Another dispatch from inside the Westminster village
Cast your mind back a decade. As a Labour supporter, perhaps you were happy that Labour had won a majority, but were also uncomfortably aware of the dangerous territory ahead.
The prime minister had announced this was his last election. Leadership speculation was growing. There were significant splits in the party over foreign policy. The Conservative party was having a leadership election. David Davis, Ken Clarke and David Cameron, all in their own ways credible leaders, all running campaigns based on reaching out to new voters.
Now, imagine that in order to broaden the debate, the 1922 committee of Tory members of parliament decided to nominate the ‘hang ‘em and flog ‘em’ Tory MP Sir Nicholas Winterton for leader, even though they did not want him as leader, knew he would alienate voters, and Sir Nicholas himself wanted nothing more than to spend his summer asserting a traditional rightwing agenda to a national audience, accusing all the other three of a betrayal of traditional Conservative values.
As a Labour supporter in 2005, would you have viewed ‘Sir Nick 4 Leader’ as a welcome indication of the healthy, open debate in the Conservative movement, or as a sign that the Tory party was a completely deluded mass of insecurities, focused more on the unfathomably complex politics of internal division and suspected betrayal than anything so childish as trying to win a general election? Let me gently suggest the latter would be the case.
So it is with the parliamentary Labour party’s decision to include Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership ballot. Corbyn is a pleasant, polite man. He is passionately committed to his causes. He is not, in any sense, in any way, in any eventuality, a potential leader of the Labour party. He is a sideshow, precisely when Labour most needs a big tent. The reason he is on the ballot is because a significant wedge of Labour MPs want to distract the country from a debate over which direction the party might actually take by highlighting a direction it definitively, absolutely cannot take.
Why have they done this? Five years ago, Diane Abbott was included in the Labour leadership debate. That at least was defendable on the grounds of gender and racial diversity as well as politics.
This time, while Stella Creasy and Rushanara Ali struggled to reach the ballot even for deputy leader (the former eventually succeeding, the latter not), the PLP decided a diverse choice of candidates required the presence of a 60-something Bennite. I doubt they would have taken the same view of a Frank Field candidacy (though, to be fair, Field, a contrarian to his fingertips, is one of those advocating wide debate).
There are some for whom this is a question of belief, but they are few in number. Amusingly, of those who might ideologically be most supportive of Corbyn, a good half had already signed up to the Andy Burnham campaign.
Yet after five years of radically tinged oratory as shadow health secretary, Burnham’s swift post-election turn to hold pro-business, anti-mansion tax positions suggested to the old left that little socialist fire burned in his Labour heart after all. In the annals of stupid briefings to the press, I would suggest some kind of special honour go to the spokesperson from Burnham’s team who told the media that the ‘left had nowhere else to go’, so he could safely move to the middle ground.
If Burnham had held off his dash to the centre until he had secured his flank, he would not have disappointed his left supporters before the campaign began. If he had not then sought to reassure them by promising to get Corbyn over the line, he would not have granted Corbyn’s candidacy legitimacy.
This created the space for a self-interested argument for allowing Corbyn on the ballot paper among other MPs. If you are running for mayor of London, or deputy leader, there are perhaps a few hundred second preferences for you if you appear to be pluralistic and tolerant.
For the rest, it seems to be nothing more than a sense that it would be unsporting not to let Corbyn have a go. As Neil Kinnock once said, it seems to some colleagues to matter not whether you win or lose, so long as you play the game fairly.
This is not the case for the leadership candidates. Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, whatever their differences, are all engaged in a serious debate about the future of the Labour party.
Unfortunately, as each attempts to construct a bigger tent, the Corbyn sideshow will go on, and on, and on.
As he stepped down from the leadership of the Scottish Labour party last month, Jim Murphy was right to point out the obvious: that the 2015 general election was there for the taking by Labour. The loss, he said, was ‘particularly sobering because objectively it’s my opinion this was probably the easiest election that we will face before I am a pensioner.’
While many of Scottish Labour’s problems are home-grown, the impact of UK Labour’s weak offer on Scottish Labour’s fortunes is something that has been largely glossed over. Murphy is right that from the perspective of 2010 looking forward five years this should have been the easiest election in decades. But by the time he seized the poisoned chalice of the leadership in December last year the party, nationally, as much as north of the border, had contrived to make survival in Scotland absolutely the hardest election, perhaps ever, to win.
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