Labour’s Leaderships: Entertaining political psychodrama or a struggle with the protean reality of 21C Politics?

So, normally I hate futuring. But leaving aside what the polls say, the betting markets are convinced Corbyn is home and hosed as the new Labour Party leader. He may even come in at anywhere between 60% and 70% of the party electorate.

The party electorate as opposed to the party membership. As William Hague took rather too much delight in telling the Daily Telegraph’s readership, those aren’t the same:

If there was an NVQ Level 1 in How To Run a Party, the crucial nature of the qualifying period to vote in a leadership election would be on the syllabus, possibly on the first page. Every student plotting to take over a university society knows that the shorter that period, the easier it is to mount an insurgency from outside. But this basic fact seems to have escaped Ed Miliband, along with every other possible consideration of what might happen after his own unnecessarily rapid departure.

The result of this is that Labour’s leader is being chosen by a largely new electorate, with correspondingly little sense of ownership of the party’s history, in which the desire to align the party with their own views outweighs any sense of duty to provide the country with an alternative government.

As mentioned here before, the party would be far better equipped for the future if it discussed what poor old Ed Miliband got wrong than ripping itself up over Blair’s (admittedly dreadful) Middle East legacy.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 12.34.35The problem for Labour is not that just they have opened up the membership to people whose commitment to the party is weaker than their fealty to the new leader, but that the new membership and its older representatives are already at odds.

And there’s no doubt Corbyn is preparing himself for a civil war by making sure his supporters join his ‘movement’ as well as the party in order to underwrite his power going forward.

But whilst the fixed term Parliament should ensure Corbyn has a full five year tenure as leader it also means his new movement may see their energy subsumed in fighting long battles to replace ‘uncooperative’ New Labour type MPs rather than building a new social agenda.

That agenda is something of a work in progress. But as Rafael Behr noted yesterday, the blame for the division does not reside with the Corbynites alone:

Most MPs from the Anyone But Corbyn (ABC) camp recognise that they have lost the party and the argument. From the outset Liz Kendall’s supporters misjudged the mood and allowed their champion to be caricatured as a soulless Blairite nostalgist scolding members for their attachment to socialism. As the Corbyn bandwagon gathered momentum, the ABCs deployed rebuttals based on electoral logic: steering left was undesirable because it was impractical. In so doing they ceded idealism to the Corbynites.

They were complicit in the division of Labour into two spheres: principle, which belongs to the left, and cynical calculation, which is the stock in trade of the right. Even the old argument that principle without power is impotent contains a tacit recognition that Corbynism is pure in essence. The more blood-curdling the warning of ballot box catastrophe, the sharper the divide. Corbyn became the light of hope against Blairism’s dark heart of fear.

Indeed. And with the grand narrative embedded, the critics’ barbs just bounced off the new Labour king’s suit of gold:

This moral high ground gave Corbyn strange immunity from criticism. When the anointed one is the incarnation of principle, his actions are beyond reproach. Scrutiny of his opinions and the company he has kept are “smears”. If he has invited to parliament men who justify terrorism or shared platforms with antisemites and homophobes it cannot be because his judgment is warped.

It must be an enlightened strategy of engagement for the higher cause of peace. These fellow travellers include people who have called 9/11 “sweet revenge” and said Nazi gas chambers are a hoax to promote “Jew- worshipping” in Europe.

It’s not just his lapsing memory that should trouble his party. Building a platform capable of capturing sufficient power to make it happen in the current clunky democratic system takes more than promises.

Indeed, as Syriza’s heels are getting nipped by the centre right New Democracy party in Greece, voter volatility is the key feature not just receptivity to what often turn out to be false promises.

The whole psychodrama as Behr notes has not been about the future direction of the party so much as the excision of a ghost:

Pointing out that elections were won by Blair doesn’t rehabilitate Blairism – it diminishes the appeal of winning. That trend was clear in the last leadership race. Ed Miliband gamed it when he promised to “turn the page” on New Labour.

Thanks to the release of emails from Hillary Clinton’s private account, we know that even the US secretary of state understood it in 2010. She wrote to Sid Blumenthal, her unofficial adviser and aide, that the result was “clearly more about Tony than it was David or Ed”.

One of Corbyn’s key problem will be the trail of oppositionist statements he’s left behind in his long career as a backbench MP. Behr again:

A serious party cannot present this proposition to the country as a bid to take charge of Downing Street, and I’m sure many of Corbyn’s team know it. He is a transitional figure whose victory would be used as an opportunity to take control of the party machine.

His failure to generate a nationwide socialist revival would be blamed on the disloyalty of MPs – the undead hand of Blairism strangling the infant movement.

If a challenge came from the right, Corbyn would step aside, saying the whole thing was never about personalities and he is, after all, nearing retirement age. A younger, less problematic candidate would run for the left. The name often posited for that role is Lisa Nandy, the dynamic MP for Wigan.

The dilemma for MPs appalled by the turn events have taken is to acknowledge the potency of the campaign that has beaten them without surrendering the party to a platform of certain defeat.

They must lay their flowers quietly on New Labour’s grave and develop a new set of arguments for a 21st-century party that marries political reality and moral authority: caring about the deficit because stable finances are sound in principle; reforming social security because a system that is resented by millions has failed in principle; addressing concerns over immigration because confidence in the way borders are managed is a condition of tolerance and cohesion, which are good in principle; weighing the case for intervention against dictators and terrorists on the grounds that sometimes action beats inaction on principle.[Emphasis added]

Hague’s slightly too glib analysis does tell some home truths. The social democrat’s problem lies in the fact that capitalism is now more global and more distributed than ever, whilst it subsists within smaller and smaller silos of the nation state.

But in fact, as demonstrated by the flash of emotions around the migrant/refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, it’s not just the left that struggles to find solid political ground within the scarily protean political realities of today.

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