Labour still don’t have a clue

The opposition can keep telling themselves that Cameron is a closet Thatcherite – but it won’t make

What's going to stop Labour from winning the next election is that, six years in, they still don't know who and what they're fighting. And since the next election could be a lot sooner than 2015, this is the gift that keeps on giving for the right. Before Ed Miliband can convince the public about himself, he needs to be convincing about David Cameron – and that's never going to happen for as long as the left keep kidding only themselves that the Tory leader is a closet Thatcherite.

It's hard to see on the face of it what the evidence is for this piece of wishful groupthink. Even with a crypto-Keynesian like Ed Balls as shadow chancellor rather than the more Blairite figure of Alan Johnson, it's the scale of the economic consensus that ought to stagger us and not the, in truth, marginal cross-party divisions, which are hyped up for despatch box effect.

But then what else is there? Whatever the Guardian wistfully hopes about right-wing economics leading to heroin-dealing nurses, selling mush like the "big society" as a threat to voters is surely a fantasy too far. If even Tory MPs who approvingly spout "big society" platitudes can't put any details on the warm feelings, it's improbable that Tom Baldwin's going to.

At every turn the government is exactly what Cameron hoped it would be – liberal. It's liberal in its social mores, it's at least as windily green as Labour, and it's pro-European. Many on the Tory right would say it's unarguably been so ever since Cameron broke his "cast-iron guarantee" that there would be a referendum on Lisbon. Yet like it or not, topped up by 50 Lib Dem MPs, the coalition also inescapably seems to people uninterested in politics to be that bit more liberal than a Tory-only government would have looked and sounded. Insisting that the government is not what the public plainly thinks it is, is a strategy Labour can try, but why's it going to work?

You can't even hope for a Thatcherite tone from this regime. There hasn't yet been a fight that Cameron hasn't run away from: from an abject refusal to milk-snatch to being pistol-whipped by Mumsnet, this Prime Minister will limbo under any tabloid headline held in front of him. So all Labour is doing now is repeating Steve Hilton's Demon Eyes mistake. Telling voters what they know to be untrue – "this man is a ravenous right-wing ideologue" – makes Labour seem incredible, and not in the good way.

Instead of crying wolf and inevitably being caught out for doing so, why not take a leaf out of the Clinton playbook? If Labour wants to exacerbate Cameron's undoubted party management problems, why not triangulate? Why not explicitly offer him support for his most obviously progressive and liberal measures? That's the way to push the Tory right over the edge. And as things stand, it's only they who are going to unseat Cameron any time soon.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.