In Yvette Cooper, Labour has the best chance yet to elect its first woman leader. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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The NS Leader: the choice before Labour

Jeremy Corbyn has inspired thousands to join Labour's selectorate, but Yvette Cooper's experience of government, intellect and credibility mark her out.

With its historical range and intellectual clarity, Gordon Brown’s speech on 16 August showed why he is one of Labour’s greatest sons. At its core was a lesson that his party has learned before and may have to learn again: “Making what we want – the desirable – possible means making the desirable popular and electable.” Late in the day, perhaps too late, he warned Labour not to let its epitaph be “pure but impotent”.

The Labour Party is in crisis. It has been destroyed in Scotland and routed in England and is threatened by insurgents of the left and the right. In common with many other social-democratic parties in Europe, it is struggling to adapt to the challenges, as well as the opportunities, of globalisation, mass migration, slimmer public sectors and strained government finances. After two successive general election defeats, Labour is in danger once again of becoming the natural party of opposition. Worse still, it could become irrelevant.

The drama and division that have characterised its leadership contest are the result of this malaise. Tony Blair has advised supporters of Jeremy Corbyn to have a heart “transplant”. Dave Ward, the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, has described Blairism as a “virus”. Many seem happier fighting the enemy within than the one without. When the leadership contest began, it seemed destined to follow an unremarkable path. The candidates – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall – all occupied roughly the same political ground. It was Mr Corbyn’s arrival on the ballot, with two minutes to spare, that changed everything. With impressive speed, as private polling obtained by the New Statesman website first reported, he became the front-runner. In the absence of a late upset, he will win. It would be one of the most startling results in British political history.

Those who lament Mr Corbyn’s success should try to understand it. An unapologetic socialist, Mr Corbyn has run an excellent and disciplined campaign, rich in policy proposals. He believes what he says and says what he means and people like this. His anti-austerity rhetoric, comparable to that of Nicola Sturgeon, has attracted many. It is heartening to see such a large number newly engaged or re-engaged in politics.

None of this is happening in isolation. Throughout Europe, anti-establishment candidates and parties of the left and right are thriving: Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, the Scottish National Party, Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France. Even the fiercely two-party United States has broadened the mainstream to encompass the socialist senator Bernie Sanders on the left and the tycoon (and buffoon) Donald Trump on the right. “The age of party democracy has passed,” wrote Peter Mair in Ruling the Void, an analysis of democracy’s crisis. “Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.”

The presence of Mr Corbyn in the contest has inspired many thousands to join a selectorate that now numbers 610,000. The revised rules, which allow anyone prepared to pay £3 to vote for the leader, have significantly weakened the influence of the party’s MPs but have empowered activists and supporters. In this way, Labour has made itself vulnerable to possible outside manipulation by those who wish it ill, as well as “entryism” from the extra-parliamentary left. In the circumstances, this is an extraordinary act of self-harm.

Yet the surge of support for Mr Corbyn cannot be attributed to entryism alone (the combined membership of Britain’s far-left factions and groups is too low). Many who were alienated from the party in the Blair years and demoralised by the Iraq war have returned. The Labour right, having endorsed the new rules, should also ask itself why it has proved so unsuccessful at persuading sympathetic voters to register.

Mr Corbyn, who will be 70 at the next general election in 2020, has surpassed all expectations, including his own. The role of leader is one he neither wanted nor expected. More troubling for him is that, if elected, he would struggle to command the authority and respect of the parliamentary party after breaking the whip 534 times since 1997. He has never been a minister. Many senior shadow cabinet members have said they would not serve under him; many other MPs have indicated that they would seek to undermine his leadership from the beginning. Labour is in open revolt.

Meanwhile, the Tories, who have a slender majority of 12 in the Commons, watch what is happening with quiet contentment, scarcely able to believe their luck. Chancellor George Osborne has stated that he aspires to occupy the centre ground of British politics. He must be delighted by the disarray within Labour and that the party is being pulled to the far left at a time when the Liberal Democrats are so weak.

 

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One of our principal objections to Mr Corbyn is on foreign policy, so little discussed in the contest. We live in an era of crumbling world order. The Middle East is riven by civil war and the Syrian tragedy is one of the great humanitarian catastrophes of recent decades. The emergence of the barbarous Islamic State and a revanchist Russia pose powerful threats. Yet Mr Corbyn is a resolute unilateralist. He advocates withdrawal from Nato – which would leave Britain vulnerable, our peace and defence alliances in tatters. We believe Britain’s interests are best served by seeking to reform the European Union from within the bloc. By contrast, many on the radical left consider the EU to be a “neoliberal” institution and support “Brexit”.

As for Mr Corbyn’s economic programme, the policy of a “people’s quantitative easing” would risk rampant inflation and is not a sustainable means of financing infrastructure programmes. We believe that a 7 per cent rise in National Insurance for those earning £50,000 or above to fund a return of the student grant is the wrong policy, and would not win support in those marginal seats Labour must win in the south of England if it is ever to form another government. The proposed renationalisation of the energy sector rests on tax ­projections that have been shown to be heroically optimistic. For these reasons and others, though we recognise his qualities as a principled campaigner, we cannot support Mr Corbyn’s candidacy. Labour’s next leader must be drawn from the party’s mainstream and must command the loyalty and respect of his or her MPs.

Liz Kendall has shown courage and tenacity in emphasising the need for the party to appeal to Conservative voters. We admire her commitment to pluralism and decentralisation but her pitch has relied too heavily on the language and concepts of the mid-1990s and she lacks the stature and experience necessary to command authority. However, she has enhanced her reputation through these summer months.

Andy Burnham has advocated important policies such as the establishment of a national health and care service and the transformation of vocational education. But he has frequently resorted to platitudes about “the Westminster ­bubble” (of which he is an archetypal member, though he protests otherwise). His positioning has been inconsistent. Too often, he gives the impression of merely arguing for whatever seems politically profitable on any given day.

Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, has run a cautious campaign that was designed to maximise second-preference votes from her rivals’ supporters, but in recent days, responding to the Corbyn surge, she has been bolder. Her experience of government, intellect and credibility mark her out. She has made a passionate and persuasive case for policies such as universal childcare and has forcefully resisted the Conservatives’ fiscal dogmatism. Labour, which purports to be the party of progress and opportunity for all, has never had a better chance to elect its first woman leader.

 

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Labour remains traumatised by an election defeat that it never saw coming and by Ed Miliband’s hasty resignation, which plunged the party into a leadership contest for which it was not prepared. The temptation for some is to write the next election off in advance and elect the candidate who provides most consolation. This must be resisted. History teaches that even the strongest governments can unravel with remarkable speed, which is why Labour must be in a position to offer a credible alternative. The best hope of it being able to do so, in the present circumstances, is the election of Yvette Cooper.

We say this knowing that Mr Corbyn is the clear front-runner and the likely next leader. Yet there are important elections next year in London, Wales and Scotland. If Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party performs poorly in each of these and its present dire position in the polls remains unchanged – and if civil war has broken out in the parliamentary party – his leadership will be in grave danger. Ms Cooper’s moment may yet come. 

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear