The amazing thing about the Labour leadership contest is that anyone is amazed it has become a complete fiasco. The controversy we see now is not the exception in Labour politics – the exception was the Blair leadership. The row has all the features and attitudes which should be familiar to the commentariat from sixty years of Labour history; all the more so because there is an overwhelming bias towards Labour in these denizens of social media. And yet they seem completely flabbergasted by it.
As a Tory myself, it is not entirely pleasant to observe some actual argument about policy happening in the Labour Party. For most of the last 30 years, Labour has edged closer to Conservative thinking. While the Blair premiership had its downsides – disastrous wars fought against a backdrop of slashed defence capability, PFI, the “Cool Britannia” Hello-magazining of political personalities – it was very much a “Labour right” government. If Blair had had the guts to sack Brown, the only reason the electorate would have had to turf Labour out in 2010 would have been boredom.
Now we have Jeremy Corbyn pushing his apparently retro Labour thinking. Even his posters echo The Who’s 60s symbology – although the tagline is “Maximum RMT” rather than “Maximum R&B”. But Corbyn is not so much “Labour retro” as “Labour revivalist”.
Nobody should have been surprised at the Corbyn explosion, because whenever you meet Labour activists on the streets, they talk his language. The clash in Labour between left and right always ends up being expressed in the same way, too – what we now call the Westminster bubble of party HQ, the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and their pals in the London media circus versus the activist base and the union grassroots.
Real leftism in Labour is like a stream which disappears into a culvert occasionally, but is always there beneath metropolitan Labour attitudes. There has been a lot of talk about Tony Benn, an old and equally lefty comrade of Corbyn’s. However the stream which re-emerges now did not originate with Benn, but with Bevan. What we see being replayed now is not the struggle of the early 1980s, but of the early 1950s, and then as now, it is the right doing the splitting, not the left.
The most ridiculous feature of the contest so far has been complaint from the right that Corbyn voters are just entryists trying to rig the election in his favour. The panicked response to this, to try to force two of the rightist candidates to step down to create a “Stop Corbyn candidate” is actually an attempt to fix the election in itself. The irony is lost on them. There has been virtually no analysis of his policies by his Labour opponents (as opposed to their analysis of his dodgy friends). Indeed, when it comes to Quantitative Easing, even a Tory can tell you Corbyn is right. QE was a waste of time and our money. The attack on Corbyn has focussed on the vague threat that any deviation from Blairism wrecks Labour’s chances of winning an election.
The argument among the “other three” centres on how to build on Blair’s legacy, while the rest of the world wonders if such a thing even exists. None of them have Blair’s perceptiveness, or his sense of timing. Andy Burnham will forever be associated with the Mid Staffs hospital disaster. Yvette Cooper’s main campaign message seems to be that she’s got kids whereas Liz Kendall hasn’t. I quite like Liz Kendall and think it’s a shame she has got caught up with two such politically-louche characters, but she has got no real policy message.
And if you think those three are uninspiring, wait until you see the Deputy Leadership card. Tom “buy my book” Watson, Stella “I love indie music” Creasy, Caroline “window dressing” Flint and Angela Eagle. If Eagle doesn’t win this, you know Labour has lost its head, but I think she will probably come last. In despatch box terms, she is the best performer of anyone in either race.
Ultimately both sides of the argument are bonkers. There are many on the left who have adopted Clement Attlee as their patron saint, in almost complete defiance of history. Attlee actually presided over a climb-down from almost all the rhetoric of 1945 during the remainder of his leadership. He was the father of the British atomic bomb. He groomed Gaitskell, who introduced charges into the NHS; he forced out Bevan, who founded it, and sat by when the union bosses (in those days, almost all on the right) tried to kick Nye and his followers out of the party. When you see Owen Jones parading in a “What would Clem do?” teeshirt, the answer is almost certainly “Expel you”. Attlee presided over the start of a civil war which is still being fought now – Establishment Labour versus Activist Labour.
Fortunately for the Parliamentary Labour Party, the party machinery is now what Bagehot would have called a “dignified” part of its constitution, rather than an “effective” one, otherwise we might see the sort of rout of the right Attlee was presented with at the 1952 Morecambe conference (that British Pathé news clip is fantastic). If Corbyn wins the leadership, real power will still rest with the PLP, who may well try to unseat him as soon as they decently can after he wins. In Tom Watson (who, to be fair to him and his Labour detractors, is no Blairite), modern Labour has a bully straight out of the mould of the 1950s trade union leadership. He will orchestrate a campaign against Corbyn just as he did before when he felt his own interests were best promoted by a new leader.
Whoever wins the contest will still face an uphill struggle. It is one of the Blairites’ making. Their project to make the Labour Party into something it never really has been has failed spectacularly; they have failed to convert enough of their own activists. Even if the Blairites win now, they will merely make their eventual defeat all the more final. It will come either in 2020 when one of the weak candidates before us now loses, or because the party implodes before then, and we have another split in the party. This is the Blarites’ last stand, and they don’t have anywhere obvious to go if they are unsuccessful. Corbyn will actually be the biggest long-term challenge of any of the candidates if he enthuses younger voters and awakens Labour from Blairism.
We in the Tory Party cannot afford to assume that because every previous left surge has failed that every left surge will fail in the same way. Corbyn will lose in 2020 if he wins – but so would Burnham, Cooper, or Kendall. What happens in 2025 if Labour has had ten years to come up with a genuine leftist alternative? Watching Labour rip themselves to pieces is great fun – but what about the EU referendum? The Union? English devolution, which is so far a total mess? Defence and foreign policy? We have already allowed ourselves as much laughter at Labour as we can afford.