Inside Story

British Labour, a leap in the dark

After five years in a bunker a wounded party faces a choice of exits, says David Hayes


David Hayes 12 July 2015 4903 words

Which way out? Labour leadership contenders Andy Burnham (second from left), Yvette Cooper (third from left) and Liz Kendall (right), together with Labour MPs Mary Creagh and Tristram Hunt, address delegates at the Progress annual conference in central London in May. Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

You make it, then it makes you. The advice comes from the Cuban writer Carlos Franqui, whose luminous memoir of the early years of the revolution, Family Portrait with Fidel, once inspired me to seek him out in hope of commissioning a mini-sequel. Franqui, by then well into his eighties, was living in Puerto Rico and editing Carta de Cuba, the independent cultural magazine he had founded. The essay I sought never materialised, though contact with one of my heroes was a reward in itself. And the more I thought about his remark in the years that followed, the more it clarified just about everything.

Franqui’s words came to mind again as Britain’s Labour Party went through the early motions of a post-election inquest following its shattering defeat on 7 May, a day on which so many would-be masters of history were turned into its puppets. That “pencil revolution,” after the dullest of campaigns, might have been a thrilling example of democracy in action, but the aftermath was disconcerting. Not because Labour had lost to the Conservatives after five years in opposition; not because the party’s vote share had barely increased; not because it had saved only one of its forty-six seats in Scotland. It was disconcerting because the immediate reactions from inside the tribe were so desultory in relation to the scale of the catastrophe.

Within days of Ed Miliband’s instant resignation, the track had been laid for another ride on the leadership train. Harriet Harman, deputy leader since her narrow win over Alan Johnson in 2007, took temporary charge. A timetable and procedure for election were set. Five candidates soon declared, plus more for the deputy leadership. It was all too quick for columnist Joan Smith, who wrote that Labour “resembles someone who’s just emerged from a failed relationship and can’t wait to start dating again.”

Former deputy leader Margaret Beckett was charged with overseeing a “a forensic, honest” inquiry – or, rather, a “Learning the Lessons from Defeat” taskforce – that Harman promised would “dare to look over the edge of the precipice at what happened.” But by the time of its launch on 31 May, many on the left were past that stage, having moved with lightning speed from stages-of-grief to one-more-heave.

Two months on, Labour is keeping up appearances. Front of stage, the leadership contest is well into the hustings cycle. Behind the scenes, the election inquest goes on. In parliament, Harman is valiant against David Cameron. But this post-election period is already resembling the previous one, as an ambitious Conservative government with a strategic reforming purpose extends its political hegemony while Labour’s priority is a new driver and trackside repairs for its exhausted engine. The Conservative chancellor George Osborne’s budget on 8 July, with its confident advance onto Labour’s terrain, made the contrast painfully clear.

Labour’s leadership contest gathers most of the limited attention the party is now receiving. Under a two-stage model approved in 2014, candidates need the support of 15 per cent of Labour MPs to be nominated. (At present, that’s thirty-five MPs out of Labour’s total of 232 in a 650-seat House of Commons.) Those who qualify are then voted on by the party’s 190,000 members under a preferential ballot, with choices distributed until a winner emerges. The process will climax with a special conference on 12 September. (Timothy Heppell’s Choosing the Labour Leader: Labour Party Leadership Elections from Wilson to Brown, published in 2010, gives useful background on eight earlier tussles across five decades.)

The short nomination period was eventful, with two figures withdrawing: the highly favoured shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna (after three days, citing discomfort at heightened media scrutiny) and the shadow development minister Mary Creagh (after a month, from lack of support). This left three runners, all in their mid forties. They were Andy Burnham, who came a distant fourth in the 2010 election before devoting much of the last parliament to preparing a re-run; Yvette Cooper, who, like Burnham, served in Gordon Brown’s government (2007–10) and then spent five years in the shadow cabinet; and Liz Kendall, who became an MP only in 2010, thirteen years after Cooper and nine after Burnham, and thus entered the race as an outsider.

A common motif of their declarations was the need for a proper debate, though rival camps were soon sparring more over phraseology than policy: “aspiration,” a code word of Labour modernisers, for example, or the call to “rediscover the beating heart of Labour,” part of Burnham’s glutinous repertoire. Liz Kendall was a particular target for barbs (“swallowing the Tory manifesto” and even “Taliban New Labour”). The tiffs seemed as vacuous as the language being fought over. Sharpness is better than dullness, but they hardly augured any readiness to “look over the edge of the precipice.” Perhaps Labour had been, well, precipitate in responding to the election nightmare by boxing itself into another by-numbers leadership race?

That’s all very well, responded a senior loyalist of my acquaintance when I raised the point, but what do you expect? Politics goes on, so must process. Labour has rules for every situation, and it is obliged to follow them. Government needs effective opposition, “our” people (Labour is very fond of the possessive) need representation, the party needs leadership. A luta continua and all that. Then, a step back into the Miliband bunker. We took 9.3 million votes, a rise of 1.5 per cent on 2010. London gave us 44 per cent, a standout success. We fought a strong campaign on themes – poverty, austerity, insecurity, inequality – that will dominate the next parliament. The Tories will become more divided, crises will erupt, opportunities will arise. With more passion, we will thrive.

The case, to my ears, echoed Monty Python’s armless and legless black knight: the result for Labour, it seemed to say, was a mere flesh wound. “Passion” is one of those argument-losing words for which there should be an equivalent of Godwin’s law. The recourse to statistics recalled Tony Benn’s infamous boast after Labour’s wipeout in 1983: “For the first time since 1945 a political party with an openly socialist policy has received the support of over eight and a half million people.” Reiterating the correctness of the party’s message seemed an invitation to shout louder in people’s faces. And if a rule book is always handy, ruined hopes surely demand the question famously posed by the trade union boss George Woodcock in 1962: what are we here for?

Existential is a big word. But this was no ordinary loss. Many analysts cite Labour’s deficits on leadership and economic policy as central factors, but also note a host of subsidiary ones: its fuzzy profile, reduced support among older voters and neglect of English interests, and the doubts about its competence. The fragmentary nature of the election reinforced these problems. The psephologist John Curtice, whose astounding exit poll overturned predictions of a hung parliament and defined the election-night mood, says that the election result “marked the final death-knell of the idea that there is such a thing as a single Britain-wide electoral contest. There was, in truth, one election outcome in England and Wales and another very different one in Scotland.” No wonder, in the aftermath, that demands from north of the border to make the Scottish Labour Party autonomous are matched by a plan (led inevitably by the Blue Labour seer Jon Cruddas) to set up an English wing.

To some, then, a thorough overhaul is necessary if the party is ever to come close to regaining power. In these circles, muted despair over the direction of Miliband’s leadership has been succeeded by worry that a cosmetic makeover will leave deeper problems untouched. After all, in seven decades only three Labour leaders (out of ten) have delivered a clear majority: Clement Attlee in 1945, Harold Wilson in 1966, and Tony Blair in his hat trick from 1997 to 2005. How can the party ever again reach those heights?

Britain’s electoral map appears to have reduced Labour to islands of red in neighbouring seas of blue (Conservative) and yellow (Scottish National Party, or SNP). This can mislead, for the effect is amplified by regional concentration and distorted by the first-past-the-post model. But both the constituency boundaries and the electoral system have long served Labour’s shorter-term electoral prospects while concealing longer-term weaknesses and creating disincentives to reform. Now, at last, there can no longer be any reliance on a “natural” reversal of the pendulum that delivers power to Labour – and that’s before even considering the Tories’ unfolding strategy. This time, a Labour recovery must mean building beyond its historical areas and bases of support, above all psychologically. And even some of those bases can no longer be taken for granted.

So great a debacle makes a return to office in 2020 near impossible, except in the event of some intervening national upheaval or major constitutional change involving electoral reform and a repeal of the fixed-term parliaments law. And given Labour’s abyss in Scotland, the latter’s independence – which will return to the agenda if the SNP wins the 2016 election to the Edinburgh parliament – would barely alter its prospects in England and Wales. The party is thus likely to be in the wilderness for at least another decade. Whatever way the cake is cut, 7 May 2015 spells a historic reckoning.

There was little sign in the post-election weeks that Labour was yet ready to look this predicament in the eye. Politics was always going to trump existentialism. But the rule book itself had a late and mind-bending trick to play. Just before the close of the nominations period on 15 June – two minutes before noon – and after tense “lending” of nominations from the oversubscribed, Labour’s parliamentary left secured the entry ticket it always craves for one of its own: Jeremy Corbyn, a backbench MP since 1983 and two decades older than his rivals. The dial went haywire and has yet to settle.

Corbyn needed non-allies to help him qualify. Of the thirty-five nominations propelling him over the line, sixteen were from fellow London MPs, including rival candidates for the mayoralty in 2016, Sadiq Khan and David Lammy, and the mercurial Jon Cruddas. Having made the cut, Corbyn’s presence on the ballot is galvanising the ever-rudderless left, in and beyond the party, and pushing its priorities (support for welfare, public services, trade union rights; opposition to austerity, nuclear weapons, Britain’s wars) up the agenda. Every grain of evidence for his appeal is now being amplified by keyboard warriors to create an impression of momentum, making the true picture hard to assess. In this respect, the contest echoes the general election, whose result confounded the pollsters.

Again, there is reason to be cautious. In normal times, the morosely genial Corbyn speaks for a coterie of the like-minded, much reduced since the heady days of the 1980s when Bennism was on the march and revolution in the air. Now things are more sedate. “My entry into all of this,” he says, “was because a number of us on the left of the party thought there ought to be a debate about the economic strategy and how we deal with the issue of austerity.” In that debate, Corbyn’s positions – his flank has positions rather than policies or ideas – will be subject to more detailed scrutiny than is customary. That could prove enlightening for party members who want to see another Labour government in their lifetime.

Moreover, the recent record of left-wing candidates is poor: two of Corbyn’s comrades and fellow London MPs embarked on vain leadership crusades in 2007 and 2010, with John McDonnell twice withdrawing from lack of support and Diane Abbott coming last. And if many commentators welcome his entry on pluralist democratic grounds, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee (“Every Corbyn vote gives ammunition to Labour’s enemies”) and Martin Kettle (“Party of opposition or party of government? Purity or power?”) also voice the weary wisdom of a realist centre-left faced with another impossibilist spasm.

Many Labour colleagues are equally sceptical. The Independent’s Andy McSmith, a sympathetic observer of the party’s ups and downs, was told by a “left-wing Labour MP” that Corbyn as leadership contender is a “hilarious” idea: “If Jeremy thought there was any chance that he was going to win, he’d be on the first plane to Caracas. He has spent his life avoiding responsibility. He reminds us of when we were young.”

But within Corbyn’s camp there is bubbling optimism. A supporter I spoke to mentioned the social resonance of the wider left’s populist nostrums, as measured by its media personalities’ teeming twitter feeds, rapturous applause on the BBC’s weekly debate show Question Time, and loud approval in the cultural sphere. Syriza’s referendum victory in Greece confirms that an anti-austerity message can carry popular weight. A more solid asset is the left’s proven ability to win and keep control of many trade unions; Britain’s biggest, Unite – which has 1.4 million members – decided on 5 July to back Corbyn for the party leadership. Several other unions have climbed on the bandwagon.

These trends are reinforced by reports of audience enthusiasm at the early hustings. This is “a serious campaign that has growing momentum,” Corbyn says, a chance to reverse spending cuts and reductions in living standards and “invest our way to growth and fairness.” It is characteristically broad-brush, detail-light stuff. But it’s working among the faithful.

Moreover, rumours fly that Labour’s low membership barrier – three quid by 12 August and few questions asked, guv – will tempt entryists from right and left to tilt the vote in Corbyn’s favour. Tories are fond of him; Alex Burghart, who fought Corbyn in Islington North, calls him “a down-to-earth, likable, dry and wry old leftie, utterly sincere.” The incentive on both sides to get involved is clear: right-wingers are as certain he’ll drag Labour further down as leftists are of the contrary. As the Commons debated Greece on 6 July, George Osborne teasingly told Corbyn that he “would be an excellent leader of the Labour Party.” Jeremy did his best to look displeased.

Thus the Corbyn factor has changed the balance of the race. Andy Burnham finds his cloying northern-lad patter (“I’m a loyal Labour man, I’m true to our roots”) more exposed. An incisive column by New Statesman editor Jason Cowley, noting the contradictions of Burnham’s insistent self-positioning as an authentic, counter-establishment figure, concludes that “the danger for him is that when you peel back the outer layers of cliché… there doesn’t seem much to behold beyond the sight of a man with a loud voice saying it has to be me.”

Liz Kendall had already punctured the balloon in the first candidates’ debate on 17 June, when she trumped Burnham’s “the party comes first” with an instinctive, low “the country comes first”: a golden moment, with a touch of the ruthless (Burnham was in technical rather than Leninist mode). She too is already drawing criticism on account of some suspiciously bold priorities for the party: among them sound public finances, support for business risk-takers, England’s governance, and engaging “in Europe and beyond” on Islamist extremism, Russia, climate change and the global economy. (Children’s early years are a less controversial focus.) Perhaps the most important sentence of an impressive speech at Reuters on 30 June is this: “The Labour Party I lead will embrace the future not resist it.”

Her own danger is to be boxed in as a “Blairite.” Both as description and insult, the term, always rather nebulous, is becoming meaningless. She has declined the label. By recuperating it for a definite purpose, Kendall might subvert the charge, add welcome mischief to the contest, and perhaps even bring the anti-Blair pathology to a long-overdue catharsis. In the end, however, Yvette Cooper’s greater experience and emollience may mean she is judged a safer choice, and she is also the beneficiary of a definite if mainly unspoken feeling that, forty years after the Tories chose Margaret Thatcher as their leader, it’s time for Labour to do the honourable thing and elect a woman.

The schedule is packed: seven broadcast debates and ten party-run regional hustings to come, the latter chaired by leading journalists. If that grindathon seems conducive to a mix of play-it-safe and genteel pointscoring, the candidates are by now test-running policy ideas – and projecting themselves – in set-piece addresses and interviews. Cooper’s case for far greater use of digital technology in delivering public services is an example. Meanwhile, the concurrent tussle for the deputy leadership pits the backroom fixer Tom Watson against the kinetic Stella Creasy, a young London MP whose campaigns against moneylenders and online misogyny fuel her ambition to align Labour with the new social activism. Former ministers Caroline Flint, Angela Eagle and Ben Bradshaw make it a robust field.

It’s tempting to say that the measure of Labour’s willingness to renew, as opposed to repackage, itself will be whether its members choose Kendall–Creasy over Burnham–Watson. That would be premature, for neither of the former has yet made a clinching case. But the wager suggests a truth about current politics in Britain that Ed Miliband’s disastrous, disdainful reign ignored. Labour needs to earn the very right to a hearing for whatever it wants to do. That will be won by being seen to like the country and people it wants to govern, and by becoming trusted to lead them.

If there’s a perfect antithesis its name would be Jeremy Corbyn. After the flurry of amazement at his becoming a candidate – which is worth recalling, so quickly are such feelings buried as the new reality is adjusted to – disciplines of politeness rightly came into play to give everyone a fair hearing. In that spirit the many points in Corbyn’s favour are easy to list: a popular constituency MP of the rub-along global microcosm that is inner London’s Islington North; champion of the downtrodden; parliamentary inquisitor; protagonist in redressing cases of injustice; holder of an allotment; personally decent and incorruptible; tireless promoter of causes. (The principal ones are helpfully listed in his official profile: “People of Islington, Stop the War, Liberation, the welfare state, the NHS [National Health Service], socialism and human rights including anti racism, anti imperialism and internationalism, transport safety, the environment.”) The checklist – or, in his preferred jargon, platform – testifies to a full political life.

The child of middle-class radicals who sent him to a high-ranked school (founded 1656) in a Shropshire market town, Corbyn found himself in the fervent world of London’s left in the 1970s–80s, where he worked as a trade union official and for a decade as a local councillor before arriving in parliament in 1983, surviving Labour’s wreckage elsewhere thanks to a fortuitous three-way split among his rivals. The close shave was never repeated; Islington North – the tiniest and most densely populated constituency in the United Kingdom – became Corbyn’s fiefdom. For forty years he has been a knight templar of solidarity, with many peoples under his belt (among them Palestinians, Kurds, Irish, South Africans, Cubans, Tamils, Chileans, Nicaraguans and Chagos Islanders), the combination of neighbourhood champion and global emissary giving him the aura of a Fidel of Finsbury Park.

Patronising? Very well. But aside from the echo of G.K. Chesterton’s 1904 novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill, another dream of revolution in village London, it is also apt. That’s not just because of Corbyn’s eternal beard and pet field cap (black not green), nor the decades of leaden speechifying without a single new thought, nor even the sense that much about him is rooted in an upbringing whose orthodoxies he never questioned, far less rebelled against. (“What Fidel has done is to impose on Cuba all the punishments he suffered as a boy at his Jesuit school,” writes Carlos Franqui.) There’s also Castro’s Cuba itself, reverenced in Corbyn’s weekly column in the Morning Star, the paper from the Communist Party of Britain’s stable that he calls “the most precious and only voice we have in the daily media.”

The quasi-religious cast of mind implied by Franqui’s remark suggests a further affinity that brings us closer to Jeremy Corbyn’s political character. Fidel, a driver in history’s drama, and Jeremy, a bicyclist, are survivors from the tumultuous years of half a century ago, but of a particular sub-group: those who at the time acquired a dogmatic, uniform worldview which froze into impermeability and thus entrapped them completely.

Harold Wilson’s quip about Benn in the 1970s, that he “immatures with age,” appears in every edition of Britain’s political lexicon. No one will ever apply it to Corbyn, whose first-choice ideological sanctum has proved ever sufficient. If Benn, the great conjuror, made a fetish of his midlife conversion to socialism, Corbyn’s far more modest appeal draws on his unwavering commitment to “a collective society.” He even strains to avoid the “I” word, and in that spirit says it’s “not important” to get credit for being right in advance: “The cause is what’s important.” It is as if the last forty years had not happened – which is exactly as Corbyn, and the autopilot left he represents, often seem to wish. (Though it’s fair to say that a congenial and thoughtful interview in the Christian journal Third Way strikes a welcome counterpoint.)

A droll sidelight is Corbyn’s remark, made in the context of media fluff about a parliamentary “beard of the year” award in 2001, that his facial hair was “a form of dissent” against New Labour and had to stay on that account. Once more, I was reminded of Carlos Franqui, and a vignette from the early post-revolution period of an encounter with Fidel in Santiago’s national palace.

When he saw me he exploded: “How could you cut off your beard?”

“The barber did it for me.”

“You can’t do it. It’s the symbol of the revolution. It doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to the revolution.”

“It was so hot; besides, my kid didn’t recognise me, and I don’t like making love with a beard. Don’t forget, I’m a civilian, not a military man.”

“I just don’t see how you could cut off your beard. What a mule you are! I just don’t get it.”

“Look, Fidel, the whiskers were mine, weren’t they?”

“No. No. Nobody’s allowed to shave around here.”

“I’ll tell the future for you: someday there will be only one set of whiskers around here – yours. Like to bet on it?”

Cuba set the template for radical style in the era of national liberation and state socialism, an era that still grips Jeremy Corbyn’s political imagination. His own trademarks are both a display of that fidelity and a claim on it. Thus the passing of the era, long preceded by the debasement of its initial promise in countries from Algeria to Zimbabwe, required no fundamental rethinking, for the change could not be recognised as such. There may be many newer struggles to fight – against the post-9/11 wars, for Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela and Syriza’s Greece – but these are at heart the same as the older ones. Equally consistent are the forces responsible for the world’s problems: the West, principally the United States and its junior partner, Britain.

Psychologically, his outlook rests on a permanent dichotomy of solidarity and threat. The objects of the former are diverse politically, and this exposes Jeremy to such genuine criticism as he receives. (Of the other kind, “fossil” and “dinosaur” are tedious staples of the right-wing press, though even Andy McSmith calls him “the voice of the antique left.”) Alan Johnson, the academic and editor of the journal Fathom, who shares a name with the former Labour cabinet minister and renowned memoirist, wrote Corbyn an open letter challenging his description of Hamas and Hizbollah as “friends” and his association with a viciously anti-Semitic preacher. Similar points arise regarding his support for the regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, his automatic siding with Argentina over the Falkland/Malvinas Islands and with Russia in Ukraine, or his sympathy for Sinn Féin (political wing of the now-disbanded Irish Republican Army) and the former Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

It appears, however, that the threat is always the shaping force, that it’s always the same, and – taking as read the Great Satan of Washington and the beast of NATO (“the major bulwark of the cold war,” says Corbyn) – that it’s always at home. A hallmark of the approach is to identify a nefarious British hand in almost any global dispute, while crediting other states (Russia and Iran over Syria, for example) with sincere intentions. And it rejects British military intervention even where the immediate purpose is to halt or prevent massacre (as in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Libya and Mali). That these are not policy judgements but default settings suggests that Corbyn belongs to that recognisable English type, the internationalist who disfavours his own country.

Labour’s long succession battle should be an opportunity to explore such issues. Their salience is increased by the massacre on 27 June of thirty-eight tourists on a Tunisian beach (thirty of them British) by an adherent of Islamic State, and by commemoration of 7/7, the murder of fifty-two people on London’s transport network on 7 July 2005. The Conservative government’s soliciting of support for possible attacks on Islamic State targets in Syria confirms that the debate over intervention that dominated much of the 2000s is not going away.

This highlights a further damaging legacy of 2010 and after, namely Labour’s readiness to junk its recent past without thinking through it. The purpose was to project an image of change and unity after the travails of the later Tony Blair and Gordon Brown periods. The strategy didn’t work even in its own terms. What followed were five years of arguments postponed, and seething frustrations camouflaged by a surface harmony. A pact of silence over Iraq and the lessons of New Labour blocked thinking and skewed feeling. Empty abstraction and useless anger filled the debate vacuum. The years were, as it turned out, wasted. Now, to cap it all, Jeremy Corbyn is a leadership candidate and by all accounts doing well. (This sentence still seems inconceivable.) These are desperate times.

Labour’s climb out of the bunker was always going to be tough. It’s made even harder by disarray over what the party should, primarily, be. Government in waiting, vote machine, change agent, populist voice, socialist heritage club, trade union accessory, social movement, cult? And what follows from each? As it emerges blinking into the light, Labour would do well to remember that every big choice has consequence. You make it, then it makes you.

Labour’s future policy portfolio and message to the voters may now be as uncertain as the identity of its next leader. But these also flow from an attitude of mind, conveyed above all by the party’s look and feel to millions of voters, many of them too busy with life stuff to have much interest in formal politics.

In a post-election limbo where intuition arguably matters more than policy signals, the independent-minded Liz Kendall seems alone in grasping this. You can tell a lot about a person by their instincts, and “the country comes first” did it for me. In the end, many Labour supporters might make their choice in a similar way: less between candidates as such, but between a leap of imagination and an act of faith. •