So much for Jeremy Corbyn being the joke candidate at the Labour leadership election.
Ever since The Right Dishonourable dismissed his chances of even securing enough nominations to appear on the ballot paper the MP for Islington North has trounced every expectation: securing support from more Labour constituencies than any other candidate, being backed by trade union Unite, and now polling ahead of every other candidate.
The whine from the Blairites that Labour is making itself unelectable has thus become a howl. Chuka Umunna, the smooth-talking Streatham MP and former leadership contender, went so far as to liken his party to “a petulant child” in an interview on BBC Newsnight. “There is no glory in opposition,” he said. “Ultimately we will betray our people if we don’t get elected.”
Labour’s identity crisis reflects an ongoing feature in the British political system as much as it does the current weakness of the party. Whilst conservatism naturally fits the remit of the protean, managerial modern political party, radicalism of any sort jars with the compromises and mealy-mouthed messaging that New Labour exemplified.
The Iraq War might be the most ostensible reason that many in Labour denounce the legacy of prime minister Tony Blair – the only Labour leader to secure three full terms in office – but for many to the Left of the party New Labour’s collusion with free market capitalism (or in their ominous phrase “neoliberalism”) was the true betrayal of the party’s roots.
They have a point. Parties throughout all democracies morph over time as questions are settled and newer problems arise, but the abandonment of Clause IV, which advocated “common ownership of the means of production”, by Blair in 1995 posed an existential question of Labour that has not been answered: Just why does it exist?
When the party was first formed it was quite clear what its purpose was. The working classes had long been treated as serfs by the patrician class that ruled Britain, unconsulted on political issues and often neglected. Labour changed that, most notably in the wake of the Second World War where Clement Attlee was able to usher in the welfare state as the second Labour prime minister.
Much has changed since then. The shrinking of industry and movement towards the service sector economy has coincided with serious globalisation. As such the unions and working classes that used to sustain Labour were much diminished by the end of the 20th century. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most Britons now see themselves as middle class.
As such Blair’s movement of the party made a deal of sense – arguably he was just responding to the market forces that do a great deal to determine who can be elected in a liberal democracy. But the problem for Labour is not so much its own movement as the response from the opposite benches.
The Tories have not managed to shed their image as “the nasty party”. Quite possibly they never will. But in Cameron and Osborne they have two pragmatic leaders willing to take on the centre ground. Osborne’s faux-adoption of the “living wage” in this year’s budget was one example of this; Cameron’s embrace of gay marriage in the last parliament was another.
This leaves Labour with little room to manoeuvre. Sure, it could do what Liz Kendall wants and throw itself back into Blairism. But its weaker reputation on the economy will surely leave it wanting when faced with a Conservative front bench that, at least by centrist standards, is fairly socially liberal.
After the disaster of Ed Miliband it is understandable the Blairites are lobbying for a return to the centre. Perhaps it might even work to get the party back in power. But whilst that same section of the party jeers at the Labour Left for being a “glorified pressure group”, it should also wonder what the point is of having power after all principle has been abandoned.