For an established political party, every defeat is painful. But some defeats hurt more than others: surprise losses are the worst. Labour expected defeat in 2010, but the idea that it wouldn’t at least improve its position in 2015 seemed all but impossible. And yet within hours of the close of polls in May, commentators (even so called ‘left wing’ ones) were rushing to write off the party’s chances in 2020.
Labour’s prospects do look bleak. The obliteration of the party in Scotland; Conservative plans to gerrymander by cutting the number of MPs to 600 (a number which happens to return the greatest proportion of Tory MPs); and now the financial devastation of the party threatened by the Trade Union Bill means only a groundswell in energy and support can get the party over the line at the next election.
But a more nuanced view of the party’s position is needed. In England it made a decent series of gains in marginal constituencies: were it not for losses in Scotland, Labour would have made a net gain of around 15 seats. The left is more united: Liberal Democrats are no longer in a position to divide the left in the costly way they have done for the past 30 years, whilst any seats lost to the SNP still have MPs that will support a Labour government and oppose a Conservative one. Moreover, it must be remembered that, for all the hype, the best the Conservatives have been able to manage is a majority thinner and weaker than that of the Major government of the 1990s.
As soon as the leadership election was called, three schools of thought emerged in the Labour Party about the best direction to take.
The first is that Miliband frightened off voters by moving the party to more traditionally left-wing positions. The key to electoral success is to make the party ‘credible’ with voters, mirroring Labour’s evolution in the 1990s. The theory is that by committing to iron discipline on spending and fiscal policy and prioritising the interests of business and the middle classes, Labour can convince voters that it is mature enough to govern once more. These ideas are espoused most vocally by leadership candidate Liz Kendall (presently trailing very badly in the race) but carry a lot of influence, particularly amongst older Labour MPs.
The second is that Miliband hit on broadly the right ideas: his moderate brand of social democracy balances the interests of different sections of society. And it’s true, the policy platform Labour fought on in May was a very strong one that was very popular. Proponents of this argument say that the perceived weakness of Miliband as a person coupled with the unchallenged ‘Labour overspending ruined the economy line’ put voters off an otherwise sound offer. This is the majority view within the party, one Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are broadly aligned with.
The third school at first looked very marginalised, and appeared to have no advocate within the race until Corbyn scraped together enough nominations from MPs to enter. That is that Labour’s offer was too uninspiring and offered little help to the young, the poor and the disaffected. An offer that promised more austerity, tweaks to the market and only gestures at ending inequality. Labour recognised the anger and pain that much of the country is feeling, but chose to position itself within the Establishment. Thus angry people went in their droves over to the SNP, to UKIP or, in most cases, didn’t bother to vote at all.
When Corbyn entered, everybody assumed that he would represent the fringe. Like other hard left candidates before him, he’d make a bit of noise and provide an outlet for angry members. If he was lucky, he’d win a little over 10% of the vote before falling back into obscurity.
Now Corbyn has a decent chance of winning.
It’s true that Labour’s centre of gravity has shifted since 2010. There has been a huge influx of new people at every level, from MPs to humble members, who have high hopes for the progress a Labour government could bring. The domination of the the party by Blairites and Brownites has ended, with both factions reduced to a rump of right-wingers and technocrats whose relevance diminishes by the day. True, some of the new blood of the party lies on its right, such as Chuka Umunna or Wes Streeting, but they are more ideologically flexible than true Blairites.
But in fact, thinking in terms of different wings and factions will only get us so far because these aren’t so important in this vote. This election is about hope.
Burnham entered the election as the heir apparent, poised to win on enthusiastic support from the grassroots, impressed with his performance as Shadow Health Secretary, and MPs, confident in him as an electoral asset. However he made the tactical error of responding to attacks on him as the ‘trade union’, ‘left’ or ‘continuity Miliband’ candidate by abruptly distancing himself from those labels. He joined bandwagons attacking the previous leader as ‘anti business’, he declared his support for the benefits cap and further spending cuts. By doing so he disappointed so many within and outside the party who want Labour to stand for meaningful change. By doing so he turned into a ‘vanilla’ candidate. By doing so he created the space for Corbyn.
The reason that Kendall’s campaign has collapsed is that she can offer activists and MPs nothing more to hope for than going into the next election fighting for a continuation of the Conservatives’ agenda. Even if that resonates with voters (it won’t- the Conservatives are more convincing conservatives than Labour and always will be) then what will the prize? Nothing will really change, just the seating arrangement in the House of Commons.
The thinking of many Labour members is that we lost two elections when we weren’t really fighting for what we believed in, so what would be the point of a third? Labour is running out of time: this time it lost Scotland, next time its heartlands in Wales and the north of England could fall if it doesn’t resolve what is becoming an existential crisis.
Jeremy Corbyn is an electoral risk. He is more left wing than I am on many issues, such as defence- and I know I hardly represent the moderate, cautious centreground! Political orthodoxy screams at us that Thatcherism can win votes but socialism does not. That’s why some voices in Labour argue that it would be immature, even cowardly, to elect a ‘right-on’ leader who may not impress voters. The tiresome expression is that we must avoid our ‘comfort zone’
I agree. But it’s Labour politicians who must vacate their comfort zone. They must be prepared to stand up and fight for principles and change that the people can believe in. Labour can commit itself to perpetual decline as a softer alternative to the Conservatives, or it can re-engage with its historical mission to stand up for the working people of Britain. That course is a gamble but Labour should try it before people stop listening altogether.