Labour can win either from the dark side...or the light. Photo: Getty Images
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There are two ways out of the wilderness for Labour: Jeremy Corbyn or Liz Kendall

There are two paths to a Labour victory in 2020, argues Michael Chessum: either Labour reject the principles of neoliberalism with Corbyn, or embrace them with Liz Kendall.

Deep within us all, there is a Labour centrist – a person who wants desperately to paper over all cracks and unite the party – and, by now, they long for death. Even the leadership candidates who preach unity and triangulation, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, barely seem to believe what they are saying, and the desperate noises of party the grandees who have intervened to urge Labour members to support them have either backfired or fallen on deaf ears. The more that the mainstream commentariat attempts to diagnose what is happening, the more it compounds the problem, with Jonathan Freedland adeptly adding the label of “narcissist” to sit alongside “moron” as a description for Jeremy Corbyn’s burgeoning young support base.

The reason why so much of the party apparatus and its periphery in the press claim to be so concerned about any great shift in Labour is because it is using an old and rather lazy rule of thumb: move too far to the left and you become unelectable; move too far to the right and you may become more palatable to middle England, but you lose your base and threaten party unity. The unelectability of the left has always been based on a dubious conventional wisdom about the 1980s – when the SDP, which was riding high in the polls prior to the Falklands War, split the Labour vote – but it is now utterly useless as a means of understanding how the electorate votes.

Labour lost the 2015 general election because it accepted every premise that the Conservatives and mainstream press laid down, and tried, somehow, to reach a different conclusion. Ed Balls and Ed Miliband went out of their way to accept the need for austerity, cuts and a public sector pay freeze – while at the same time claiming to offer a lukewarm alternative to them. HQ produced mugs that celebrated a ‘tough’ stance on immigration, while Labour’s door-knocking army tried to persuade everyone that Labour was the alternative to racists in Ukip and the Tory Party. The public were, understandably, unconvinced: why vote for a lukewarm version of conventional wisdom when you have the real thing?

The outgoing party leadership is still pursuing a strategy of clumsy contortionism. Harriet Harman’s last substantial parliamentary decision as Acting Leader – to abstain on the Welfare Bill – was an organised act of political dishonesty designed, basically, to deceive the supposedly universally Thatcherite population of middle England into thinking that most Labour MPs agreed with some of the Tories’ approach to welfare, which they don’t. But in order for the manoeuvre to be successful, the press needed report it as a manoeuvre – so by definition everyone, including the very people who were supposed to be deceived by it, had to know that the move was dishonest. Cooper and Burnham responded by simultaneously endorsing the abstention and denouncing it, with Burnham even putting out a self-righteous Facebook post claiming in a roundabout way to have voted against the Bill, which he obviously didn’t.

There is no way to triangulate out of the electoral impasse that faces Labour: in order to build a convincing narrative, either it must reject the (broadly speaking neo-liberal) premises that have constituted the political consensus since the 1990s, or it must embrace them and follow them to their logical right-of-centre conclusions in an attempt to outperform the Conservatives on their own terrain. At present, there are only two candidates offering to do these things – Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall – and, if electability was all one cared about, there is ample reason to believe that only Corbyn and Kendall could win for Labour in 2020.

Corbyn’s rejection of the mainstream political consensus – on work as the real driver of wealth creation, on reversing privatisation of public services, on redistribution, on opposing Britain’s involvement in foreign wars – is incredibly popular, and not just among the party faithful. Most of these policies carry majority support among the wider public, and, just as importantly, they are decisively different from anything currently on offer – a break with what feels like a stagnant political scene. Even in (rare) neutral reporting on Corbyn’s campaign, it is often described in terms of “taking Labour back” to the years of Bennite radicalism. But Corbyn is actually a lot more radical than that: he talks about technology and radical democratic reform, and, with his young support base, he looks an awful lot like the future, not the past.

When I started getting involved in the National Union of Students about five years ago, one of the most revealing conversations I had was with a union officer close to Labour Students – a group which has been dominated by Blairites since the mid-1990s, and until recently served as the union’s leadership. Why, I asked over a pint at a training residential, did they oppose the abolition of tuition fees? My colleague responded that to be honest, he wasn’t really sure – “it used to be because we wanted to be at the centre of higher education funding debate, but now I think we have a principled objection to it”.  Last week, Tony Blair publicly acknowledged the reality of the electability rhetoric that has dominated internal party debates since the 1980s: even if it was the path to victory, he said, he wouldn’t want to win on “a traditional leftist platform”. In other words, concerns about ‘electability’ are really a proxy for a fundamental set of political differences that separate Blair’s heirs from the rest of the party, and especially its left wing.

As centrist social democratic parties all over Europe splinter and re-form, many in the Labour Party establishment are hoping that with enough triangulation and think-tank briefings, Labour can be different. But far bigger and more powerful forces are at work, and the political trajectory that Blair plotted in the 1990s could only ever go so far inside a social democratic party. Either a Kendall or a Corbyn victory could lead to a significant split, but at least the new leadership would be able to develop a coherent political narrative, anchored either in the left or in the centre-right. In defiance of all conventional wisdom and tactical expectations, it is Labour’s left wing that might now lead it out of the wilderness. Perhaps, after decades of watching transparent “positioning” by successive Labour leaders, what the public really wants is an electoral alternative that is based on having ideas and fighting for them. 

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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad