The NS Leader: the Labour leadership battle shows how far the party has fallen

MPs are unenthusiastic and old divides still rule. What Labour needs is a genuine contest of ideas.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman\'s Morning Call email.

On 15 June, Jim Murphy, the outgoing leader of Scottish Labour, gave a speech at the London headquarters of Policy Exchange, the enterprising right-leaning think tank. In a bravura performance, he spoke with wit and candour about Labour’s catastrophic defeat in Scotland, the rise of the Scottish National Party (which he likened to “a pseudo-religious rock concert”), why he would always be a Unionist (he argued for the pooling of resources and cross-border solidarity) and why, if Labour is to win again, it must first win over Conservative voters. An appeal to altruism was not enough, he said. Labour had to move back on to what he called, quoting Ludwig Wittgenstein, “the hard ground”.

“In truth we suffered two and half defeats in one election day – reverses against the SNP in Scotland, reverses against the Tories in large parts of England and partial retreat to Ukip where they were also challenging us,” he said. “It appears that Labour lost ground to our primary opponents, whoever it was, in different parts of the UK.” Mr Murphy continued: “You cannot assume your way to an election victory. To paraphrase [Harold Wilson], the victory of ideals must be earned. I look forward to a leadership debate that reflects the depth of our defeat rather than a one-more-heave mindset.”

The four candidates for the Labour leadership – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Jeremy Corbyn – should heed this warning. For too long, Labour has been ruinously divided between the so-called Blairites and Brownites. In his speech, Mr Murphy conceded that he had spoken to Ed Balls more during the final weeks of the election campaign than he had in “decades”. He sounded regretful. Yet, in recent days, in an unattributable briefing from one of her rivals (how politicians and their aides delight in being wrapped in the comfort blanket of anonymity), Ms Kendall was denounced as representing the “Taliban Blairite” faction.

All of this needs to stop. The Labour Party is shattered. Its MPs are, on the whole, unenthusiastic about the leadership contenders – there has been a lot of muttering to the effect that a second contest should be held in three years if the new leader is perceived to be failing. Centre-left commentators are openly mocking the candidature of Mr Corbyn, who represents the old, unreconstructed Bennite left. Mr Burnham, once an avowed Blairite, has repositioned himself as a candidate of the left (but not too left, mind) and seems to think that having a regional accent and proclaiming his support for comprehensive schools and the NHS will be enough to convince sceptics that he has the credentials, intellectual depth and vision to become prime minister. So far, it is only Ms Kendall who seems willing to ask the most difficult questions, challenging grim statism and what Mr Murphy called “boss politics of some union barons”. But does she have the necessary stature? Let the contest begin in earnest and let it be a genuine contest of ideas. The alternative is irrelevance. 

This article appears in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

Free trial CSS