What Have We Learnt from the Leadership Contest?

By Michael Calderbank

What have we learnt so far?  In all honesty, not a great deal.   It’s certainly not a thorough-going, wide-ranging critical examination of the fundamental reasons for the party’s steady decline in support in the “heartland” seats over more than two decades.

Which isn’t to say that the outcome isn’t very important.  The future political direction of the party might come to look substantially different, depending on who party members choose.   Anyone who thinks “they’re all much the same” hasn’t been paying careful attention. Yet, the political differences on display have been relatively muted during the debate so far.    

Much of the debate has been somewhat schizophrenic.  Endless sound-bites and column-inches have been devoted to impassioned calls for party unity, ironically from precisely those candidates who conspired to force out Jeremy Corbyn in an undemocratic coup, despite the overwhelming mandate he’d received from party members.    And where the emphasis hasn’t been on restoring to the party a culture of toleration, it’s been devoted to militant “pledges” committing to delimiting which groups count as legitimate, and demonising and expelling those deemed beyond the pale.  

In policy terms we haven’t heard much at all.   Rebecca Long-Bailey has mounted a robust defence of the existing policy platform, but hasn’t really spelled out how she would like to see it developed, or explained what went so wrong.    “Presentation” and “Brexit” are dragged onto the stage in Deus ex Machina fashion.    But even if these factors were the immediate, proximate causes of the defeat – and there’s something to be said for each, especially with regard to the disastrous “second referendum” positioning – they aren’t sufficient explanations.  We need to look deeper, at the underlying structural and cultural reasons why we ended up making these mistakes.    

If Rebecca has a more substantial critique, she hasn’t been giving voice to it.    The result has been the suspicion that she stands for mere continuity, of the “one more heave” variety.   Whilst some on the left would welcome that – if, indeed, they are reconciled to the idea Corbyn should be replaced at all – it’s not likely to persuade or inspire a broader of people desperate for a Labour government.

By contrast, Sir Keir Starmer, no doubt conscious of the leftist sensibilities of a critical mass of the selectorate, has been careful not to say much about anything at all.   The man whose  2018 Conference speech which first highlighted the possibility of Labour moving away from its position of respecting the referendum result and putting “Remain on the ballot paper” in a second referendum, has failed to show even the slightest sign of contrition or understanding of just how catastrophic a step that was.    

Starmer claims that Brexit was an issue for the last election, not the next.   Yet at the same time he’s clearly angling towards positioning Labour behind a BINO strategy (“Brexit in name only”) which might well transition into an open call for rejoining the EU as he “shifts through the gears”.

Welcoming back Alistair Campbell into the party, who has openly campaigned with the Liberal Democrats, and who was at the forefront of the “People’s Vote” alliance, along with Jo Swinson and Anna Soubry, is a distinctly alarming sign. To say nothing of Campbell’s disastrous role in preparing the way for Labour’s advocacy of war in Iraq.

Starmer has given relatively little away in terms of concrete promises on policy, couching his stance in superficially “progressive” sounding rhetoric, but actually giving himself wriggle-room to water down existing radical policy pledges – such as the commitment to abolishing student tuition fees.      The only thing in doubt is how quickly Starmer believes it’s possible to drag Labour back towards the centrist swamp – will the transformation happen gradually, as a matter of degree, or more rapidly following his election.

Much as been pinned on the idea that he is an inherently more electable/Prime Ministerial figure barrister in a smart suit “fits the mould”.  He’s certainly been given an easy ride from the media so far. But how exactly will Starmer rebuild the “red wall”, and appeal to the former industrial working class?   Labour needs a Labour who will break the mould, not snuggle comfortably into the niche the establishment has created.      

Lisa Nandy certainly talks a better game when it comes to understanding the needs of these communities.     Twitter users made fun of her constant references to representing a town, and wanting a fully integrated bus network.     Yet Labour under Corbyn was proposing significant new investment to restore lost bus services, and Nandy’s failure to give credit to the development of transport policy under Andy MacDonald seems churlish.  

This is particularly true, as her other line of attack is that Labour’s manifesto “over offered” and so didn’t seem credible.   The implication that Labour was offering to nationalise too much sounds like a dog whistle to the right wing, particularly given that public opinion polls routinely show majority support for running services like rail and water from public good rather than private profit.    Despite flirtations with Blue Labour, it’s far from clear what new thinking Nandy is actually offering in policy terms beyond, say, the programme of Ed Miliband.

So what are we missing?     

None of the candidates has really dealt with the growing social and cultural gulf between the membership and activists of “left” organisations on the one hand, and significant sections of the working class on the other.    It’s hard for leadership candidates to be openly critical of the increasingly bureaucratised trade unions (biting the hand that feeds…) but the institutional hollowing-out of support outside the big cities is a Labour movement problem, not just a factor for the Labour party under Corbyn (or before him Miliband, Brown and Blair).  What are we going to do about it? Which of the candidates could withstand the pressures towards the increasingly niche concerns of radical liberal identity politics in order to reconnect with the concerns of the majority? 

In many of the areas where Labour performed badly, the party has dominated the relevant local authorities for decades.      But how far do people feel that local councillors are actively fighting on behalf of local people, as opposed to managing budget cuts in the least overtly painful way possible?   Labour too often seems complicit in the running down of local communities, or worse still parasitical upon them. Labour councillors are a powerful vested interest group within the party, but are they partly responsible for our present standing in the eyes of the public?  Who will challenge Labour authorities to put up more of a fight?

Even in terms of the party’s internal culture, little of note has been said.   All three candidates seem locked into a cycle of ever more punitive and draconian calls to suspend and expel members on the basis simply of accusations, without bothering to look too deeply into the right to natural justice in the handing of complaints.    But where people are suspended during elections to national bodies, who is to stop the mere fact of a complaint from being used to block candidates from standing for election? The flurry of suspensions of validly nominated NEC candidates – and suspension and subsequent reinstatement of Jo Bird – raise profound concerns about the probity of the process.  How can we restore trust in the disciplinary process, such that valid concerns are dealt with appropriately but where the system is not abused for political ends?

Whoever wins the Leadership will inevitably face major challenges on these subjects and many more.  It’s a shame that we haven’t been able to discuss them with more depth and rigour so far.