Speculating on the Labour leadership contest


No, I don’t have a clue who’s going to win, but…

…longtime Puffles’ follower Jeremy Corbyn MP has got the Labour HQ Establishment rattled. Have a watch:

Compared to the 2010 contest where Diane Abbott MP was the candidate of ‘the left’, Mr Corbyn is being touted as a potential and unexpected winner. Perhaps what MPs were expecting of Mr Corbyn was similar to what Ms Abbott achieved – getting party leaders to discuss issues that they otherwise did not want to discuss, but without being a serious contender. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Gordon Brown faced a proper contest against John McDonnell MP back in 2007. This is where for the Liberal Democrats, another of Puffles’ longtime followers, Daisy Benson got it spot on with their recent contest.

Listening to the above-linked LBC debate, Liz Kendall MP isn’t saying much beyond platitudes that could come from any of the main parties. Andy Burnham MP & Yvette Cooper MP are both being ultra-cautious, though the latter appears to be being swayed by the momentum behind Mr Corbyn. Social media reaction to the debate was that it was generally Mr Corbyn who was giving the clear, short answers on policy.

“Are any of the four potential future prime ministers?”

Not at the moment. What impressed me initially about Ms Kendall was that straight after the election, she was the only person who unequivocally stepped forward and said she wanted the leadership following Ed Miliband’s resignation.

“So…if none of them are potential future PMs…?”

I’ve tweeted before that the next Labour PM will come from somewhere else. My eye has been on Stella Creasy MP for some time because whenever I’ve met her, she’s had this ‘presence’ that few other Labour MPs have had. Her biggest weakness – the same as Mr Corbyn’s and Ms Kendall’s is that they haven’t got experience of running a large organisation. Whether Ms Cooper and Mr Burnham were effective in running ministries when Labour were last in office is debatable – especially under the iron fist of Gordon Brown.

“What if Jeremy wins?” 

There are a number of parallels with the Conservatives in 2001. Having just lost an election under a right-wing William Hague, they went further away from the centre with Iain Duncan Smith. The most cringe-worthy moment of his leadership was the staged standing ovations in his leader speech at the 2003 conference – have a watch. That’s not to say Mr Corbyn is the same as IDS – not at all. For a start Mr Corbyn has much more experience of public speaking given the number of protest rallies he’s spoken at over the decades.

If Mr Corbyn wins, the acid test for him will be first the European referendum, and then (if the UK votes to stay in), the Euro elections of 2018. Both those points could lead to a leadership challenge from the right of Labour.

Unleashing the activists

I got the sense in the 2015 general election that Labour never really let their activists off the leash policy-wise. The recent debacle over the welfare bill shows this is still an issue – one the SNP and The Greens, and to a lesser extent the Liberal Democrats are benefiting from. A simple, principled: “We are voting against this bill at 2nd reading because that’s what an official opposition does” would have sufficed. How many voters would have been lost for the 2020 election as a result of opposition vs supporters lost as a result of the smudged abstention?

As a result, those who are not joined at the hip to the Labour Party – particularly those new to political activism may well look to other parties who are now promoting themselves as taking a stronger stand against the Government. I get the sense from social media posts that Labour grassroots activists want to take a stronger stand against the Government, and are supporting Mr Corbyn because out of the candidates standing he is the one who is taking the strongest stand policy-wise.

It may well be that a Mr Corbyn victory will be enough to energise and mobilise grassroots activists to strengthen the party’s core vote, but perhaps at a cost with the wider electorate as the mainstream media go to war with him as they did with Mr Miliband. Should Mr Corbyn then be toppled in the face of such a media onslaught prior to the 2020 general election, that will be the point for a relatively new face free from the baggage of Blair & Brown to step in.

On why this campaign is different to previous campaigns

It’s not just ‘soshall-meejah!’

Society is in a very different place to 2005, and even 1995. This is where Gaby Hinsliff is spot on about Labour and new technology. From a policy perspective, can Labour (or any of the opposition parties) develop policies that demonstrate both technological and scientific literacy? That involves having activists and politicians inside the party who are technologically & scientifically literate, and who are in positions to influence & make policy.

For me, this is reflected locally too – with the local Greens ‘as a local political institution’ running away with using digital video and Facebook. Individual councillors from Cambridge Labour & Liberal Democrats are prolific tweeters, but that is as individuals rather than as a single political entity. In a nutshell it’s much easier for people to find out about Cambridge Green Party events than it is events run by Cambridge Labour Party or Cambridge Liberal Democrats.

“How should Labour members vote?”

It’s not for me to say – I’m not a member.

As with any vote for a politician, unless you are standing yourself you’ll have to make compromises on the weaknesses of the person you end up voting for. One interesting alternative that was put up was to have Harriet Harman MP as interim leader for a year or two, and have the big policy debates in the meantime to then enable a new leader to come through on the back of those debates. It’s a chicken and egg thing: Which comes first, the policies or the leader?

With only two candidates, the Liberal Democrats got their contest over with quickly – easier with only 8 eligible people who could stand given their annihilation at the ballot box last May. Here’s Tim Farron MP’s first speech as their leader.

Critics of Mr Farron from the right wing of the Liberal Democrats said their party risked going leftwards under him vs Norman Lamb MP. Mr Lamb gave Mr Farron a good run for his money given the lead that Mr Farron had. From watching both campaigns from afar, I got the sense that Mr Farron would fare better at mobilising his party’s membership and delivering the barnstorming speeches in the face of the new Government’s policies. I also expect to hear regularly how some of the new Government’s policies will be labelled as ones blocked by the Liberal Democrats when they were in coalition with the Conservatives. Whether it will be enough to win back lost votes remains to be seen.

An exposed left flank? A very exposed Scottish flank?

This is the challenge whoever wins for Labour. Having lost all-but-one of their Westminster seats in Scotland, they now have to deal with an SNP playing a very different game – not feeling bound historic past parliamentary conventions. For example the SNP seem to be better at ensuring its MPs are seen to be in the chamber for more debates – combining footage and snapshots of this with their social media campaigning. Remember that the Scottish Parliament has elections in 2016, so in that sense Labour and the Liberal Democrats have a huge challenge in turning around their fortunes in such a short space of time.

As far as The Greens are concerned, their 2015 autumn conference in Bournemouth will be the first since the Green Surge of late 2014. Their website states they’re expecting up to 2,000 people there. In mid-2014 their total membership was around 5,000. It’s now over 60,000. Aside from the media coverage, much will depend on what improvements The Greens can make to their internal systems & processes in order to organise those members into an effective campaigning machine that can breakout beyond the towns where it has core support such as Brighton, Norwich, Bristol and Cambridge.

“Isn’t this the early 1980s again? A split left allowing the Conservatives to take all?”

Perhaps one of the surprises was that UKIP only got one seat. This will make their party conference interesting to watch this autumn. Now that the Conservatives have an unexpected majority in the Commons, in the short term at least I can’t see any Mark Reckless-style defections. From the Conservatives’ perspective, they’ve seen off UKIP, wiped out their coalition partners and left their main parliamentary opposition in complete disarray. The Chancellor’s recent post-election budget along with the Welfare Bill resulted in the media focus swinging towards Labour’s problems rather than the impact of the proposed legislation. With Mr Corbyn seemingly the only one of the four candidates opposing the forthcoming legislation on principle, you can understand why in grassroots social media circles at least, he’s getting support. It’s a message that’s much easier to communicate. ‘Tories will bring in £Xbillion in cuts, it will hurt the most vulnerable, we will oppose!’

‘Don’t blame us for you being rubbish!’

I can understand the frustrations of some Labour activists about the impact that both The Greens & the SNP have had on the election – in particular where the combined Green and Labour vote exceeds that in constituencies where a Conservative MP was returned. Even more so given the very small Conservative majority. Both Gower & Croydon spring to mind. Labour also lost ground to UKIP – in particular in their traditional northern heartlands where the Conservatives struggled to register. To what extent should Labour concentrate on shoring up their core vote, and to what extent should they chase the swing vote? Remember also that two of their four most senior politicians lost their seats in 2015 – Ed Balls (shadow chancellor) and Douglas Alexander (shadow foreign secretary). If you can’t inspire people in your own neighbourhood…exactly.

Mr Alexander himself was beaten by 20 year old politics student Mhairi Black MP – whose maiden speech clocked up 10million views. I didn’t rate Mr Alexander following a speech he made in Cambridge a few years ago, & didn’t rate his performances on BBC panel shows either. Hence why I wasn’t that surprised to hear he lost his seat in the 2015 elections. That’s not to say he was an ineffective politician – he may well have been very good in the backroom negotiating & influencing role. But on the podium and on camera – perhaps as with Mr Miliband as leader, neither could really inspire. Perhaps it’s a reminder to all political parties that there’s only so long you can take certain votes for granted?

“Inspiration…it’s a common theme, isn’t it?”

Gaby Hinsliff’s final two paragraphs are one of many examples that mention this. Labour activist Paul Bernal is another here. Ms Kendall was quoted in one of the leadership debates stating that Labour needed a new generation of politicians to come through when questioned on whether Ed Miliband would be invited into a shadow cabinet led by her. The advantage this has is the Conservatives cannot use the line: “Well when s/he was a minister…”. The disadvantage if you’ve got a career politician in post with no outside experience is…the lack of experience. This is where eye will be upon the few MPs with high-level experience outside party politics – such as Keir Starmer MP (former director of public prosecutions) & former soldier Dan Jarvis MP.

The reason why people such as Mr Jarvis & Mr Starmer are interesting is because in their previous jobs, they will have been under the sorts of pressure that gives them experience of whether to judge something as a storm on a Twitter-feed or something much more serious.


One thought on “Speculating on the Labour leadership contest

  1. A Corbyn victory would gift the next parliament to the Tories. It would be Labour’s IDS moment where the party activists stopped listening to the country on only listened to themselves. No doubt all those activists will convince themselves that: –
    – There is a secret left wing majority (with non-voters)
    – Left wing policies when polled are popular
    – The Greens, UKIP and the SNP will fall back into the Labour fold

    However all of these assumptions are very flawed: –
    – Most of the public are not left wing or right wing they are simply reactionary (particularly when faced with a set of questions they haven’t given much thought to). Hence any policy that appeal to the gut will poll well (although this often doesn’t link to electoral success this is when put to more scrutiny)

    – Anyway most of the public vote on perceptions not polices. The perception would be of a borderline Marxist leading a divided party. Even popular policies would be seen through this prism and actually count against a Corbyn lead Labour (indeed just look how “popular anti-business rhetoric” was seen at the election through the “Red Ed” mantra).

    – Corbyn might be able to draw back some of the anti-EU left, SNP socialists and Green who are more hard-left than environment…. but these are not big groups. Indeed most of the appeal of UKIP and the SNP is in their nationalism which I don’t seen being countered by a North London leftie…. Meanwhile the much bigger group of Tory/Labour swing voters will find his hard left platform deeply off-putting effectively handing a number of key marginals to the main opposition.

    Corbyn will be a disaster for Labour…. Still if the young 20-something activists are determined to relearn the lessons from 1983 then so be it!

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