By 2020, it will have been 15 years since Labour last won a general election. If the Tories win another majority, which let’s face it, at the moment seems the most likely outcome, we could be waiting a long while before we see a Labour leader victorious at the ballot box.
Vast periods out of power are not uncommon – Labour spent 18 years out of office, the Tories 13. When any party finds itself away from Downing Street for a sustained period it is essential to rebrand, unify and show the electorate you can be trusted to lead. During Tony Blair’s time as Leader of the Opposition, he did all of these things but also did something that Labour desperately needs to do now. Not only did Blair manage to both reform and revolutionise the party, but he also managed to unify both those on the left and also those slightly to the right. This leadership election provides the opportunity to repeat that.
As it stands, Labour has become two polarised groups. In recent times, the differences and tensions between the two camps have been exacerbated. This leadership election seems to have distanced them to the point where talks of splitting the party have gone from being mild rumours to a real possibility.
History tells us a split would be disastrous, with the potential to condemn Labour to decades of political insignificance. In the 1980s, a group of Labour moderates decided to splinter away and form the SDP. Neither they nor Labour performed particularly well in the next three elections. Diluting your support is never a good idea and Labour must avoid it at all costs. This leadership election needs to move away from being a war that could split the party, and instead move towards what you might call marriage counselling. If both sides get back on good terms, and start working together, there is the potential that Labour can become an electoral force once more.
For Labour to have any chance of winning an election, it is pivotal that whoever becomes party leader appeases both of sides of spectrum. When Blair took over in 1994, his move to rewrite Clause IV but also maintain the key principles of equality of opportunity, encourage education and increase government spending, appeased both sides and unified them. Labour needs another Clause IV moment, and this leadership election is exactly what that could be.
Owen Smith has tried to paint himself as this unifier that but in truth has missed the boat entirely. His campaign so far has been incredibly poor, his “negotiate with ISIS” and his “smash” Theresa May “on the back of her heels” gaffes are indicative of his and the parliamentary Labour party’s desperation to get as much publicity as Jeremy Corbyn. The man who is trying to portray himself as less controversial and more competent than Corbyn has simply yet to do so. Until he does, he will not be a worthy opponent.
A recent Independent/BMG poll showed 60 per cent of the public believe Corbyn will win the election. It is certainly the most likely outcome, but it is still of paramount importance that Corbyn starts to unify the party. This leadership challenge is enough of a warning that simply preaching to the converted will get Labour nowhere. Corbyn is adored by the core party membership, but looking at MORI’s long term approval trackers of the wider public his net approval rating is minus 41. Assuming Corbyn wins the race, he must begin to start working alongside those at the right of the party and take their ideas and policies onboard, if he is to ever have a chance of winning a general election.
A unified Labour is essential to our democracy. Without it we have no effective opposition and essentially let the Tories run wild. Labour must avoid a split at all costs and instead, move in a direction that both sides of the party are happy with. As long as the camps within Labour understand where the other is coming from and agree to work on each other’s ideas, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that Labour is airing her laundry in public.
It might be unlikely in the short term, but this leadership election can begin to breed the conversations required to solve the party’s issues. These arguments have been pent up for years. Now, Labour finally has the opportunity to work through them. The general public now has the chance to witness Labour evolve and move in a direction that not only appeases both sections of the party but also appeals to the wider electorate. It’s a unique opportunity and could easily win Labour a lot of new supporters.
This leadership election could be exactly what Labour needs, so long as both sides can work on policy togetherl. If they choose not to, we could be signing Labour off to a long period in the wilderness.