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Does Labour want to win anymore?

Both sides in the leadership election are speaking a language the voters it needs barely understand, says John Denham.

A re-elected Jeremy Corbyn will apparently offer Labour support for an early election. Opposition leaders often make these calls, while praying to be ignored; they usually want elections they can win. A transformed Labour Party may no longer be following the same logic. For the first time in 100 years, Labour is conceiving electoral defeat as a potential strategic victory. The idea is growing that maybe Labour can’t win a majority, but perhaps it doesn’t need to. The dangerous political vacuum it leaves can only benefit the right.

The respected former Channel 4 economic correspondent Paul Mason has emerged as one of the most public theoreticians and strategists of Corbynism. He doesn’t speak for Corbyn but his inclusion in a recent conclave at Unite training centre confirms his closeness to the leadership. Writing in July he predicted that “Labour will become the first mainstream party in a western democracy to ditch neoliberalism and then take power”.

A crushing parliamentary majority would seem a basic prerequisite to overcome inevitable opposition to such a radical government. Mason’s ambitions are much lower. He calls for electoral pacts and deals with the Greens and Plaid – “and - if possible - the LibDems” to prevent the Tories getting a majority in the next election. “Taking power” turns out to be sharing power with those who recently supported the Tories.

This curious mixture of political optimism and electoral pessimism reflects the Corbynista belief in the power of social movements: limited but radical electoral representation couples with popular campaigning to transform the political environment. The problem is that tails - no matter how frisky - do not wag dogs. Social movements can set agendas and shape opinion, but transformational politics require political power. Many European radical parties have some parliamentary representation and links to active social movements. Without exception, they remain irrelevant or split when confronted with the realities of power.

The electoral pessimism is much better founded. Mason has an honest appraisal of the electoral appeal and ambitions of Corbynism: “Labour’s heartland is now in the big cities, among the salariat and among the globally orientated, educated part of the workforce”.  This may well be true. The party was moving in this direction a long time before Corbyn.  But the implications are profound. Many current Labour MPs don’t represent seats in the big cities and university towns. Huge numbers of their voters are not like Labour members. Many of Labour’s essential English target seats - particularly if it cannot recover in Scotland - have few of these voters either. They do have a lot who voted Conservative or Ukip in 2015.

The gap between the well-educated salariat that dominates Labour and voters whose lives are very different is huge and growing. It is as much cultural as political - socially conservative, with a strong sense of national (and increasingly English) identity, concerned about immigration, worried about their own finances and those of the public. Many of them used to be Labour, more need to be. But to them, the urban elite is part of the problem, not the core of the answer. The ‘progressive majority’ that dominated the 1980s and 1990s has disappeared. Electoral reform - which I have supported all my life - no longer unlocks the left but boosts the right.

Labour members have every right to build a party that appeals to people like themselves. But it is leaving a deepening crisis of political representation. Millions of people have been on the wrong side of social, economic and political change for the past 30 years but don’t share the assumptions of the urban salariat. Who wants to speak for them? Across western Europe social democratic parties are losing the votes of the same sections of society, and it’s no different here. Tim Farron’s  “party of the 48 per cent” sounds like a declaration of war to largely Brexit voters; so did Smith’s "second referendum". Ukip has tapped into “these voters” in the past; Theresa May would clearly like to. The left has itself to blame if they are successful in the future.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.