Saturday, 18 July 2015

The summer Labour lost its marbles

This is officially a summer of madness. It may well be remembered as the period in which the Labour Party buried any chance of even remaining a credible opposition, let alone a future party of government.

After the defeat in May, there was an opportunity for some real soul-searching. Instead, we were plunged straight into a leadership contest. To the delight of many, Chuka Umunna – the highly credible MP for Streatham – announced he would stand. Within three days, however, he’d withdrawn from the race, citing undue levels of media intrusion on his family.

This was the moment the madness first set in. The obvious candidate was gone and we were left with a field few can genuinely claim to find very inspiring.

Andy Burnham, the dapper former Health Secretary, who plays on his Liverpudlian roots rather than his education at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, seems to swing left and right according to the prevailing wind.

His most revealing admission during the campaign came during a speech in Dublin, in which he claimed that the 2015 Labour manifesto was the best of those he’d seen in the four elections he’d contested. Bafflingly crazy. The manifesto which sent Labour to its most disastrous defeat in a generation was better than the ones that had helped Blair to win in 2001 and 2005? You couldn’t make it up.

Yvette Cooper hasn’t committed any serious faux pas, as far as I can tell. But her close personal and political associations with Ed Balls, Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown are the very last thing that Labour needs.  Hers is the steady-as-she-goes, one-more-heave, don’t-rock-the-boat campaign. But the boat has already been severely rocked and is taking in alarming quantities of water.

Liz Kendall is the candidate I most admire. She’s asking difficult questions and providing answers that challenge many long-standing shibboleths of the Labour Party. For her bravery, she’s denounced on social media as a ‘Tory’ and seems, unfortunately, to making little headway.

And then there’s Jeremy Corbyn. He’s only in the contest because of another moment of madness. At the very last minute, when the call for candidates was about to close, some Labour MPs chose to ‘lend’ their nominations to the veteran left-winger in the misguided belief that his voice needed to be heard. David Lammy and Sadiq Khan – both of whom claim to be serious candidates for London Mayor – were just two examples of lawmakers who exhibited an incredible naivety.

By this point, acting Labour Leader Harriet Harman had already extended the franchise to pretty much Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Individual union members. The general public. Any Tory who can afford £3 and make a convincing case that they are voting in the best interests of Labour. The result? A dog’s dinner of a contest in which pretty much anything could happen.

Where will the madness lead us? There are two particularly frightening scenarios.

The first – and most likely – is that Andy Burnham wins, but that Jeremy Corbyn runs him a close second. Burnham will then be under immediate pressure from the left, while the Tories will be in their element. They will relentlessly use Corbyn’s level of support as a stick with which to beat the Labour Party. ‘While you claim to be moderate,’ they will say, ‘just look at how the votes piled up for an old-style 80s socialist.’

The second possibility is one which even a few weeks ago no one took remotely seriously. What if Corbyn actually won? What if Britain’s answer to Alexis Tsiprias and Yanis Varoufakis (minus the good looks, academic qualifications and fashion sense), actually clawed his way to the top?

People are discussing this dystopian vision of Labour’s future sotto voce and there are some rather spurious polls which suggest that he may be ahead by quite a margin.

The repercussions would be immense and immediate.

There is no question in my mind that there would be a schism on a scale not seen since the breakaway by the so-called ‘Gang of Four’ in 1981 to form the SDP. Parliamentarians and ordinary members would leave Labour in droves to form an alternative power base. Corbyn would find himself in charge of some kind of Socialist Truth Society, which would draw in disillusioned leftists, former Green voters, Trotskyists and all kinds of flotsam and jetsam.

My feeling is that this rump Labour Party could command maybe 20% of the national vote and would be strong enough under first-past-the-post to have a reasonable representation in Parliament. But it would never be a party that would form a government. The alternative party of the centre-left, which we could perhaps imagine being led by a mainstream Labour politician, would possibly manage 15 or 20% of the vote itself – appealing to a base of progressive, aspirational voters in the Midlands, London and the South East.

You don’t need a PhD in psephology to realise that this set of circumstances would be an unmitigated disaster and a recipe for near permanent Tory government. It would be history repeating itself in the craziest of ways. As if we’d learnt nothing from the experiences of the 1980s. We’d probably even have the spectacle of the newly-formed breakaway party reaching out to the Liberal Democrats, with a view to forming some kind of alliance.

But the madness doesn’t end there. We have the referendum on membership of the European Union coming up within the next couple of years. In the past couple of weeks, there has been a growing sentiment on the left – from commentators such as George Monbiot and Owen Jones through to union baron Len McCluskey – that progressives should vote against staying in the EU.

This is truly the world turned upside down. Vote against the EU? We’re talking about an institution which, for all its faults, has reinforced workplace protection, imposed higher environment standards, protected consumers and acted as a champion of human rights. We would vote against being a part of this multinational institution at a time when all the most pressing issues we face – on the financial sector, the environment and terrorism – are only ones that we can tackle internationally?

So what exactly is going on during this insane summer season?  As the Mad Hatter asked Alice, ‘have you guessed the riddle yet?’

What’s the answer? I don’t think any of us have the slightest idea.