British Labour faces critical choice on Corbyn’s successor

Party needs leader intellectually present for wider interests of British democracy

UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has announced that he will stay in his role for a "process of reflection" before stepping down. Video: Reuters

 

The battle for Labour isn’t just over the future of the left. It’s much deeper than that. It is about securing a functioning opposition in Britain.

For five years, that opposition has been absent. Without it, British political life has collapsed into grim lunacy. There has been no effective scrutiny of Brexit. There has been no viable alternative government, allowing for the Conservatives to veer off into ever-more-crazed reactionary positions on issues such as human rights and immigration.

The problem of the absence of an opposition led to the massive 80-strong Tory majority Boris Johnson secured at the election. But it in turn threatens to make that victory even more damaging. Without some sort of parliamentary scrutiny, a government this strong will run completely out of control.

So there is a supreme importance that Labour gets the right leader – not just for its own interests, but for those of British democracy in general.

It goes without saying that the Corbynite wing of the party is already trying to prevent that from happening. It is expected to announce the timetable of the leadership campaign on January 6th. The speed is noteworthy. The faster they can move, the fewer new members can join the party to wrestle away some of their control.

Structural advantages

The January 6th date is important. Under Labour rules, only new members who join up to two weeks after that date can vote in the leadership election. But even if enough moderate members do join, there are still structural advantages to the Corbyn camp. Rules put in place in 2018 required any candidate to get the support of either 5 per cent of constituency Labour parties or three affiliate bodies, two of which must be trade unions, comprising 5 per cent of affiliate membership.

There is hope though. Some of the candidates who are starting to emerge from other wings of the party are impressive

It’s a complex system, typical of the late-night trading structure under which Labour operates. But it allows the Momentum – the Corbynite party-within-a-party – and large unions to try to stitch up the race between them, with non-favoured candidates scrambling to secure the remaining support left over.

The Corbynites will likely bet all their chips on Rebecca Long-Bailey and Angela Rayner. Neither candidate has much to recommend them except for their loyalties. It is extraordinary that anyone could base their political judgments on that type of quality right now, given the severity of what has just happened and the implications for Britain’s poorest communities. But anyone following the Labour far left in recent years will be unsurprised by it. Only purity matters.

Impressive candidates

There is hope though. Some of the candidates who are starting to emerge from other wings of the party are impressive.

Lisa Nandy was a Brexit-sympathetic MP throughout the last few years, constantly trying to find compromises and understand how to reflect the vote of her constituents without sabotaging their livelihoods or giving a free rein to the Tories. Jess Phillips is a passionate remainer whose authenticity and commitment meant that voters even in her leave-voting seat didn’t punish her for it. She is funny and morally clear-sighted – one of the few MPs you could imagine voters wanting to see more of. Keir Starmer is a highly intelligent and forensic politician, capable of hurting Johnson on his weak grasp of detail. He is a grown-up in a toddlers’ playground.

These figures are not important because of the views they hold. At the moment, none of them has really started to articulate any policy proposals for where Labour finds itself. What matters is that they are intellectually present. They are thinking. They are capable of imagination.

That sounds like faint praise, but then the standards are currently set incredibly low. They are up against a wing of the party that almost seems to pride itself on a lack of self-awareness or introspection.

This trend goes further than just the Corbyn supporters though. Moments such as this, in the ashes of disaster, when a period of “reflection” – as politicians like to call it – is called for, are highly revealing. You can look around and see who actually is reflecting and who is just falling back on their designated position.

There’s a fresh start available. It is pretty much the only positive thing one can say about Labour at this point in time

So some Brexit-supporting MPs blame everything on the second-referendum commitment, ignoring the fact that Labour support fell among remainers and would have fallen much harder without it, losing seats like Putney, Canterbury, Sheffield Hallam and many more. Some New Labour-era MPs demand a return to centrist orthodoxy, ignoring the fact that individual radical policies were often very popular and that the Tories themselves have moved to a form of Keynesian economics.

These are all rote answers, learned as if by heart, without any proper thought behind them. What’s needed instead is an ability to see what did in fact work in Corbynism, what worked in centrism, even what worked for the Conservatives.

Labour doesn’t need to be caught on the Brexit hook anymore. It is happening. The debate will now move from whether it should take place to how it is taking place, in which they can unite people around the instinctively British proposition that whatever it is is not very good at all. Nor do they need to be caught on the Corbyn hook, with all the moral disaster of his association with anti-Semitism and the calamitous personal approval ratings that entailed.

There’s a fresh start available. It is pretty much the only positive thing one can say about Labour at this point in time. If they are imaginative and intellectually honest and concerned primarily with how to win, they can make the most of it. There is no reason at all, in this volatile political climate and with a prime minister as unreliable as Johnson, that they cannot be back in power in five years.

But there will be plenty of people within Labour who will be set on preventing that happening. The task right now – the first task for anyone with an interest in a progressive Britain – is to defeat them.

Ian Dunt is editor of political news website politics.co.uk

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