To an outsider who has resisted the temptation to put my £3 in and have a punt on the Labour leadership race it is proving high grade spectator sport. A slightly patronising attempt to ‘widen the debate’ from some of Jeremy Corbyn’s nominators, presumably in the hope that the far Left would be put back into its box forever, now looks like one of recent times’ most spectacular own goals.
The policies of the Left have never been sustainable in the UK. Corbyn has a kind of inverted charisma but we should recall that even Attlee’s landslide 145 seat majority in 1945 had all but gone by 1950 – just a five seat majority – and the Conservatives were back in power the following year with a 16 seat margin. But that is not to say they are without a certain allure.
The contrast between the way in which the Labour Party views Tony Blair and the Conservatives view Margaret Thatcher is extraordinary and I think speaks deeply as to the ultimate seriousness of the two Parties. On the face of it their prime ministerial careers were remarkably similar. Both served as Prime Minister for an unusually long period – almost ten years for Blair, more than eleven for Thatcher (only Harold Wilson’s interrupted eight years from 1964-1970 and 1974-1976 coming close since the War). Both had a perfect electoral record – three wins no defeats – unmatched in the 20th/21st century. Both were ultimately pushed out of office not by the electorate but by their own parties, albeit in different ways. And both faced deteriorating relationships with their Chancellors of the Exchequer, the key axis in any government (the closeness of Cameron and Osborne has been a central factor in the stability of the Cameron governments of both colours).
Yet while it would be an exaggeration to say that Thatcher has entirely retained the fanatical adulation that she enjoyed in the years immediately after her downfall among the rank and file of the Tory Party, her memory remains deeply respected within the Party today. The opposite is the case with Blair, whose reputation seems to fall lower with each passing year – ‘the most reviled former Prime Minister of the last century’ as he has been dubbed.
Those of the Left refer to the Blair years as ‘an anomaly’. Yet it is now over forty years (1974) since the Labour Party won a General Election while being led by anyone but Blair. Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Brown, Miliband all failed. (In the same period three different Conservative leaders won elections outright, with only two – Hague and Howard – never being victorious.) In effect the view of the Left is that winning General Elections is an ‘anomaly’ – retaining that slightly nauseating veneer of moral superiority and doctrinal purity is more important than actually being in a positon to implement some of their policies.
Everything about the current leadership election – ignoring the problem of ‘entryism’, a spectacular own goal but not I suspect the decisive factor in Corbyn’s rise by any means – suggests that this remains Labour’s attitude. The Conservatives went through their own brief period in the 1990s and early 2000s when they retreated into the margins of their own comfort zone but it didn’t last. Ultimately the reason the Conservatives are the natural party of Government and Labour the natural party of opposition is that this is the way they view themselves.
And yet … let’s try to look at this from a different angle. Where might Labour regain votes to give itself its next brief period in power? And which of the four leadership candidates is best places to deliver them? One might think that the easiest source of votes in from those who have not voted at all. That was around 34% of the electorate in 2015 – a jolly sight better than the 41% of 2001 but way above the 22% seen as recently as 1992. No fewer than 42% of eligible voters under the age of 25 failed to take the opportunity to vote this year (though in 2005 it was a staggering 62%, showing clearly that it is not true that young people today are more distant from the political process than they were a decade ago).
Which of the fantastic four is most likely to appeal to these non-voters, especially the young ones, and inspire them to engage? Just as Nicola Sturgeon hit a powerful chord with the young voters of Scotland (and the overall 2015 turnout was over 71% north of the Border), so one suspects that Corbyn is in a much stronger position, with his crypto rock star status, than any of the others.
Then we have the Labour defectors to UKIP and the Greens. I’ve never been convinced that UKIP is a ‘right wing’ part in economic terms whatever its social policy might be (I say ‘whatever’ because I have no idea what it actually is – it seems to lay claim to libertarianism while wishing to impose very heavily on lifestyles of which it does not approve): despite the assumptions beforehand, UKIP did much more harm to Labour, taking votes from it in relatively marginal seats, than it did to the Conservatives where its rural brand served generally to reduce embarrassingly large Tory majorities to merely comfortable ones. UKIP seemed to gain in areas where dispossessed people felt that New Labour had abandoned them. Which of the four candidates is most likely to persuade these traditional Labour voters to return to the fold, to make them feel that he or she is in it for their interests? Step up JC.
Much the same goes for the Greens but one social class up. The trendy, rich, slightly guilty middle class socialists who abandoned Labour for largely the same reasons as their northern working class counterparts may well find themselves drawn back if there were a leader who spoke the language of attacking big business, putting the environment at the heart of things, strengthening local ties and so on. Who could offer this best?
What about Scotland? Are Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham sufficiently different from Jim Murphy, the former leader of Labour in Scotland who was washed away alongside all of his colleagues, to take on the (partly but not wholly fictional) mighty image of Ms Sturgeon? Who could rival her ability to fill halls with enthusiastic fans and still have them queueing outside? Not such a tough question perhaps.
And finally, what about all those who are fed up with the spin and gloss of politics and just yearn for someone who says what they mean, mean what they say and present a ‘take me or leave me’ offer to the electorate?
I have no idea what these figures might add up to. But let’s indulge in idle speculation. Let’s say Corbyn inspires an extra 5% of the electorate to turn out (bringing the rest of the UK up to the Scottish level) and four fifths of those vote for him. Let’s say he manages to win back half of those 14% of those who voted who went to UKIP and an extra 3% of the vote from the Greens. In total this would add around 14 points to Labour’s share of the vote which had fallen to around 30% against the Tories’ 38%. It seems to me that the other candidates would be far less likely to achieve such gains within these groups. If we throw in say 20 extra seats in Scotland, again a higher likelihood under Corbyn that the other, and things look very interesting.
Against this of course must be weighed how many of Labour’s more moderate current voters might abandon them. That is a far more likely prospect if Corbyn does win – it could indeed include several members of the Party right up to Parliamentary level. But where could they go? It is hard to believe that the Liberal Democrats are in a fit state to regain their credibility rapidly, the Greens would need to start with a leader who actually made some sense, UKIP’s star is in decline and anyway many Labour voters would not dream of going that far and a direct switch to the Conservatives, perhaps the most likely option, has already largely been ‘banked’ by the Tories in their 2015 result. Do we see another new Party emerge, an SDP Mark 2? That didn’t really end so well.
We have in effect one out and out Blairite, two Ed Milibands (one with a working class accent, one female and neither as embarrassing if we are to be fair but still hardly a break from the recent failed past in England or Scotland) and a genuine visionary. The vision is bordering on frightening, as a look back say at housing policies in left wing authorities like Haringey (where Corbyn was a Councillor) or indeed Labour Wandsworth of the 1970s shows. But it may be that Corbyn is in a better position to increase Labour’s share of the vote, if not to make them electable, than any of his rivals. The cost may be ‘permanently’ (that tends to mean ‘for two elections’ in politics) to lose the ‘middle ground’ which is often, though not always, the space from which successful election campaigns are fought.
Even saying this makes me feel a bit silly. Every one of these factors, each unlikely in itself, would have to be fulfilled for Corbyn to move forward. Much more likely that his Islington trendiness will lose Labour more traction with the industrial working class in the North, perhaps to ULIP’s advantage, perhaps even to the Conservatives’.
But although Labour will never dominate politics in the way the Conservatives do, it is important for democracy to have an Opposition which is both credible in its attacks and which occasionally gets into power. The predominant party needs space to recharge and the rest of us need space to remember that life is not just about the money and that using our wealth to support the less fortunate is important as well. (Of course many Conservatives recognise that but over the last few decades, especially in Wandsworth, there has been something of a sense of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing which overlays the absolutely vital focus on getting the economy right.) It is actually a much more complex question than first appear as to which of the Labour leadership crop is in the best place to provide it.