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Thursday, September 10, 2015 

The road to Jeremy redux.

Flying Rodent has, as so often, expressed it best.  If back in 2006, say around the time that Tony Blair was ignoring widespread calls to help push for a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah, insistent as he was that the IDF be allowed to further "degrade" a wide swathe of Lebanon, someone had said that 9 years later Jeremy Corbyn would be Labour party leader, you would have laughed.  Then laughed some more.  Then after distracting this obviously confused individual by pointing in the opposite direction, you would have ran away as quickly as your legs could carry you.  The Labour party, led by a serial rebel utterly opposed to liberal interventionism and pretty much everything else New Labour had done?  If it wasn't so outlandishly unrealistic as to be almost unimaginable, your first thought would surely be along the lines of what on earth did Labour as a whole do to reach such a position.

Jeremy Corbyn hasn't won yet.  He might not win.  Who knows, perhaps all the reported missing ballots are part of a last ditch conspiracy at the upper echelons of the party to try to swing it in the direction of the "electable" as opposed to the completely "unelectable".  I wouldn't be totally shocked if, despite everything, Andy Burnham manages to grab the leadership on the basis of second or third preferences.

That senior figures seem to be attempting to come to terms with a Corbyn leadership does nonetheless suggest they too expect Corbyn to be declared the winner on Saturday morning.  They presumably have some sort of inkling from both the ballots sent in weeks ago and from the online voting system of how the race has shaken out, and acceptance rather than anger now appears to be the emotion setting in.  Everyone must accept the result and the mandate given to the new leader, said Liz Kendall today, all but admitting her failure to make headway in the contest.

Trying to put yourself back in the mindset of 2006 as a whole is difficult.  I'm sure my 2006 self would have some harsh words for its 2015 version: join the Labour party, even as a registered member?  And worse yet, to end up putting Kendall, the most Blairite candidate of the four as first choice, despite not agreeing with half of what she says?  Never mind what's happened for Corbyn to be the likely winner, what happened to you?

I changed.  I changed because the political surroundings have changed.  Labour, meanwhile, has for the most part stood still.  Ed Miliband did his best, but he wasn't the right man at the right time.  If Miliband served a purpose, it was to paper over the cracks that were there if only more people had wanted to see them.  He was just left enough to keep most Labour sympathisers on board, but wasn't right enough to properly enthuse those within the party who were embittered, rightly or wrongly, by first Blair in their eyes being "forced" out, and then Ed's victory over David.  Liz Kendall in her speech said there wasn't a proper debate in the 2010 leadership contest because of the Ed-David rivalry, and wasn't afterwards because of wanting to be loyal to the new leader.  This is only half true: plenty of those on the right of the party, some overtly, others more stealthily, made clear their antipathy towards Ed and his style repeatedlyThere was a "crisis" nearly every summer.  The party didn't get rid of Ed, because Labour tends not to get rid of its leaders, but it was obvious that some inside it weren't pulling their weight.  Looking back now it's difficult to see how Labour could possibly have won the election, yet if some of those senior figures had made more of an effort, it might not have been such a crushing one.  The Tories could have been denied their majority for a start.

Liz Kendall has been good enough to admit, if a little grudgingly, that she was perhaps a little too "blunt" in the aftermath of the election in her diagnosis of why the party lost.  Nearer the reality is that some on her wing of the party regarded the defeat as a relief, because it proved them right.  Ed Miliband was a loser, his policies were neither one thing nor the other, Labour can only win by triangulating.  Anyone thinking otherwise is an idiot.  They could be, perhaps are, right.  You don't however deal with your upset and bitterly disappointed supporters' depression by crowing about how right you are after such a defeat, by continuing to lecture them on their foolishness, and agreeing wholesale with the analysis of the victorious opponents.  That was the first mistake.

The second was, as now pretty much everyone accepts, the welfare vote.  Refusing to oppose a bill that as the IFS has just confirmed again will mean those currently eligible for tax credits and other benefits will lose on average £750 a year was suicidal.  Forget Osborne's trap, imaginary or not, these are working people having money taken from them to, according to preference, pay to close the deficit caused by the necessity of bailing out the banks, or to allow those with estates worth up to £1 million pass them on entirely tax free.  If Labour will not defend the very people it was brought into existence to represent, then those people will find someone who will.  With no one else on offer, they decided on Jeremy Corbyn.

In truth these were only the catalysts for what's happened over the past two months.  As discussed previously, as long as a political party continues to win and appeal to a big enough slice of the electorate, it can do almost as it feels.  Tony Blair proved that, as have the Tories.  What you can't do is create a fissure as large as the Iraq war did, continue to rub your supporters' nose in it by doing the opposite of their first instincts, such as with academies, NHS privatisation, civil liberties and so on, and then still lose.  To do so once can be forgiven; when it happens again, and the same people carry on with their self-serving, fatuous missives on how right they are and how wrong everyone else has been, you're inviting a rebellion.

Far too late it seems that Liz Kendall and some of the others on the right of the party have partially realised their mistakes.  In her speech she contradicts herself repeatedly, can't quite bring herself to admit that if not she personally then some of her biggest supporters only made things worse, but there's the recognition that for all the complaining of how she was caricatured (unfairly) as a Tory, there are good, decent reasons why many of those who have voted Corbyn believe Labour has abandoned its principles.  If Corbyn wins, the victory needs to be respected, the people who have joined the party must be engaged with and listened to, the debate started by the campaign must continue, and the fight must now be taken to the Tories.

The problem with that is if as expected Corbyn becomes leader, the fight against him by the Tories and the press will begin in earnest.  Thought you'd already seen every piece of dirt that could possibly be used against him?  Don't believe it for a second.  Every prime minister's questions will include reference to Jez's friends in Hamas and Hezbollah, how he wants to nationalise Marks and Spencer, hand our nuclear weapons straight over to Putin, and reanimate the corpse of Bob Crow.  This will only be amplified by just how many within Labour and on the left have denounced Corbyn as a Marxist loon, more pally with Islamists and tyrants than our actual allies.  Kendall and others call for the result to be respected, almost for Corbyn to be supported, and then say they couldn't possibly serve under him.  When Corbyn has rebelled hundreds of times he perhaps can't expect loyalty in return, and yet what chance does he have if the other leadership contenders, think of them what you like, refuse to do the bare minimum?

Deep down, I think we all know that Corbyn cannot possibly win an election.  Everything that was against Ed is against Jeremy doubly so.  Then again, no one and I really do mean no one said he could win, let alone would win.  No one knows anything.  As Janan Ganesh wrote in the FT yesterday, George Osborne might be a strategist, but he has yet to prove he can lead.  Against Osborne, the odds change.  No one knows what's going to happen next week, let alone in 5 years.  Corbyn cannot possibly be as divisive a leader as he has been a candidate; he will reach out across the party, and will appeal in a way that the other three candidates could not.  Nothing is set in stone.

Moreover, this rupture had to happen for the good of the Labour party.  The debates that Kendall talked about in her speech need to take place, and they would not have done if either Burnham or Cooper had walked to victory as expected.  One side, either the left or the right, had to recognise it had things wrong.  I would have rather that Kendall had accepted earlier in the campaign what she has now and adjusted her message accordingly, giving her more of a chance, as I still maintain she is the most electable of all the candidates.  Corbyn will nevertheless do, as he will have much the same effect.  Labour has to decide what it is for in a rapidly changing world, where work seems ever more insecure for ever more people, but also where empathy, solidarity and support for collective policies seems to erode with each passing year.  The challenge is not to return to the failures of the past, whether they be the ones of Labour in the 80s, 90s or 2000s, but to bring forward a politics that maintains the party's values in the face of opposition from all sides.  Whoever is appointed on Saturday, I can't say I envy them.

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Great post.

Beyond the condescension, I have two major problems with the Kendall campaign, which I originally had high hopes for, as she clearly has a certain kind of charisma - and at least start in a better place with the press.

First, there was a lack of reaching out to allies. She needed some supporters who were to the left of her, a middle of the road union endorsement, something... To take a leaf from the Blair book, where was her John Prescott?

Second, she needed a signature policy that was clearly distinctive and would make a splash. For example, I had hoped that the "green jobs" position might develop into a campaign about "energy independence" - you could rant about Russian gas and Middle East oil - but you could also invoke the balance of payments and the imbalance of our economy. There had to be something that suggested she could do more than respond to Osborne's strategising, some idea that could put him on the spot. I kept waiting, but it never came. Now my idea has lots of holes, but I'm not actually standing. What's key is her team never came up with anything...

(I appreciate that some really liked the works council thoughts she had, but it was just too small and technocratic...)

As for Corbyn I don't think he's a winner in a media age. Yet I think Kendall and others need to recognise that his popularity shows just how much the "consensus" doesn't actually work for many people. Generation BTL is doing fine out of the Tories. Generation Rent, much less so. As we saw at this election - advantage Osborne - Generation BTL come out to vote much more reliably. The press also line up with them.

Yet, the facts remain important. Austerity didn't help the economy and any recovery remains dependent on financialisation. The current fetish for "we can't afford that" is at this moment mostly resulting in a lack of investment that will only bite us harder in the future. Post North Sea oil we have a huge extra looming problem about the balance of payments. All of this with a growing gap in society between G-BTL and G-Rent.

Some of Corbyn's policies in these areas don't look right to me - but at least he sees that maybe these issues need looking at.

If I was optimistic I'd say that throw in something about drugs policy and you have the beginnings of a post-newspaper-demographic movement. Sadly, I don't think Corbyn has that level of vision, or the quality of advice in his team to make it happen. I'd also note that they could do everything I'd wish for right and still not win the next election. But at least they'd have made a start on redefining the party around the problems of today.

Fantastic comments. My feeling is that Kendall gave up fairly early on - and decided there was little point in sketching out new policies or reaching out to the party when there were so few people turning up to the handful of meetings she did hold. For that she obviously doesn't have anyone to blame but herself, but it's at least somewhat understandable. There's little reason to set out alternatives only to have your rivals steal your ideas, as Christian Wolmar might be reflecting this afternoon. If Corbyn does fail then I suspect she'll be back, hopefully better prepared.

I think the other problem with your optimistic view of Corbyn is that even if, in the best case scenario, he manages to win back Green defectors and the odd UKIPer, it's still not going to be enough to win much beyond those 34 seats Kendall pointed out have Tory majorities of less than 3,000. I can't see him having that much of an impact in Scotland, so winning seats back from the SNP is unlikely also. As I said in the piece, the fact is Corbyn's rise just proves how little we all know - if the movement behind him keeps going we could all be proved completely wrong, or the Tories could utterly self-destruct over the EU referendum. I fear though that the response from Cameron today is just the beginning.

I should declare that I've given up (post SNP) on a Labour majority any time soon. However, staunch losses to UKIP, take 34 off the Tories and with only a little bounce back from the Lib Dems, the Tories no longer are automatically in power. So any optimism is about getting to limbo... And of course my irrational hope that Labour sees that FPTP no longer works for it - so a coalition around changes to our voting system might be possible.

As for rivals stealing your ideas - well if you really believe in the ideas, then maybe it's not all bad seeing them get traction. I believe an alternative optimistic scenario is one where Corbyn doesn't win, but manages to shift the Overton window... now actually I don't believe that is at all likely, but in my heart I do believe the Overton window is probably more important than winning specific victories.

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