Shortly after the general election I wrote an article on this site about how Labour could win again. I was strangely optimistic. 2015 was bad but providing Labour learned the right lessons from defeat, victory in 2020 was possible. After all, the Conservative majority is small. The government has already abandoned plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and the Fox Hunting ban as a result. As long as Labour met its need to re-establish fiscal credibility head on and left no stone unturned in its bid to reconnect with the public a comeback was possible. It still is.
However, right now, all the signs are that the party seems determined to learn entirely the wrong lessons from its defeat in May. Rather than reach out to where the public is, many members have decided that, in the name of ‘differentiation,’ the old ways of unabashed socialism were right all along. Labour doesn’t need a new script, it should never have deviated so far from the old one. The answer lies in renationalising the railways, scrapping tuition fees (and presumably Trident) and completely rejecting anything that can be remotely labelled ‘austerity’.
Such sentiment has manifested itself in the now obvious surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn to be the next Labour leader. He now leads the way in CLP nominations whilst Stephen Bush, writing on this site last week, has seen private polling putting Corbyn as much as 15 points ahead on first preferences. The idea is that the Labour Party membership in 2015 is far to the left of that which narrowly chose David Miliband in 2010. If you have any doubts, just look at the way Liz Kendall has been treated – cynically labelled ‘Tory’ for daring to challenge the orthodoxy of the Labour left.
But is this all such a bad thing? It is clear from Osborne’s most recent budget that the working poor are going to suffer further under this government and that needs opposing. No complaints on that here. It is right to be critical of the Conservatives balancing the books on the back of the poor.
However, Labour’s issue has rarely been diagnosing problems but in providing credible solutions to them that the public see as deliverable. This is why in the 2015 General Election, Miliband policies such as the energy price freeze or scrapping ‘non-doms’ could be popular, the NHS could be the public’s number one issue and Miliband could lead Cameron on ‘understands people like me’ yet Labour still lost. People didn’t buy that Labour could deliver. Solving this issue is key and a return to the 1980s socialist ideology doesn’t do it.
Being in opposition is hard. I like to use the metaphor of comparing it to playing snooker (stay with me). Whilst your opponent is at the table there isn’t much else you can do but watch and wait your turn. To get back to the table your opponent has to miss but when they do you have to be ready. The point is the Conservatives are at the table, they are in government and call the shots. But they will miss from time to time and when they do, Labour must be ready. ‘Being ready’ means choosing a leader that the public can credibly see in Downing Street that picks their battles well. Someone that can regain the public’s trust in Labour to manage the economy, with all of the tough decisions that entails and someone that provides imaginative solutions to the critical issues facing the country. It’s about growing the economy, dealing with policy issues caused by Britain’s ageing population, providing the jobs (and skills) of the future and setting out Britain’s place in the world whilst keeping the country together.
Jeremy Corbyn is not that leader.
His campaign certainly offers a certain clarity in contrast to some of his opponents. He opposes austerity full stop and is relaxed about deficits and debt. I suspect this clarity is what appeals to many Labour members. He offers a comforting, left-wing, anti-Tory message. That’s fine. But he has offered precious little to convince this writer that his positions would carry the support of the wider public. He might be relaxed about public spending and immigration but they are not.
The reality is that if Labour moves too far left, the country will just keep returning Conservative governments. There is a reason why so many Conservatives want Corbyn as leader. His positions on issues ranging from renationalising industry to the Monarchy would be hung around his neck. The only reason they haven’t been so far is because his fellow candidates want his second preferences – especially now he is doing well – so they don’t want to attack him too much.
Deep down we know how a Corbyn leadership ends up. He would quickly be defined as a radical throwback to times past, Labour’s poll ratings would tank and MPs would move against him. A coronation of someone else would likely follow, much as the Conservatives did when they replaced Iain Duncan Smith with Michael Howard in 2003. Labour doesn’t make a habit of removing leaders but it is hard to see the PLP serving under a leader that they didn’t really want on the ballot in the first place for long.
But perhaps I am jumping the gun. Corbyn’s current momentum could merely be the “vent before the vote”, where Labour activists gather at CLP meetings to nominate the most left-wing candidate but actually vote for someone else in the end. In any case, CLP meetings are not always representative of the membership overall and even if Corbyn tops the ballot on first preferences, he is unlikely to have the breadth of support needed to actually win. A Corbyn victory is still not the most likely outcome.
But whoever wins, what matters most is the impact that this contest has on the Labour Party and its future direction. It is vital that the next Labour leader has the guts to lead the party in the direction it needs to go – with emphasis on the word ‘lead’. This means making the primary focus of the Labour Party’s pursuit of power to be convincing the public that it deserves another chance. Reengaging with business and tough decisions on spending priorities will be needed. Once in government it will be trusted to be progressive again, even transformative, but for now the task is to regain credibility. That, above all else, should be the next leader’s priority.
Labour only wins when it marries its core values to the reality of the day, delivering a vision for the country that commands broad support – and yes that means winning over Conservative voters too. Perhaps it will take the Labour membership another big defeat to really get this. I hope not. Otherwise, Labour in 2015 could become the Tories of 2001 – set for an almighty internal fight and an awful long way from being in power again. Labour members need to decide how much they really want to be in power – it’s time to get real.
Keiran Pedley is an elections and polling expert at GfK and tweets about politics at @keiranpedley.