The Labour leadership election is still rumbling on, largely out of the public spotlight. This is perhaps a good thing for the party, since it hasn’t exactly been the cleansing exercise many thought it would be.
Recently we saw the four candidates – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall – face another televised debate, this time hosted by Victoria Derbyshire. It was largely myopic, which is generally the case when four people who mostly agree with each other have to ‘debate’ for 105 minutes. Occasionally some real argument broke out, but usually only when the fact that Jeremy Corbyn is ‘friends’ with the ‘terrorist organisation’ Hezbollah was brought up, or when the audience got involved. For the most part it was the usual bland platitudes and avoiding anything that might resemble an actual opinion.
A highlight, however, occurred when a viewer’s text was read out, accusing Liz Kendall (viewed by many as the modernising, Blairite candidate) of being a ‘Tory’, based on the fact that she refused to oppose proposed limits on child tax credits, amongst other things. Kendall met this with a firm rebuttal, and a quick look at her entry on ‘They Work For You’ shows that she didn’t once rebel against the Labour Party during the last parliament. Her campaign has emphasised rebuilding public services, but has accepted that the best way to do this is to fix an economy still badly damaged by the 2008 banking crash. In an effort to demonstrate that she isn’t actually a Tory, she then attacked George Osborne’s proposal to raise the threshold of inheritance tax. Amazingly, she was again attacked by the left wing members of the party, since this was obviously an attempt to trick people into believing that she isn’t just Maggie Thatcher in a red dress, rather than an honest opinion on what is a regressive policy that benefits only the wealthy.
It should be pointed out that the left of the Labour Party have done pretty well in this leadership election. Despite the failings of the left-leaning Ed Miliband, they have managed to force upon the race a proper socialist in Corbyn, with the idea that it would ‘broaden the debate’. Since then, he has quickly grown in popularity among the grassroots members. Emboldened by their success in foisting Corbyn upon the race, they are now taking the opportunity to slam any other candidate who takes a slightly moderate position as a Tory. This is actually the perfect equation for losing the next election. Indeed, according to Ben Bradshaw, the Labour MP for Exeter and candidate for Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, 80% of the voters Labour need to win over in 2020 actually voted Conservative at the last election. Labour needs to win 94 seats to take back majority power, and most of those gains will have to be made in England, since the SNP probably aren’t going anywhere for a generation. Unfortunately for them, England votes Conservative.
This may be a slightly horrifying concept for the Labour left to grasp, but Conservative voters are actually normal human beings. The left may like to cast them as evil lizard people, hell bent on driving the country back to the days of feudalism, but they’re actually just people who want stability for themselves and their family – like just about every other voter in the country. Labour isn’t going to win an election by telling these people that it was not, in fact, Labour who were wrong at the last election, but the voters themselves. Trying to force an even more left-wing agenda down the throats of voters who patently weren’t interested in Miliband’s socialism-lite is not going to win Labour the 2020 election, and only Kendall seems to have fully grasped this. The electorate like Labour’s ideas on social policy- they regularly poll far higher than the Conservatives on Health and Education- but they were told throughout the last election campaign that Labour were an economic disaster zone, and Miliband seemingly did nothing to challenge this impression.
Kendall – and to a lesser extent Burnham and Cooper – have realised this, and Kendall has accordingly based her campaign around restoring Labour’s economic credibility, which was how Labour used to win elections. This may have to involve occasionally accepting measures like restricting child tax credits, that the voting public actually support or offer a viable economic alternative. Harriet Harman, who is currently playing out her political swansong as acting Leader, also refused to oppose child tax credit cuts and, when criticised by Burnham, astutely pointed out that Labour lost the argument on austerity at the last election. She was then promptly was called a Tory in a Guardian editorial penned by Labour MP Diane Abbott. No one is suggesting that Labour support every move the Conservatives make, just that the ideas which lost them the last election aren’t going to magically win them the next one, and therefore the party needs to re-evaluate its economic position.
It’s somewhat odd that Labour is choosing to have its ideological battle over a reasonably minor tax credit change, which with five years of opposition ahead of them could turn out to be a very minor quibble in the end. It is symptomatic, however, of a party that is confused about what it stands for. Labour can either choose to be the party of Corbyn, offering an ideological opposition based on defending the poorest in society at any cost – which will mean losing the 2020 election. Or, it can choose to try and rebuild it’s economic credibility (which doesn’t necessarily mean stopping supporting the poorest, see the Tony Blair handbook on leadership) and oppose the Tories’ social policies; then they might have a shot in winning in 2020. At the moment, the party seems far too keen to attack any moderniser for being a Tory, thinking that somehow this will lead to said Tories voting for them. And as long as they continue to do this they will continue to lose the argument.