Labour leadership thoughts
I have found the leadership campaign excruciating, and attempted as far as possible not to listen to any of it. But I have still gathered enough information to come to a view.
I have a lot of time for Jeremy Corbyn. I don’t know him personally, but he has a no doubt thoroughly deserved reputation for being a pleasant, considerate and principled person. There’s a lot of what he says that I agree with, particularly about public services and investment. I’d renationalise the railways as soon as possible (not convinced about the energy companies, though, as regulated competition should be able to work there). The problems are three-fold. One is a matter of principle. There are many justified criticisms of United States foreign policy to be made, but on the whole – let me put it no stronger than that – it is preferable to the foreign policy aims and methods of Russia and Iran. NATO is one of the many great achievements of the Attlee Labour government; if one is to claim the mantle of 1945, one should not forget the legacy of Ernie Bevin while celebrating that of Nye Bevan.
The second problem is pragmatic. I simply can’t see a path to electoral victory for a Corbyn-led party (I’ll share some more thoughts about electoral strategy before long). There simply isn’t much mileage in maxing out still further the good bits on the map of Labour support in 2015. It might get us Brighton Kemptown, if we’re lucky. I’m more sympathetic than many to the argument that there is untapped Labour strength among non-voters, but the problem with inspiring people with your radicalism is also that you scare the other side’s wandering sheep back into the fold. Your turnout rises, but so does theirs. The campaign will be brutal – after 30 years of campaigning, there will be hostages to fortune and embarrassments aplenty, and the Tory press will rake over every one. I am not convinced, particularly given his limited support in the Parliamentary Party, that he, and the party, could survive it.
As the campaign has gone on, I find myself worried that despite his personal qualities Corbyn has appealed to the id of the Labour Party (and the wider left of centre part of the politically active population). Talk by his supporters of Blairites as a ‘virus’, or relishing the taste of their tears, is uncomradely. It is wrong and stupid to call people such as Liz Kendall a Tory. She plainly isn’t, even if I have numerous points of disagreement with her. Corbyn himself favours a broad party, but there is a lot of fear out there of a purge if he wins. The task of binding up the party’s wounds would require great statesmanship from party leader Corbyn. I am not confident that he could do it.
The Liz Kendall campaign had problems of tone and content from the start. Too many of her supporters seemed almost pleased with the grim election result (I know the people involved well enough to make it clear that they absolutely weren’t pleased at all and are good partisans who think the worst day under Labour government is better than the best day under a Tory government). But it was an insensitive and clunking response to a traumatic moment for the party, reeking of entitlement and I-told-you-so, and setting a template of being a Blair tribute act rather than offering a real ‘fresh start’; Blair used the immediate aftermath of the 1992 election to seize the leadership of the right/ ‘modernising’ part of the party from a dispirited-looking Gordon Brown.
My main problem with the content of the Kendall manifesto is her readiness to accept the constraints on economic policy set by Osborne and the framing about deficits and household budgets that has dominated politico-economic discourse since 2010 (when it came out of nearly nowhere). Media-macro, to use Simon Wren-Lewis’s term, is a hideous obstacle and while transcending it is not going to be easy, a progressive party should at least try. I am not wild about her stance on social security and support for the most vulnerable in society. But getting permission to speak about it to the public is not easy, and I’m prepared to give her the benefit – as it were – of the doubt and not to sling epithets about her motivation. I’m also less than impressed by her disowning of Labour’s vote to recognise Palestine. These problems reflect a worry I have about the centre/ triangulating mode of politics as practiced under Blair – that there’s no safeguard against the other side, particularly if they are in power and you are not, moving the Overton Window while you’re running to stay in the frame and not thinking about where you’re going. I might still consider it, if I thought that it was a winning electoral strategy for 2020, but I don’t believe it.
All that said, Kendall has been a strong advocate for trade unions – vitally important for millions of working people. There’s a huge gap between a political approach that says that your rights end at the office door (or that you have to pay a fortune to exercise them) and one that stands up for a bit of solidarity and human dignity. She also has put forward some solid nuts and bolts work on public policy. Revisionism is as old as the Labour Party, and just as valid a tradition as democratic socialism; long may it thrive.
I used to say flippantly in 2011-15 that the ideal Labour leader would be Ed Miliband’s brain in Andy Burnham’s body. But while Burnham is charming, plausible and Labour to his core, and he’s undoubtedly thought more about the long term problems of health and social care than anyone else in politics, I’m baffled by where he would lead the party. His leadership campaign’s message has veered around alarmingly, and I’m not convinced he has the toughness to lead a party through some stormy weather. Although not an advocate of ‘whip you until you’re well’ like Kendall, or ‘throw it all out and start again’ like Corbyn, there’s something about Burnham that is too far in the comfort zone, like a cosy pair of old slippers when one is faced with a long walk.
So we are left with Yvette Cooper. Like all the other candidates, she has said some daft things during this campaign, but in general she has been sharper and has also directed some of her attacks on the Conservatives. I am also in favour of having a woman leader for the party – it is about time, and it would ease the task of communicating the idea that the electorate should take a fresh look at Labour. David Cameron is not good at dealing with women, and of the four she is the candidate I can most easily visualise getting the better of our much overrated Prime Minister at Question Time, regrettably an important consideration. I can just about, dimly, visualise her on the threshold of Number 10. I may not have much of a clear impression of her policies, but we are not electing a bundle of policies – we are electing a human being. The most important part of the job specification is to make the right calls in response to events. That I have the most confidence in Yvette Cooper to do so is giving me a strong prompt to vote for her.
But a couple of doubts flit across my mind. It is a slightly dangerous game, but preferential electoral systems allow the voter to use their first preferences to send signals. One can support a ‘minor’ candidate safe in the knowledge that when that candidate is eliminated one’s vote can be transferred down to other candidates. The risk is, of course, that it misfires in one of two ways. If you’ve underestimated how popular your first choice is, you can end up helping to elect someone you think has the right message but doesn’t make for a viable leader. I was much more likely to consider supporting Jeremy Corbyn, for instance, when he was a no-hope outsider rather than the favourite. The other possible misfire is that if you over-estimate how popular your second choice is, you might split the vote too much and your actual preferred candidate can get eliminated before any preferences can head their way. All this said, I shall use some of my Labour selection votes in this way.
I have a flicker of an intention to give Kendall a first preference on this basis, to encourage a non-Corbyn winner to give her a suitable job and to also show solidarity with the revisionists in the event of a Corbyn victory. I have also heard the argument – a further level of sophistication in the use of preferential voting systems – that Burnham is the candidate most likely to win a final round of the count against Corbyn, and that therefore the centre-left voter should ensure he isn’t eliminated before then.
So, I have it in mind to vote 1. Cooper 2. Burnham. But without huge strength of purpose. I’ve dithered about the deputy leadership as well, for somewhat different reasons. But more on that later…
(Lightly edited at 10am on 25 August)