Labour leadership: Corbyn, his opponents and The Vision Thing

The Labour leadership contest has every appearance of a soap opera. I noted below that the historical precedents that Jeremy Corbyn would be unelectable as Prime Minister were strong but by no means overwhelming and were based on a post hoc deterministic analysis.

One of the most fundamental problems for the non Corbyn candidates is that they have singularly failed to outline their vision in sufficiently persuasive terms to become newsworthy. They may indeed have a vision but have failed to articulate it adequately. Rather they have based much of their pitch on “electability”. In that they have contrasted their supposed electability with Corbyn’s unelectability.

In this they seem to have imbibed the analysis of style over substance and with it the cynicism, which marked much of Blair’s tenure as Prime Minister. In addition they have forgotten the genuine enthusiasm that greeted Blair’s election as Prime Minister and the beginning of his premiership.

The cheering crowds in Downing Street on the 2nd of May 1997 may have been choreographed in almost as regimented a fashion as the spontaneous demonstrations in favour of the assorted hereditary monarchs of the DPRK, but there is no doubt that Blair was wildly popular when first elected.

Much of that may have been delight at having finally removed a government which had become unpopular (though not really as hated as Blair’s came to be). Some of it though was true optimism for Blair’s agenda: remember “things can only get better”. That was produced by political spin doctors like Campbell and Mandelson who also ran a deeply personal campaign against John Major; presenting a witty, charming man as a completely grey individual tucking his shirts into his underwear. Much of Blair’s initial pitch was, however, unrelentingly optimistic and forward looking.

In contrast Burnham, Cooper and especially Kendall (who is the most Blairite of the contenders) have tended to negativism.

Clearly there are rational critiques to make of Corbyn’s agenda but the others have all followed in his wake sniping at not just his ideas but also him personally whilst producing little in the way of distinctive policy proposals of their own. He may be claimed not to look Prime Ministerial with his battered sports jackets, lack of tie and Lenin Hat but at least he lacks the oily accidental disinguenity of an estate agent in 2007 assuring you that this house in Belfast can only rise in value. Sadly like the estate agents of 10 years ago Kendal, Burnham and Cooper seem to believe their own spin.

The other candidates’ apparent lack of vision is, to a limited extent, because of Corbyn’s policies being more eye catching: it being 30 years or more since anyone actually proposed genuinely left wing political positions on the economy, defence, housing, energy etc. These policies may well not stand up to scrutiny but they are exciting to present on the media. This is especially a problem when the Labour leadership election is being held during a particularly quiet silly season when there is little news. This has meant that there have been few political occurrences for Corbyn to have to respond to and hence, few opportunities for him to say odd things which might be unpopular and thus, tarnish his image. The odd things he has said in the past are sufficiently distant to be seen as less relevant.

In contrast to Corbyn’s unending splurge not only of enthusiasm and positivity (even if it is somewhat way out positivity) there is also his unending policy announcements (again way out in many cases).

The others may well have policies which may be better thought out and better costed etc. but they are simply neither memorable nor exciting.

Burnham may have tried but has been seen to flip flop on policy issues and is playing catch up to Corbyn: proposing nationalising railways but Corbyn is more clearly pro nationalisation. His other views are eminently forgettable and seem designed to be all things to all people: trying to go a quarter of the way from Cooper towards Corbyn.

The arguments in favour of Yvette Cooper are equally problematic. She is the most associated in the public mind with Milliband’s failed campaign. This is in part through no fault of her own, because of her marriage to Ed Balls. That may be unfair but is a problem for her and one she has not adequately addressed by producing policies. The suggestions that she would be the Labour leader Cameron would most fear at the dispatch box is also a deeply flawed Westminster village argument. William Hague beat Blair with metronomic frequency in the Commons and achieved nothing as Tory leader.

Liz Kendal meanwhile has been arguably the least impressive. She started pretty well with a feisty and entirely appropriate response when asked about her weight by a Mail on Sunday journalist. Since then, however, she seems to have contributed little positive and has led the negativity against Corbyn. Her latest call for people to vote for anyone but Corbyn looks like a very clear admission of defeat. Most worrying is the feeling that Kendal (if not the others) would rather have Cameron as Prime Minister than Jeremy Corbyn: Resolutely not the vibe to give off if seeking to be Labour leader.

Essentially then the problem is that all three of the other contenders have ceded the ground of debate to Corbyn. Then have failed to articulate any remotely coherent vision of their own and have resorted to attacking their principle opponents’ position and too often those attacks have veered very close to the personal. This has allowed Corbyn to be unremittingly positive and avoid negative campaigning. If politics is about ideas rather than spin Corbyn, even if his ideas are quite mad at times, actually has some.

The others in contrast seem to be saying that some variant of Blair / Brownism in 2020 is all that is needed. Ironically in this they are adopting the strategy which Blair and Brown eschewed in 1994: that of John Smith’s of one last heave to win back power from the Tories. Brown and especially Blair felt a new and radical vision was needed to win in 1997: as I have suggested previously I suspect either strategy would have won in 1997.

However, in 2020 after only two Tory (and one coalition) terms this strategy is less likely to be effective. Combining that with the overwhelmingly negativity of their campaigns means that if anyone other than Corbyn wins, Labour will have grave difficulty uniting and winning. It is suggested that military leaders tend to fight the last war rather than the one they have: in this case the other Labour candidates seem to be preparing a campaign for the 2025 election and even then lack any of “The Vision Thing”.

Since my last essay on the Labour leadership campaign ended with a Biblical quote I will continue the theme:

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” Proverbs 29: 18.

Corbyn’s vision may be close to unelectable but at least he can articulate one. If elected he may very well go down to glorious defeat in 2020 (or earlier if his internal opponents knife him) but currently it looks as though, if one of his opponents wins, the party will be moribund long before then.

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  • Jane2

    I think that’s all people want of their political leaders, regardless of political stripe…a vision. We certainly don’t need any more corporate managers.

  • scepticacademic

    Yes, a lot to agree with here. The (low) quality of the candidate pool (intellectual lightweights is an understatement) and the absence of a “vision thing” (i.e. “who and what is Labour for?”) are rather depressing, speaking as someone of a centrist or centre-left persuasion. The Tories must be p***ing themselves.

  • Gingray

    Good article, labour are fretting just a little too much. Corbyn is a breath of fresh air, and enthusing a base can be good for the party in the long run. And if the tories can survive IDS Labour will be ok.

  • hugointerpreter

    If Corbyn wants to win, he shouldn’t avoid negative campaigning. He has every right and reason to attack it. The ‘war effort’ that was the expenses scandal saw fewer people ever vote, despite being taught that “troubled areas ensure increased turnout.” I have witnessed those personal attacks; “Corbyn wants to see Blair stand trial for Iraq,” even though this would be no party policy for being the business of either a pressure group, or the judiciary. Channel Four News decide who his friends are. The latest, we hear, is that Corbyn could disrupt the peace process. Party leadership, in a collective entity is never as much after a leadership contest. I see these things as like a hundred meter sprint. Reach the end. Say something.

  • mickfealty

    Further reading on the pro Corbyn front:

    http://dougald.nu/labour-through-the-looking-glass-15-early-morning-speculations-on-the-corbyn-surge/.

    http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/aug/09/jeremy-corbyn-labour-overspending-did-not-cause-financial-crisis

    There is something lifeless about the post Miliband party. He started with the delusion that the party was okay after 2010, and did nothing to address it’s pending collapse in Scotland and the encroachment of UKIP on some of its northern strongholds.

    Corbyn appeals because he’s not associated with either Blair or Brown or Miliband. He’s an insurgent force within the party, far sharper than any of the incumbents, he’s had his literature out first to the new selectorate (expanded hugely by new clicktivistas, and some of the parties own opponents), and his talking English.

    Whether he wins or loses its a wake up call to the party to return to doing what it hasn’t been doing for some time, the ancient art of political engagement. Bet on me, I’m not a loser is not as you say a great pitch.

    In politics in general we need better populists.