Tim Farron addresses an audience. Photo: Getty Images
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The Lib Dem leadership brought their party closer together. Labour's is tearing them apart

The Liberal Democrats' short contest has allowed that party to get back on the road to recovery. Labour's long one has them on the road to ruin, says Dan Falvey.

On 8 May the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party resigned following a shock Conservative victory at the general election. Nick Clegg said that it had been “a huge privilege and unlimited honour” to serve as leader for the Liberal Democrats but that the party had suffered “catastrophic losses” and that they must “reflect on these in the time ahead”; meanwhile, Ed Miliband stepped down claiming that the Labour party “needs to have an open and honest debate about the right way forward”.

Both parties had done worse than expected at the polls and both now desperately needed to reorganise in order to move forward and start rebuilding so that they may once again be seen as electable come 2020.

However, this is where the similarities between the parties’ post-election woes end. The leadership elections that followed the resignations of the leaders have taken two very separate routes. While the Liberal Democrats have elected Tim Farron as their leader in a very private, respectful leadership contest that took just 10 weeks, Labour’s leadership election has been an incredibly public vicious battle that is set to drag on for a total of 18 weeks until a leader is finally elected in September.

Given the extent of Labour’s loss the acting leader of the party, Harriet Harman, claimed that the party’s leadership contest must take place in the public eye. She said: “We have to go back and ask local people from those areas [in which we lost] to be brutally honest about what they think of us and what they want from us”. As a result hustings were to be televised and take place in marginal seats so that all candidates could be properly scrutinised by the electorate.

In contrast to the Labour election, the Liberal Democrat leadership contest was much more low key. Instead of appealing to the wider public the party who were in government with the Conservatives before the election opted for a contest that was much more focused on their party members. Sal Brinton, the Liberal Democrat president, argued that the party had chosen for a swift election so that they can begin campaigning immediately. She stated: “We know we have some major elections to fight next year, the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly, the London assembly as well as a very large number of council seats.”

When it was announced last Thursday that Tim Farron was to be the new leader of the Liberal Democrats the mood from his party was one of excitement and eagerness. The party was ready to move forward under their new leader and do everything they could to re-engage with the electorate.

There was no divide in the party with supporters of the only other leadership candidate, Norman Lamb, equally anticipating with enthusiasm the challenge ahead. Lamb himself congratulated his rival on twitter claiming that Farron would be a “passionate leader of our party, championing social justice and leading from the front in our campaign to rebuild the liberal voice”.

The future of the Labour Party couldn’t look more different. Through their “open and honest debate” the factions within the party have become visible: The party is divided between Old Labour, New Labour, Blairites, Brownites and everything in between. The stark differences between the policies offered by leadership candidates Liz Kendal and veteran MP Jeremy Corbyn highlight the differences in beliefs of party members. In reality, Labour seems less like one untied political party and more like a coalition of MPs of opposing beliefs.

Ed Miliband was criticised by many for not being a strong leader but one thing he did do was hold a divided party together and make them work as a unit. In his absence, the invitation for MPs to express their opinions openly has caused the party to fall apart as Labour MPs begin to fight amongst themselves.

Chuka Umunna has accused some members of his party of “behaving like a petulant child who has been told you can't have the sweeties in the sweet shop” during the leadership election and Harriet Harman has seen MPs revolt against her decision for the party to abstain on a vote to changes to welfare benefits.

It is impossible to imagine how that party will be able to work together and MPs put their differences behind them post the election of a new leader, especially now that the range of opinions have been so widely circulated by the media.

With a new leader now elected and the whole party fully behind him, the Liberal Democrats looks like a party who are ready to fight the government over the next five years and make their voice heard so that they may once again become a relevant party within the political system. Labour however look nowhere near ready to fight for the hearts and votes of the British electorate.

We are only half way through their election battle and they are already starting to fall apart at the seams. For Labour the next five years represent not only a struggle for the support of the nation but a struggle for unity from their own MPs.

Photo:Getty
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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.