Mary Creagh. Photo: Getty
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Mary Creagh: Labour has become like Millwall Football Club – nobody likes us but we don’t care

The leadership campaign has been dragged to the left, says Mary Creagh. Unfortunately, the electorate has moved to the centre right - and voters think Labour doesn't understand their lives.

The Labour Party finds itself in a horrible place as parliament rises for the summer break. A dozen weeks since our overwhelming election defeat, Labour MPs are full of gallows humour and quiet despair – because, in choosing our new leader, we are making four of the same mistakes we made in 2010. First, like Gordon Brown after his defeat, Ed Miliband stood down as leader immediately. He hoped that the party could have “an open and honest debate about the right way forward, without constraint”. That debate has not materialised and we are having a family row with the Labour selectorate instead of a discussion with the British electorate.

Second, we are once again in a drawn-out leadership race that will exhaust the candidates, while David Cameron chillaxes on three summer holidays and Tim Farron and Nicola Sturgeon rally their troops for the battles ahead. Whoever is elected as leader will be drained by the campaign but have to start work right away. The first big test will be a speech to the trade union congress, which starts the day after the winner is announced on 12 September. The leader must then appoint a shadow cabinet, prepare for Prime Minister’s Questions, rebuild morale and write a cracker of a conference speech.

Third, we have a left-wing candidate on the ballot “for balance”. During the 2010 leadership election, David Miliband “lent” nominations to other candidates to ensure that Diane Abbott and Andy Burnham could take part. This made the transfers of voting under the single transferable vote system less predictable and, arguably, deprived David of the three or four extra MPs’ votes he needed to win. David’s legacy to Labour, which made it normal – Blairite, even – to put a left-winger on the ballot “to have a broad debate”, has dragged the leadership campaign to the left. Unfortunately, the electorate has moved to the centre right.

When I was still seeking MP nominations for the leadership, party members trolled me on Twitter, asking me to put Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot. I don’t believe in nominating someone I don’t intend to vote for. Corbyn’s presence on the ballot and his storming performances at hustings and in the constituency nominations have raised the prospect that he might win. That prospect, I’m sure, is as uncomfortable for him as it is alarming for the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Fourth, the centre ground remains a toxic place, with anyone who suggests that we listen to the public branded as a Blairite or a Tory, including, risibly, Harriet Harman. A colleague remarked to me, “You can blame Tony Blair for many things but you can’t blame him for winning three elections” – and, through those victories, lifting a million pensioners and a million children out of poverty, building a fairer workplace through the minimum wage and holiday entitlement, stopping mass murder in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, greening the economy and improving the lives of millions of people in the poorest countries of the world.

The public barely registers Labour’s leadership election, so rich in the narcissism of small differences. When we do make the news, people notice our internal divisions on the same issues that led them to reject us on 7 May: economic credibility, immigration, welfare. The challenges of technological change, housing and the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean are forgotten as the party debates whether Jeremy should have a seat in the shadow cabinet, or whether mothers make better leaders. People long for a centre-left party that speaks to the challenges of their lives, offers hope for their families and charts a course through choppy waters.

Significant international challenges lie ahead. As progressives, we must apply our values to shape Britain’s place in the world. Labour must resist the siren call of the left, which is busy learning the wrong lessons from Greece’s latest bailout. As the Labour MEP Richard Corbett points out, the Greeks had already had one long-term (30 years), low-interest (1.7 per cent) bailout from the IMF and the eurozone and the private sector had written off half of Greek debt. The Syriza/far-right coalition’s chaotic approach has led the Greek economy – which had returned to growth – to plunge back into recession, with the summer holiday period wiped out as tourists cancel their trips.

Yet those on the British left have branded the situation in Greece – Syriza’s referendum, capital controls and bank closures that have left crucial medical supplies running short – as a “coup” by Germany. They have started wondering whether Britain should stay in the EU, ignoring the social, economic, environmental and security gains that UK membership has brought us.

Labour is not yet in the place where we can say with confidence: “The only way is up.” Early findings from the “lessons learned” report commissioned by Harriet suggest that voters think that Labour simply does not understand their lives. We are in danger of becoming the political equivalent of Millwall Football Club. Their chant? “No one likes us, we don’t care.”

Andy Burnham has diagnosed one problem correctly – Labour has lost its emotional connection with the electorate. The solution is not to talk about rebuilding that connection but to do it. People vote not solely on the basis of which leader they would like to go down the pub with but on hard-headed calculations about which party is best for the economy and their family.

Yvette Cooper has rightly diagnosed that Cameron has a woman problem and she has a huge range of ministerial experience. Liz Kendall has told the uncomfortable truths that the party needs to hear. Both rightly talk about the need to campaign from the head and the heart. I am still undecided as to which woman I can see as a Labour prime minister in 2020, but I’ll be putting one of them at the top of my ballot as our best chance of winning.

Mary Creagh is the MP for Wakefield

Mary Creagh is the Labour MP for Wakefield

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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