Ideological Purity: Electoral Irrelevance?

This week, both Helen Lewis of The New Statesman, and Rafael Behr of the Guardian, have written very insightful pieces about the current debate raging within the Labour party about the ideological stance and policy positions of each of the candidates in the leadership contest, and the future direction of the party more generally. Essentially the current tension in the party is between principle and power; ideology and electability.

After May’s devastating election result, the Labour Party has turned in on itself, with MPs such as leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn, arguing that Labour needs to move even further to the left than the position adopted by the party in the last election and which resulted in Labour’s biggest defeat since 1983. Those on the right of the party (Chuka Umunna, Tristram Hunt etc.) are appalled at such a suggestion and are arguing for Labour to move back to the centre ground, territory they successfully held in British politics from 1997 to 2010. This is very much the view held by another leadership candidate, Liz Kendall. The other two candidates, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, both occupy territory somewhere in between the positions of Kendall and Corbyn. Neither is yet willing to take a stand as clear or principled as Corbyn on Kendall, with both appearing to play it safe to get in to the final round of voting, hoovering up the second preference votes of their opponents eliminated in the first round along the way.

This argument within the party does need to take place however, and all views must be heard (yes, even Tony Blair’s!) before party members cast their vote. It is only when these arguments are concluded and the party rallies behind the new leader, whoever that is, will the party be able to move forward. Let’s just hope it’s a decisive victory or the internecine warfare between different factions in the party will continue.

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The reality is this: Of the 3m defectors who voted Labour in 1997 “for every (one) Guardian or Mirror reader there are four who read a right-wing paper.” It is these voters that Labour needs to appeal to if it ever wants to win again and you can’t do that from the left. If Labour wants to implement anything resembling a centre-left agenda – a fairer society, a more equal distribution of wealth, a safety net for the most vulnerable, care for the environment, key public services free at the point of use – it has to win an election. However, this won’t be possible if it’s going to adopt policies that repel those very centre-right voters. First and foremost, Labour’s raisin d’etre needs to be winning elections, but this is going to require a change in the mindset of party members, only 27% of whom wanted a leader who understood what it took to win elections. It needs to become nimble, adaptable and relevant again; it needs to be the party of change, much like it was in 1945 and 1997. Only then will voters sit up, take notice and consider lending the party their vote again.


  • Superfluous

    Now that we’re mostly working white collar jobs, almost 50% of our kids go to University (which I didn’t) and we all have shiney Apple devices, big tv screens, foreign holidays and general food on the table – maybe some of us working class types don’t want to be told that we are exploited, and we don’t really want the system to collapse – we just want our hospitals, schools and police service to work as efficiently and cost effectively as our Amazons and our Easyjets?

  • Mister_Joe

    Ed was a disaster. Strange that their members couldn’t forsee that. His brother would probably have led them to electoral success. Weird.

  • the rich get richer

    I just don’t get this David Miliband as some sort of Lost Messiah.

    He couldn’t even beat his supposedly useless brother to win the Leadership of the Labour Party.

    Labour were in Power as A Tory Party under both Blair and Brown. Both could have just as easily been the Leader of the Tory Party.

  • murdockp

    he couldn’t win as the left controlled the process. Blair was an exception. the greatest post war toriy leader they never had.

  • chrisjones2

    You just don’t like the fact that your politics have been rejected by the electorate as will Corbyns

    I wish him success ….in the elections and look forward to the implosion to come. Labour’s time has gone

  • chrisjones2

    The members could but it was a power grab by the Unions who saw him as a friendly puppet

  • Dan

    I see those eejits at LabourNI have thrown their weight behind Burnham and Creasy, without, as per usual, receiving any guarantee that they’ll be allowed to stand Labour candidates in NI elections. Labour will continue to ask voters here to vote for the sectarian sdlp.

  • the rich get richer

    One wonders how it would have gone had John Smith not died. In reality probably not much different I suppose.

    I just wonder why some people want to elect Tory Prime Ministers albeit as Leaders of the Labour Party.

    You have some chance of getting a Labour prime Minister if you have a Labour Leader of the Labour Party.

  • D99

    If people want to vote for Tory policies, it’s most likely that they’ll vote Conservative, rather than vote for any of the 3 Tory lite candidates now contesting the Labour Leadership election.

    And even in the highly unlikely event that the Labour Party did manage to get elected by offering Tory Party policies, they would no longer be the Labour Party in anything but name. So what would be the point?

    If they thought it would win them more votes, would they sell off another part of their integrity and adopt UKIP policies? (Actually, don’t answer that)

  • 23×7

    This analysis of of The Labour defeat in May is completely incorrect. Labour did not lose in May because it’s policies were too left wing. In fact Osborne is hoovering them up. Labour lost for the following reasons;

    1. Getting into bed with the Tories during the Scottish election, followed up with dithering on whether they would share power with the SNP.
    2. Failure to address the Rise of UKIP. labour should have supported the EU membership refferendum.
    3. Failure to nail the proper reasons for the 2007 crash and defend the record of the last labour govt on the NHS and child poverty.
    4. A leader who failed to connect with the electorate until it was too late.

    Ultimately Labour needs to ditch the constant triangulation and constantly adjusting its policies to what they think the electorate might like. It needs to reset its vision for a more equal society and plan appropriately.

  • 23×7

    Rejected? Osborne has started to adopt their policies.

  • 23×7

    Ah those wonderful efficient private enterprises. NHS = 1.3m employees, Apple = 98k not including their slave workforce in Asia.

  • BigDish
  • MalcolmRedfellow

    Essentially the current tension in the party is between principle and power; ideology and electability.

    It always has been. When the Labour Representation Committee was formed (Farringdon Street Memorial Hall, 27-28 February, 1900), the executive was seven trades unionists, two from the ILP, two from the SDF, one Fabian, and Ramsay MacDonald as unpaid secretary. I make that seven Labour men and six socialists. Today, the biggest single Constituency Party is Hornsey and Wood Green and its biggest ward membership is bourgeois Muswell Hill. I suspect there are now a plentitude more Ph Ds in the membership than active miners or steelworkers.

    After May’s devastating election result…

    Labour gained 1.5% of the percentage vote: twice that of, and a net gain of (just) two seats from the Tories. In London Labour was up 7.2% and seven seats (four from Tories — three of them in outer London, three from LDs). A London Labour Mayor in 2016?

    … the Labour Party has turned in on itself …

    Well? There’s a leadership contest (internal). There has to be a debate about future policy (internal). Meanwhile the Party is gaining members and doing none-too-badly in local elections (vote up in 13 of the 23 local ward elections) and in parliamentary politicking (Tories pulled hunting, EVEL, human rights: that Tory majority is a very slim one).

    The personality issue?

    The UK press is heavily right-of-centre, and their attack dogs are definitely in the fight. Which is also why Tory Central is heavily committed to suppressing as much unaligned comment (e.g. the BBC) as possible. So it’s “human interest” stuff, which means “cult of personality”. That’s where the dust is rising: no more, no less. Quite frankly, my dear, I couldn’t give a damn.

    The Scottie dog that doesn’t bark

    Portrushian omits what has to be the BIG issue: the SNP. Forty Labour seats went Nationalist. The essential question there is whether that is a gain for the political “left”.

    And … oh, err … there’s the small matter of an EU referendum, and a Tory leadership to occupy minds for the next few months and years. But, the Tories can currently say, “Look over there!”

  • Ghyl Tarvoke

    “Today, the biggest single Constituency Party is Hornsey and Wood Green and its biggest ward membership is bourgeois Muswell Hill.”

    Could I get a source for this? I’ve always been told that the largest CLP is in Ealing Southall, so more politically engaged South Asians than either left-liberals with PhD or ‘the common man'(TM). Always a safe Labour seat too, as opposed to Hornsey which was a safe Tory seat until 1992 and had a Lib Dem MP 2005-2015.

    One of the big changes in the UK political landscape since the Thatcher-Major years is how Labour London is now. During the 80s and up to 1997, the Tories always held the majority seats of London. Now even in a crushing national victory for the Conservaties, Labour hold 18 more seats than the Tories in the capital.

  • MalcolmRedfellow

    Well, my source there was the Secretary of Hornsey & Wood Green (HWG) Labour Party. The closest (geographical & numerical) is Hackney.

    HWG is a fascinating conceit: all the way from a massive plurality (1997), via a Lib Dem substantial majority (with lots of trots inflamed by Iraq), to another Labour plurality (2015). As the New Statesman pointed out, one reason why Labour has the upper hand in London is the choice of candidates: younger, bright, feisty women, up against the “male, pale and stale”. Now, if only the NI parties would recognise what they’re missing.

  • scepticacademic

    There is something in this. British society has changed radically over recent decades and the ‘working class’ has fragmented. This is a big problem for Labour. In the key marginals, it seems the reasonably comfortable ‘middle'(home-owners, in permanent white collar employment) doesn’t empathize with the plight of those at the lower end of the labour market (casualised jobs, zero hours contracts, dependent on in-work benefits) let alone those wholly dependent on the benefit system. The current Labour leadership dilemma reflects uncertainty about who Labour is ‘for’ and what it should stand for.

  • eamoncorbett

    D99, does that mean that we are in for a one party one country government for the foreseeable future, as neither NI ,Wales,Scotland can be represented in the UK government if the Tories win time and time again.

  • D99

    Yes. Probably. The majority of English voters tend to vote Tory. But there’s little difference between Blairites and Conservatives in any case. So, not much point voting for the uninspired Burnam, Cooper or Kendall even if they had a chance of winning. (Let’s be honest they don’t)

    So unless the Tories make significant political mistakes, or working people come to their senses, the Conservative Party will be in power for quite a while. And, as you say, NI, Scotland and Wales will not be represented.

    Corbyn at least offers a real alternative. And world events will inevitably push people both left and right in the next few years.