George Osborne, Ed Miliband and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Leader: Labour needs to be more than just a repository for anger

Labour will not return to power if it seeks to win only the votes of those who are angry at the condition of modern Britain.

In our centenary issue of 12 April 2013, Tony Blair challenged the Labour Party to be “the seekers after answers, not the repository for people’s anger”. “In the first case, we have to be dispassionate even when the issues arouse great passion,” he wrote. “In the ­second case, we are simple fellow-travellers in sympathy; we are not leaders. And in these times, above all, people want leadership.”

Mr Blair has become an embarrassment to Labour, not least because of his misadventure in Iraq and his less-than-distinguished activities in retirement. Yet his insight that Labour could not prevail if it appeared to be merely an instrument for expressing discontent with the Conservatives, rather than a means to a bold transformation of British society, was proved painfully correct on 7 May. And this much is true: since Harold Wilson resigned as prime minister in 1976, Labour has had seven leaders but only Mr Blair has proved ­capable of winning a general election.

In a passionate essay also published in this week’s issue, the actor and activist Michael Sheen echoes Mr Blair when he writes, “The question of whether Labour moves back towards the centre, doing more to seem business-friendly or breaking away from the unions, is totally secondary to the fundamental question: ‘What do you believe in?’” To which he adds a second question: “How do you turn that into policy that can make concrete change?”

Despite his heavy defeat, Ed Miliband did a good job of answering the first question. He was rightly offended by deepening inequality and, in an age of globalisation, by the widening gap between the very rich and the rest – the pressing issue of our time. Whichever politician emerges to lead Labour should not abandon the fundamental insight that deep inequality corrodes the soul of a nation.

Mr Miliband failed, however, to provide an answer to the second question posed by Mr Sheen. Under his leadership, Labour’s policy solutions were quotidian and incremental. Rather than setting the mood of modern Britain, Labour fell victim to it. For the left, in particular, this is an era of easy anger. Political action all too often begins and ends with shouting at a computer screen. That old phrase – “The right seeks converts, the left seeks heretics” – is truer than it has ever been. Mr Miliband attempted to channel people’s anger, even going so far as to persuade Russell Brand to endorse Labour. But the idealism of the young proved an inadequate weapon against the caution of the old. Labour led the Conservatives by 16 points among first-time voters but trailed by 24 among the over-65s, who also voted in far greater numbers.

Labour will not return to power if it seeks to win only the votes of those who are angry at the condition of modern Britain. It must also win the support of those who are doing well – and, indeed, the support of those who live so precariously that talk of change feels like a threat, rather than a blessing.

On all but the rarest of occasions, no single party can achieve all it wants. Even movements of the left and centre left require compromise, with one another as well as with the country at large. This can only be achieved through collective endeavour and complex trade-offs. Understanding the cause of left-wing anger – but being more than a mere repository for it – will be the biggest task of whoever emerges as Ed Miliband’s successor from a protracted leadership campaign.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.