Blair’s attacks on Corbyn won’t work while his people are offering nothing

Come at me bro. Reuters/Russell Cheyne

Tony Blair has issued a dramatic warning that Labour faces “annihilation” if Jeremy Corbyn wins the Labour party leadership election.

In his second intervention on the threat posed by the left-wing candidate, the former prime minister said his party is “walking eyes shut, arms outstretched, over the cliff’s edge to the jagged rocks below”.

Despite such hyperbole, Corbyn remains the bookmaker’s favourite to triumph. His response was to say that voters are being turned off by the “politics of abuse”. Some of his supporters are already planning a victory celebration in Trafalgar Square to celebrate “winning back the party’s soul”.

This is perhaps not surprising given how poorly the other candidates have performed in this leadership campaign.

Many had assumed that following Ed Miliband’s election defeat, the party would be more inclined to move to the right in the hope of emulating New Labour’s success between 1997 and 2010. But even though Liz Kendall attracted Blairite supporters by calling for the party to appeal to aspirational, middle-class voters, she finds herself in last place in the leadership race.

There are a number of factors that might explain why her campaign is failing to take off, while Corbyn continues on his roll.

Former MP David Miliband spoke for many people when he argued that under his brother’s leadership, Labour had hoped to “suspend the laws of political gravity” by moving somewhat to the left, yet continuing to believe victory was still possible.

Nevermore! Nevermore! World Economic Forum, CC BY-NC-SA

However he had little to say about the impact smaller parties such as UKIP and, particularly, the SNP, had in the election. There appeared to be no fixed laws of political gravity when these two took voters from Labour, as the 40 Scottish Labour MPs who lost their seats might attest.

So while the Blairites have provided sketches for winning support from the Conservatives in the south, they have contributed less to the debate on how to win back votes in Labour’s traditional heartlands.

Corbyn’s opponents hoped his history on the hard left of British politics would convince Labour members that he would be unelectable as prime minister. Indeed, it takes a stretch of the imagination to visualise Corbyn winning some of Labour’s target seats but this has caused surprisingly few problems so far.

That is potentially because many now believe a Blairite electoral strategy is unlikely to succeed either. Blair’s success in 1997 relied in party upon the fact that voters on the left had nowhere else to go. They would stick with Labour even if they found some policy changes difficult to stomach.

In the 2015 general election, more than one in five voters were prepared to support non-traditional parties. The question of how Labour can win is therefore a problem for all the leadership candidates, not just a concern to be wheeled out when attacking Corbyn.

What’s the alternative?

The right of the Labour party has failed to unite around any single candidate. It is recognised that either Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham are now best placed to beat Corbyn but many have been underwhelmed by their efforts in the leadership race.

Historic tensions between Blairites and Brownites rumbled on into the early part of the campaign, despite ex-Scottish leader Jim Murphy’s plea to end what he confessed had been a “self-indulgent and self-destructive struggle” between these sections of the party. So when Corbyn surged, they were caught flat-footed.

And while Corbyn has made it clear he will oppose the Conservatives on nearly every issue of significance, it is considerably less clear which elements of the Tory agenda the Blairites wish to see opposed outright.

Many members were dismayed by the party leadership’s decision to abstain on the recent welfare bill, and asked what Labour is for, if not to try to protect vulnerable groups. It is argued that the challenge is not just about Labour winning elections again, but that any political victory must be worth having, based on clear differences from a Tory agenda. The question of exactly what kind of opposition Labour should provide has been rather neglected.

Some members who might otherwise be sceptical of Corbyn as a leader have nonetheless been impressed by the dynamism and energy his campaign has generated. Those on the soft left may sympathise with parts of his agenda, especially on austerity, while perhaps doubting the practicality of other elements.

Meanwhile, the Blairite attitude towards Corbyn’s supporters has been considered condescending or crudely dismissive. They might argue that the time spent bashing this candidate might have been better spent trying to drum up support for the party as a whole.

As Labour leader in the mid-1990s, Blair stressed that each generation of a political party had to reapply its values afresh to a changing world, as parties that do not change, die. Now the Blairites themselves stand accused of harking back to the glories of 20 years ago and failing to acknowledge just how alienated large sections of the public feel from traditional Westminster politics.