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4 August 2015updated 26 Jul 2021 6:56am

In 2010, Labour was in denial. 2015 is the year of anger

In retrospect, it seems clear that both Milibands were offering denial. This leadership election is defined by anger, says Andy White.

By Andy White

There are said to be five stages of grief in the Kübler-Ross model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

The denial stage is marked by an unwillingness to accept that anything has changed. Widowed spouses wait by the door for their partner to come home. Children refuse to accept that their parents’ relationship has ended. The shock hasn’t sunk in yet.

Labour in denial

The two front-runners in the 2010 Labour leadership race were, in hindsight, candidates of denial. Those who blamed Labour’s breakdown on the Gordon Brown affair saw in David Miliband an opportunity to pretend it had never happened. The rest, who thought Iraq the major mistake, thought Ed Miliband might be the answer.

“We need someone who will keep the party together,” was a common refrain during the last race. Of course it wasn’t the party that had collapsed, but public trust in it as a party of government.

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People will continue to debate whether David Miliband would have fared better than his younger brother at the 2015 general election. ComRes polls suggested he would have appealed to a wider section of the electorate on a personal level, but Labour’s problems clearly ran much deeper than that.

Labour’s anger

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Now after 2010’s War of Denial, we have the 2015 War of Rage. Liz Kendall, in the blue corner, represents the rage of the vindicated: the Blairites who knew Ed Miliband would never win.

Jeremy Corbyn, in the red corner, channels the rage of the betrayed. They see the rise of Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, Alexis Tsipras in Greece, and the Podemos movement in Spain, and wonder why they cannot have their own authentically left-wing figurehead.

The success of Corbyn has cast Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper negatively as the Anyone-But-Corbyn (ABC) candidates. (Had Kendall been more successful, they would probably have been ABKs.)

Can you stop Corbyn?

Many of Corbyn’s opponents make the mistake of seeing this as another game of denial. They attack him for being unelectable, for being “even further to the left than Ed Miliband”, for risking breaking up the party.

But those who act in anger act without fear of consequence. The Conservative Party did much the same thing when it elected Iain Duncan Smith. It was a two-fingered gesture to Ken Clarke’s politics rather than a serious attempt at fashioning an electoral force.

The challenge for a party is how quickly it can move through these stages of grief and infighting. Mark Mardell argued this week that these difficult emotions may be a necessary step on the road to recovery.

So those looking to block Corbyn may want to question him on his own terms. His supporters back him because they see him as a traditional, principled man of the left. Arguing that he is not a serious prime ministerial prospect is irrelevant to them.

Perhaps John Bew’s attack on Corbyn’s “heir to Attlee” credentials will be more effective.

Can we trust the polls?

Another campaign has been brought to life by a poll showing the leftwinger ahead – and Stephen Bush has argued that this time the polls are supported by the underlying fundamentals.

Nevertheless, this is a hugely challenging race to poll, as the Labour membership is fluid and poorly understood. Many of those registered will not vote. The alternative vote system means that candidates usually need to gain second and third preferences from supporters of other candidates.

In the event, anger may yet give way to bargaining.

Andy White is head of Innovation at ComRes.