If Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t win the leadership, what exactly is the point of Labour?

Jeremy Corbyn, No More War at Parliament Square, August 2014, Garry Knight

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.

Header Image – Jeremy Corbyn, No More War at Parliament Square, August 2014 by Garry Knight

The Left hates Tony Blair, but to win another General Election it must copy him

10 Downing Street, 21 Feb 2013, Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC

At the start of this year the former British prime minister Tony Blair forecast the General Election would be one “in which a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party, with the traditional result”.

It was a prediction that proved, unlike the polls that most pundits (including me) believed, to be bang on. Not only did the Tories surge to a majority against all expectation, the Liberal Democrats were massacred in the polls whilst Labour’s usual haul of Scottish seats were siphoned off to the Scottish National Party. The Right consolidated; The Left fractured.

Event if Blair’s cliché looks good so far, it is his legacy at the turn of the millennium that complicates things. Provided one accepts he is leftwing, Blair remains the most successful politician of the Left for the last century, having managed the singular feat for Labour of winning three elections on the trot.

Unsurprisingly his example is causing a rupture in the party that has lost two general elections since he left in 2007. Indeed the incoming list of Labour candidates are being judged largely on whether they follow Blair or the recently departed leader Ed Miliband, himself a disciple of Gordon Brown, the last Labour prime minister.

Who ultimately triumphs in the contest – which includes former health secretary Andy Burnham, former work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper, and newcomers from the 2010 intake such as Chuka Umunna and Liz Kendall – is less important than what philosophy they represent: New Labour or Old.

It is a dilemma echoed in a similar contest taking place within the Liberal Democrats. Long seen as a “none of the above” option for ambivalent voters, the party forfeited this role by agreeing to go into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Now returned to opposition, it will have to compete with the SNP, the Greens and the UK Independence Party for the protest vote it once owned.

Whilst the former leader Nick Clegg provides a model of how the Liberal Democrats can effect change in government, the other wing of the party was alienated by collaboration with the hated Tories, whom many Liberal Democrat voters explicitly wanted to keep out of power when they cast their ballot.

Even if the Liberal Democrats and Labour are founded on different visions of the Left, they are both stuck between centrist and extremist competition. A turn to the left could lose them even more of the centrist voters who turned Conservative at this election, whilst a turn to the centre could see their ranks depleted by the Greens and the SNP.

This is one reason why many of the prospective Labour leaders have spoken of bringing together a broad coalition of sensibilities under a new direction. “Our challenge is not to go left or right, to focus on one part of the country above another, but to rediscover the beating heart of Labour,” Burnham said as he launched his campaign online.

The trouble is that civil war is a speciality of the Left. Ideology weighs more on the minds of idealists than it does the pragmatists that are more common on the Right. Indeed the protean nature of conservatism is what has ensured the longevity of the Tories over the last 200 years, and played a part in sealing their victory last week.

Blair’s talent was to provide a plausible promise of change that could gather voters from the centre whilst inspiring the party faithful. Plenty has changed since he last occupied Downing Street, but the fundamental arithmetic remains. Unless the Left wants a traditional exile for the next generation, it would do well to remember that.

Header Image – Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC