At the end of this week the Labour Party will begin sending ballot papers to their supporters; well, at least the ones who survive the vetting process of potential ‘infiltrators’. We’ve had several months of heated debate from all factions of the party and some seriously strong comments from ex-party chiefs, and one thing has been brutally clear as this process has gone on. Labour is in serious trouble.
Within a month or so of announcing his bid for election Jeremy Corbyn has erupted from his position as a distant outsider to a firm favourite, with a recent YouGov survey giving him no less than 53% of the vote. Meanwhile, Andy Burnham, who was the bookies favourite since Miliband’s resignation, has slipped into a (very) distant second and seems to be doing little to challenge Corbyn. Yvette Cooper, a close third, seems content to rely on his un-electability to boost her own campaign and Liz Kendall has been too busy fighting off calls to abandon her campaign to do very much of anything. Of course, party divisions are common-place when a leadership election is ongoing, so this shouldn’t be a great cause for concern. However, the nature of this division is somewhat different to those that have come before it and the timing of this particular election is putting many supporters, and MPs alike, on edge. With many in the party still reeling from one of the worst defeats in Labour’s history, some MPs are not so concerned with its immediate political direction but rather its survival. Some question whether the party will be able to maintain its position as the second party through the next couple of decades – some commentators have gone so far as to suggest that Labour may well slip to the position of a fringe party before too long.
The Labour party has always been divided between those with a more progressive neoliberal stance and those to the far left that describe themselves as fiercely socialist so this is nothing new, indeed, every party in British Politics suffers from a similar tug-of-war between traditionalists and progressivists. What is new is the extent to which this has caused upset within Labour; most noticeably in the fruitful language used by many to describe the outcome of a Corbyn victory, Tony Blair foremost amongst them. Chris Leslie (Shadow Chancellor) has said that he would refuse to serve on a Cabinet were it lead by the Islington North MP. So what is it about poor old Jeremy that’s causing such an uproar? Is it his policies with which people draw issue? Or perhaps something more shallow in nature?
The answer is both. Corbyn’s policies read as if they’ve been lifted straight from the party hand-book during their era in opposition. Rather than take a modern, progressive stance such as those championed by the other three remaining candidates, he appears to be reverting to the losing policies of the 1980s whilst taking several steps backwards. They include; nationalisation of the railways and the energy companies, scrapping Trident and reducing our military spending, opposing HS2, abandoning NATO and reversing austerity in favour of allowing the Bank of England to print money. His economic strategy is even denounced by his own party; the aforementioned Chris Leslie said his plans to end austerity would hurt the poor and his strategy would keep the Conservatives in power. As Yvette Cooper rightly said, Labour need to propose new solutions to today’s problems, not give old answers to old questions.
Corbyn himself is another cause for concern. His personal views certainly don’t follow the status quo and several of them could create some real upset. Although he has made no suggestion that he would try to implement them should he be elected, they are nevertheless in the public domain. Firstly, he holds that Ireland should become a United Republic by abandoning Northern Ireland despite a recent Belfast Telegraph poll suggesting that less than 30% of Northern Irish desire such a union. Secondly, he wishes for the UK to become a Republic, thus removing the Monarchy (and the tourism income that comes with it one would assume), abolishing the House of Lords and electing a president. Finally, in 2013 he attributed the chaos in the Ukraine to NATO and he said that “the root of the crisis” lay with the US. Then there is the more shallow, yet not unremarkable criticisms of Corbyn.
Unfortunately, as time progresses our society appears to be becoming ever more vain and shallow in its outlook, and appearance and likability have become increasingly important in politics (think of pint-in-hand Farage and Nice Nick Clegg). Whilst such factors should not influence politics it is undeniable that they do and Corbyn could end up being the least electable Labour leader since, well, Ed Miliband. He is teetotal, a vegetarian and recently turned 66 years old. By the time the next General Election comes around he will be preparing for his 71st birthday and doubtless still wearing the off-white cotton shirts and vests to boot. If his policies weren’t enough to put the electorate off I’m sure his distinct Grandad vibe would be. Is there an alternative? Unfortunately it seems unlikely.
Cooper, Kendall and Burnham run the risk of falling into the age old trap of focusing on their opposition’s campaign rather than their own. Equally, the more critics speak out about Corbyn, the stronger he gets; especially when the likes of Tony Blair, who is hated by many at the left of his party, are the ones denouncing him. If one or even two of the other candidates were to drop out of the race and declare support for the other, they may have stood a chance of beating him but the opportunity to do so has long past and Kendall fiercely fought against such calls earlier in her campaign.
Of course, under the Alternative Vote system there is a chance that Corbyn won’t receive 50% of the vote, leading to a redistribution of 2nd and maybe even 3rd and 4th place votes giving an underdog the lead. However, the growing popularity of the favourite, and recent opinion polls would suggest this is unlikely, so it looks as if Labour will be stuck with him.
Should he be elected as leader next month I do not doubt that there would be a sudden surge of energy as he rides on the wave of ‘change’ with promises of exciting new times for his party, there may even be a revival in party membership as we’ve seen these last few weeks. He may even maintain that energy until 2020, but my prediction is that he would go into a General Election having failed to improve his parties credibility and failed to bring the whole of his party behind him. Another dismal election performance ensues, the Conservatives continue their reign of austerity for another 5 years ever increasing their accountability and credibility until Labour eventually makes the right-ward shift it’s needed all along. But will it be too late? I suspect so.
Having said that, we have learnt 2 very important lessons from recent years in politics:
- Never trust an opinion poll.
- When it comes to Labour and the AV electoral system anything can happen.
Only time will tell.