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Who are you calling unelectable?

Liz Kendall for ToryOn a May morning in 2020, the country awakes to five more years of Conservative government. Despite publicly comparing the North to Zimbabwe and after a year of infighting among his ministers, there was never really much doubt that Boris Johnson would secure a parliamentary majority. For the more astute among Labour supporters, the tragedy seemed horribly avoidable. In 2015 they had retreated to their comfort zone and chosen a leader who harked back to a bygone age, utterly ill equipped to win back voters in a changed country. Over the next five years they had predictably slumped in the polls.

This dreaded scenario looms like a spectre over Labour’s leadership contest. Which of the leadership candidates is most likely to bring it about?

The most common answer is Jeremy Corbyn, the avowed left-winger in the contest. Labour’s dogma holds that leaping to the Left means losing elections, and lurching to the Right means winning them. That creed has become an unquestioned article of faith, prompting Conservative supporters to tweet #ToriesforCorbyn, confident that a Corbyn-led Labour party would be the Tories’ best guarantee of another term in office, while the Blairite commentator Dan Hodges wills a Corbyn victory in order to teach the Left a lesson, to show that only with ‘centrist’ policies can Labour win.

This is the 1997 Doctrine. Its adherents remember getting blind drunk and dancing poorly to Brit Pop on election night all those years ago, and they want that feeling back again. That is the stuff of emotion, not analytical depth; Blair brought home the bacon where Miliband couldn’t even swallow the bacon properly, so they hanker after Blair’s return. Their candidate is Liz Kendall, whose only attack on Tory cuts thus far has been to demand higher defence spending. She reads from the 1997 script, with the odd edit to pull her even further to the Right. She exemplifies the unwinding of European social democracy – Blair initially claimed to seek a ‘third way’ between capitalism and socialism, and his 1997 manifesto promised a windfall tax on energy companies, investment in public services and support for migrants, but his increasing willingness to trail rather than shape public opinion has left Labour and parties like it utterly hollow, without any guiding purpose beyond election victories.

The irony is that seeking office without principle only frustrates and eventually alienates the electorate, so the strategy is ultimately counter-productive. Blair was surely unaware of the force of his insight when he mused in an interview after leaving office that he had wrongly believed it was possible to “please all of the people all of the time.”

More tragic still, the most contingent element of Blair’s analysis, his view that giving the electorate what they wanted meant attacking the Conservatives from the Right, has been crudely elevated to the position of an eternal truth. In this view – unresponsive to changing conditions – electability necessarily means dealing acid to free markets and obediently accepting whatever else the Right offers up as a new ‘consensus’. When Liz Kendall angrily condemned Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos last week, she sounded like a corpse; once marginal Leftists now happily mop up the ruins of social democracy, which collapsed because it raised policies that hurt its own core vote to the level of dogmas. The situation in Britain is very different. Nonetheless, it is worth probing the assumption that the most moderate candidate is necessarily the most electable candidate, especially after an election in which the one party whose pitch was its centrism ended up with 8 seats.

2020

Let’s return, then, to that image of election night in five years’ time. Let’s imagine the pundits and the politicians all poring over the enormity of Liz Kendall’s election defeat. As leader she promised to make Labour electable again, they muse, so how did she fail so completely?

From the beginning, there was Scotland. Labour had been massacred there in 2015 but a conspiracy of silence prevailed among its leadership candidates. Chuka Ummuna launched his short-lived campaign somewhere on the M25, and BBC Newsnight pointedly chose to hold its Labour leadership hustings in Nuneaton, which Labour failed to gain from the Tories. These were the places Labour needed to win back, everyone agreed, apparently forgetting that without Scottish MPs the likelihood of another Labour majority was negligible. Liz Kendall repeatedly reminded Labour members that she grew up “in Watford” and now represents a Midlands seat, so she understands the whole country. She really wanted to wipe Scotland from the map, it seemed. 2015’s SNP surge had been the revenge of triangulation; those abandoned by New Labour or irritated by its embrace of spin over clear principles chose a party that out-positioned (triangulated) Labour from the Left. There is considerable evidence for that explanation, but for Liz Kendall, accepting and acting on it after 2015 would have meant abandoning all she holds dear. Instead she followed Jim Murphy’s disastrous retreat to Blairite instincts, attacking the SNP from the Right for five years. In 2020, Labour barely regained any of its historic Scottish support.

In England, the picture come 2020 was less apocalyptic but hardly more hopeful. In cities and cosmopolitan constituencies, Tim Farron’s revived Liberal Democrats once again challenged for the anti-Tory vote and, along with the Greens, capitalised on Kendall’s hostility to benefits and refugees and picked up enough disaffected Labour support to hand a few seats to the Tories. The more Labour echoed Conservative policy, with Kendall looking awkwardly like Cameron’s deputy, the more Northern voters turned to UKIP or other populist repositories of protest. Labour’s long-term electoral virus, the unwillingness of its demoralised supporters to bother voting, only worsened as the hegemony of triangulation continued. Turnout sunk yet again as working-class Labour voters stayed at home. Here too, the Scottish lesson went ignored; turnout soared there in 2015 because the SNP provided a coherent, unashamedly positive vision around which to rally. Scots, city-dwellers and the English North are all core to Labour’s winning electoral coalition and with each demographic battered, bruised and angry the chances of a Labour victory in 2020 were always slim.

The signs were not good, but as the 2015-20 parliament wore on Kendall appeared criminally relaxed. The 1997 Doctrine gave her an exit strategy. Conservative voters across ‘middle England’ would save the day, providing she could move her party far enough to the Right to win their backing. In the event, the strategy failed catastrophically. The challenge for Blairites was always this: if people want Conservative policies, they can vote for the Conservative Party. In 1997, the Tories were a mess of corruption, sex scandals and economic crisis, so right-wing voters were persuaded to choose a Labour Party that looked unthreatening. But with leaders any more competent than Major, Hague or Howard the Tories would always be the preferred choice for right-wing voters. So it proved in 2020. Unable to articulate a distinct vision, and playing the politics of catch-up more eager to mimic the government than to oppose it with inspiring ideas of its own, Labour in 2020 was pushed further back into its heartlands than ever, only without its biggest heartland, Scotland, and with the others in growing rebellion too.

Now 

It is testament to the sorry, decrepit state of the Left that we should be reduced to taking pride in being right and ignored. Some imagine that five more years of Labour punching its core vote would lead trade unions and Labour’s Left to break away, but that seems unlikely. Britain has no rooted tradition of powerful electoral formations to the Left of social democracy, and Left MPs, union General Secretaries and ordinary activists are deeply acculturated into Labour’s norms and structures, accustomed to relating to millions of people in a hostile party environment rather than building a more friendly one from the ground up.

To Labour’s ‘moderate’ die-hards who label Jeremy Corbyn a vote-loser, we should say: “let she who is without sin cast the first stone.” We should point to Scotland, the North and elsewhere and say to Liz Kendall: “who are you calling unelectable?”

16 Comments

  1. David Ellis says:

    In only 20 short years the cynical realists of New Labour have bought the party to the edge of destruction and irrelevance. If Corbyn does not get elected Labour will be as screwed in England and Wales as it is now in Scotland. It will join the Lib Dems with a handful of MPs trying to out manoeuvre the Tories from the right. And the Left MPs as in Scotland won’t be spared either. They will be swept into the dustbin of history with the rest of them. But even if Corbyn does not get elected that cannot be the end of it for the Labour Left because as I say it will not be allowed to sit behind some Blairite in Parliament for the next five years without being severely punished. In that sense the decision of some of them not to follow Harman in voting for or abstaining on Osborne’s vicious benefits assault is a good marker for the future. They will be obliged to establish an anti-austerity Parliamentary bloc that can provide genuine opposition to the Tories and New Labour’s capitulation to it.

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      Having paid my £3 and registered to vote I received this:

      Dear Friends,

      At the last Oldham East & Saddleworth CLP meeting it was agreed that we would have an all member meeting to choose the candidates for the Leader, and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, that Oldham East &Saddleworth Constituency Labour Party will nominate as its choice for each position.

      Arrangements have now been made for that meeting which every member is invited to attend.

      Can someone please explain just what this crap has to do with electing new party leader and why these people are trying to tell me who to vote for?

      This was my response:

      Dear Ian Manners,

      I would indeed be interested indeed in hearing what the local Labor party has to say for itself in the current political situation; but I should point out that I am only a registered, in order to vote, (for Jeremy Corbyn,) and not a member so I may not be either eligible to attend or an entirely desirable member of your audience,

      thank you and regards

      JPC-W

      In response the silence has been, “interesting,” and I’m disinclined to turn up just on spec only to get ejected by some jumped up rent-a-thug.

      But now that I think on it; Debbie Abrahams MP for Saddleworth and yet another reason why I voted UKIP at the last election, was one of the first people to nominate the equally unpleasant and equally right wing Andy Burnham, (he; among various others, who as Secretary of Health, oversaw the abuses at Mid Staffs, more PFI deals and it’s continued break up and privatization and lets not even mention his expenses,) the whole thing seems like another cheap and tawdry stitch up.

      1. gerry says:

        Jeremy – the elections for Leader and Deputy Leader will be done by individual postal voting. The process is managed independently of the Party.

        Constituency Labour parties also meet collectively to nominate their choice – but these nominations are only symbolic, and have no effect on the actual Leader and Deputy Leader voting process

        I am surprised – and pleased – that you have decided to register, given the vitriol you sprayed on my party: but nevertheless …welcome! Even temporarily…

  2. jeffrey davies says:

    hum blair killed the labour party through greed if that cant been seen by the blair babies then has a party you are doomed you say no ones done this left the party to start another look around well you had the lib dems break away start another you had farage a tory right winger another don’t be fooled the unions the people are asking for a left party but they not listening to those who could put them back in power but be warned there would be another labour party made once again by the rank and file jeff3

    1. John P Reid says:

      So Blair inherited a party where Kinnocks got 34.4% of the vote ,Blair leaves a party where we got 35.2% of the vote

  3. swatantra says:

    Lets face it Liz hasn’t a hope in hell of getting the Leadership. However JC might, through a default mechanism and getting the sympathy vote. But JC has said and we could have it in writing that he will step down in 2018, which means he will not be Leader come the GE. So the Public will not have the pleasure of voting for him for PM. I have absolutely no idea who Labour’s Leader will be in 2020, and I don’t think anyone else does either.

    1. Matty says:

      Is this right? I thought JC said (more or less along with other candidates) that if Labour was miles behind in the polls in 2018 he would probably stand down and let someone else take over.

      1. David Ellis says:

        This is one of the big problems with the Corbyn campaign. Managing expectations down to a minimum and defeatist. I support his campaign but if it isn’t to end in a Syriza style betrayal or simply to fizzle out under the weight of its own timidity then it has to start talking seriously about a programme for working class power and the transition to socialism. Anti-austerity can be but a stop on the journey for the working class at which it picks up the bus to revolution.

      2. John P Reid says:

        But the miles behind in the polls idea is misleading. BecUse labour did well in London in. The 2914 council election, the Tories did bad due to Ukip, in the 2014 EU election and the polls being bias it gave the idea that labour was more popular than we were,Ed miliband secret,y seeing pols telling him he was going to lose last year
        Imagine next years mayor election, either Goldsmith,wins it for the Tories,it’s dismissed as he’s very popular,outside his party,or Sadiq,or
        lammy win,is our gets the idea we’re popular, then 2017 , the Tories lose the leave the EU campaign,so we think Leader Corbyns, not that unpopular,he’s not ousted, then 2020 labour gets 15% of the vote, but due to FPTp,we keep a lot of seats in inner London, the midlands, the sort of MPs who are backing Watson for deputy, so we convince ourselves that the defeats not to bad, we don’t need to swing to the centre

        2025 election. Leader Tom Watson gets us 5% of the vote….

  4. John P Reid says:

    Major Hague or Howard, Major got the most votes in history in 92′ Hague went on to be a compit not Foregn secretary, Hoawrd was the one Labour was scared of, the majority in 97 and a string economy,which we sustained, meant Howard couldn’t win, plus, even if they weren’t great, it’s only because labour was so good, as if sex scandals hadn’t happened in the past,and ever done a politician harm, Paddy Ashdowns popularity went up!
    Regarding 97′ you realize the Tories didn’t win the 3 elections afterwards, and saying its history, the fact the left are craving for another 1974 election, but the 4 elections after 1974′ Labour lost.

    Hodges may want a Corbyn win and labour to get 15% of the vote in 2020′ but you lot wil still be saying we lost as it wasn’t left wing of enough.

    Comparing Scotland to. The north, is implying that the greens got a massive vote there, well ex labour voters went to Ukip, who are on the right of labour unlike SNP
    As for increases in defense,labour should have made political capital over the savagery of the Tory cuts, labour being the party who wanted a string defence after the war,and Michael foot calling Baldwin a appeaser, a guilty man, for nearly scrapping the army in the 30’s and it was Thatcher cutting defence that allowed the Argies to invade the Falklands,so why shouldn’t labour spend 2% on cuts,
    You cruise Kendall, but she’s the only one that can win,and ifCorbyn became leader then 15% in the 2020 election, would be the result

  5. John P Reid says:

    Labour has resigned its of to not getting back Scotland,no matter who’s leader, even if Ed stayed on,he would have tried to win areas we’d n win before like. Chingford,your idea of blaming a future Kendalleadership for losing as we don’t win back Scotland is daft,no one can that’s why we should do dels with libdems ,even Some Tories in certain seats to not stand against each other.

    1. gerry says:

      John – the electoral near future looks grim. I really hope that we would never do deals with Lib Dems or Tories in Scotland as that would depress our vote there still further – imagine the glee of Sturgeon et al if we relied on Tory or Lib Dem tactical votes! Scotland is now a one party state for the foreseeable future, barring economic or other crises and unknown.

      I do share your frustration with some of the silly stuff said about Kendall in this article – although as I said I do find her underwhelming ( all 4 candidates are C-listers!).

      We just need to keep telling the truth – I just read that at the general election, over half of trade union members voted UKIP or Tory, two parties explicitly committed to curbing trade union rights which Cameron is now putting into practice. So even Len McLuskie and Paul Kenny and the rest have failed to convince their own members of the dangers of voting Tory or UKIP ! It is depressing (just as in the 1980s big majorities of trade unionists backed the Tories and Alliance)….but it is the truth.

  6. Matty says:

    Good comment on electability from New Statesman by praha7 ni reply to someone who was reminded of the 80’s:
    “It reminds me more of the 1950s. After the election of 1959 when ‘Supermac romped home and recorded the third Tory victory in a row it seemed that Labour would be in the wilderness forever.
    Yet five years later there was a Labour government with a leader from the left. What happened, had the electorate read the manifestos and had a Damascene conversion realising that Labour was right all along?
    Of course not, the electorate is neither right nor left in its totality and when a government runs out of favour the electorate turns to the alternative. In the words of the old adage ”oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.
    Of course it helps to have a coherent policy, me too won’t cut it.”

  7. Billericaydickie says:

    Harold Wilson was of the left? I thought he proscribed the Labour Party Young Socialists who were Militant in 1965.

    1. Robert says:

      Yes he was to the left….

      1. John P Reid says:

        He was a multilateralist,who wanted to stay in the EU,and was keen on 1970’on bringing back Gaitskells Idea to sell council homes, ,and backed Barbara Castles in place of strife
        but as the NEC put forward the 1974 manifesto, and he wanted to go out,on having won,he let the left of the party,have the closed shop, bring back flying pickets,as the right of the party could have race/sex relations act, he relented,then those union laws in 1974′ caused the winter of discontent,and 18 yeads in opposition followed

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