Labour’s leadership campaign has turned into a far more fundamental debate than many would have predicted. The intervention of Jeremy Corbyn – nominated by, among others, a number of MPs who would not under any circumstances vote for him, in order to ensure a genuine debate – has turned what could have been a bland personality contest into something much more significant – a debate about where the Party should go.
Whatever the outcome – and I remain convinced that, even if he leads on first preferences, the electoral system will mean that Corbyn will not win – things will never be the same again. The premise on which Corbyn achieved the nominations was a rather patronising one: give the Left somebody to vote for, create a debate, but none of this would challenge the right of the insider candidates to win and set the agenda. Of course, it hasn’t been like that. The Labour grass-roots – and people outside the Labour Party – have flocked to support Corbyn. A piece in the Observer has described Corbyn as having a “rock-star appeal”; not an accolade one might have predicted at the start of this campaign.
Where does this leave the Labour Party when the new leader takes over?
First, the new leader will have to understand that there is no such thing as business as usual; the Corbyn candidacy has provided the catalyst for an outpouring of deep frustration among those who do the heavy lifting of Labour politics – especially with the way in which Labour’s Westminster elite has failed to establish a distinctive Labour framing, and has allowed the Tories to set the terms of the debate on the economy and social security. Faced with three Westminster insiders whose reaction to election defeat is, in essence, to recoil from challenging the need for an alternative economic approach the Labour grassroots – and many of those who have walked away from Labour over the years – have said that enough is enough. It means above all that in order to keep the Party together – and to allow the Party to make the most of the enthusiasm that the Corbyn candidacy has generated among the young in partiuclar – whoever is elected is going to have to lead the reframing of its economic policy, to argue for an end to austerity and for the nuanced, grounded alternative that was hinted at in the Miliband years but never really made explicit. And in doing so, it is going to have to understand aspects of what Blair and Brown did before: first, that it is possible to challenge the Tories on economic competence, as Gordon Brown did so brilliantly in the years before 1997, but also – crucially – that Osborne’s policies will hit the middle class as well as the poor, and that Labour should be prepared to exploit that. The genius of early Blair is that Labour wooed middle-class support not by adopting Tory framing, but by showing that natural Tory voters had more to gain from a Labour government than a Tory one palpably failing to manage the economy; and that redistribution is most easily achieved when the economy is growing, with everyone benefitting from a share of a larger national cake.
Second, Labour is going to have to understand that its future lies outside the Westminster bubble. The Corbyn campaign is an insurgency – it’s about a candidate who acts as a catalyst for the experience of people outside Westminster. There is a huge irony that three mainstream candidates – all former special advisers, all ultimate insiders – have talked about the Party moving out of its comfort zone, while conceding nothing to the need to move beyond the biggest comfort zone of all; the cosy embrace of Westminster (interestingly, Deputy Leadership candidates like Stella Creasy and Tom Watson seem to get this in a way the three mainstream leadership candidates just don’t). The new leader needs to understand that the Corbyn surge is not a vote for a decent, long-standing campaigning individual, but a cry that enough is enough. Labour’s recent decision to abstain on the Welfare Bill may have been justified in terms of Parliamentary tactics, but to those outside dealing with the devastating effect that this will have – most of all on the “hard working families” invoked so frequently in political debate – it just looks like muddle and spinelessness. A new Labour leader is going to have to do so, so much better than that.
Third, the leadership will have to acknowledge that, for all its real electoral and political achievements, Blairism is a phenomenon that belongs to the past. It’s not just that Blair’s personal intervention in the election was short on argument, long on patronising abuse: the circumstances that allowed Blair to lead Labour to victory have changed, and a different analysis is needed. It’s ironic that the self-appointed heirs of Blair have not only apparently abandoned the sophisticated and approach to strategy that made Labour electable before 1997, but, in their relentless negativity and focus on the deficit, have, as Zoe Williams has argued, abandoned a key aspect of Blair’s success – his unstoppable optimism. It’s the Corbyn campaign that looks ambitious, optimistic and forward-looking.
Fourth – and related to that – this election represents a humiliating and decisive defeat for what one might call the Progress tendency within the Labour Party. An incisive piece by John Gaffney, Professor of Politics at Aston University, on the ever-informative LSE blog, argues that Corbyn is ahead because he is the only candidate who is saying anything at all, let alone saying the right things; and it has certainly been the case that the only response from candidates on the right – at least until Andy Burnham’s call for Labour to abandon timidity and recapture the spirit that led to the creation of the NHS – has been abuse. The lack of a seriously argued response to Corbyn has been striking – it’s a symptom of a deep intellectual weakness, and an inability to grasp why people are enthused by the Corbyn candidacy. Its contribution has been essentially negative: attacking Labour’s past record and offering vague comments about aspiration and winning Tory votes, without providing the hard evidence to support them. Denying the authenticity of the Corbyn phenomenon and putting it all down to “entryism” is a feeble and self-defeating response, one that reeks of the Westminster bubble and appears to find little response among local Labour parties.
Fifth, the Corbyn surge represents a huge challenge for the wider Left, outside the Labour Party. That includes those parties like the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party who have claimed to be anti-austerity, and those of no party at all. The unique genius of Labour has been to forge a coalition between idealism and practicality; the ability to articulate a radical agenda while delivering in office. Its unique combination of socialists, social democrats, Fabian managerialists and trade unionists has, for all its internal tensions, at its best delivered real reform in a way that no other political party has managed. Recent events in Greece have read a powerful lesson to Britain’s Syriza enthusiasts about delivery. And a re-energised Labour Party throws down a huge challenge to the anti-austerity parties: whether to the SNP, which is not really anti-austerity at all; to Plaid Cymru, a party already in decline which lost nearly a fifth of its share of the vote in the 2015 election; or to the Green Party, which is all about grandstanding and whose one attempt at Government – running Brighton and Hove City Council – was an abject and humiliating failure. But the idealism – among young people in particular – that leads people to support those parties can regenerate Labour; it’s astonishing to hear the claims of entryism when Labour is, for the first time in a generation, really inspiring young people to get involved in politics. Caroline Lucas says her party wants to make Labour better; but her party on the ground, as anyone who opposes them knows, defines itself by its hostility to Labour. Are those grass roots willing to accept the challenges of delivering Government rather than protest? Are they willing to undertake the heavy lifting and compromise of government, as distinct from placard-waving?
The task for the new leader, then, is a serious and crucial one. It is about a decision – whether to harness the idealism, the enthusiasm and the optimism which has led to the Corbyn surge, or continue timidly to echo Tory framing on economics in general and on welfare and the deficit in particular. The first is a high-risk strategy but may well tune into and help to lead a real change in mood; the latter, it seems to me, will simply lead to the PASOK-ification of Labour, a steady decline as Labour has increasingly little to offer to people opposed to the Tories. Labour can only prosper if it understands, and acts on, the factors that have created the Corbyn surge.