There will be many on the Left who feel that the outcome of the general election could have been a lot worse. The Tories and Liberal Democrats could be exposed as the utterly unprincipled opposite of the bringers of ‘new politics’ in which guise the media has promoted them.
Whilst they render themselves more and more unpopular until they fall apart, the Labour Party has the opportunity to make a fresh start, a clean break from the policies and practices of the New Labour era.
But in the imperfect and torturous world of Labour Party politics, new policies do not appear from thin air. They emerge through the process of the Party electing leaders who party members really should know are not going to carry out the policies that the Party passionately wants, even though these policies would be popular with the electorate.
There is also a very large question mark as to who, if any, of the candidates emerging would lead and encourage the widespread extra-parliamentary campaigning essential to defend us against savage Tory/Lib-Dem cuts and mobilise confidence in alternative policies.
At the time of the Gordon Brown coronation, I was one of those who passionately argued for John McDonnell’s candidacy. I have no regrets about that but I think it would be tragic not to learn from the last outcome and what has changed since.
The leadership election is hugely important, rightly or wrongly, because it will determine how much space there is for the Party to adopt seriously different policies. It would be useful if Ken Livingstone had just been elected as a Labour MP. It would be good if Tony Benn was 30 or even 20 years younger. It would be helpful if lots of leftwing CLPs had selected left candidates to fight the last election rather than yet more Blairites and careerists. It would be good if a lot of trade union leaderships had found a more effective way of mobilising their mass membership in support of alternative policies.
But the reality is that there is no conceivable way that John McDonnell will get anything near the 33 nominations from MPs required to be able to contest the leadership. Only 18 MPs who were prepared to nominate him last time or are members of the Campaign Group remain in the Commons. It would be optimistic to assume that all those would support John again, and the early evidence is there are very few in the new intake to make up the numbers. Ironically, it was the refusal by some LRC members in 2008 to withdraw a rule change to lower the threshold in spite of the certainty of losing that prevented us from campaigning for a similar proposal last year that could have reduced it to 20 MPs.
The time has come to be honest and say that those who want to give up on the Labour Party – a perfectly honourable and understandable position – should follow the logic of their position and not continue to engage in activities designed to encourage some kind of exit and attempt at creating a new party.
The Left has the following realistic options. To support Ed Balls, if he stands, as an “anything but David Milliband” candidate, to support John Cruddas as someone who is at least not tainted with membership of a New Labour cabinet in recent years, to support Michael Meacher or another principled figure clearly committed to radically different policies who could play some elder statesman, caretaker role or to support Ed Milliband as an alternative “anything but David” candidate, who some feel has a reasonable track record on green matters and who might be rather further to the left on economic policy than some of us imagine.
None of these options can be embraced with undiluted enthusiasm or confidence, but it will be a great pity if the serious Left excludes itself from these choices by pursuing an impossibilist campaign.
Furthermore it is just possible that offering some substantial support to, say, Ed Miliband in exchange for some meaningful policy changes, we avoid providing him with the excuse that he had to depend on right wing support.