June 2014 124. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
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