Labour Party HQ is on red alert. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader is seen as a real and dangerous prospect by the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Countless party grandees have warned members of the dangers of turning Labour into a protest movement and some talk openly of suspending the contest, coups and guerrilla tactics in desperate moves to stop Corbynmania.
Corbyn’s supporters say he has energised the leadership contest and attracted thousands of new party members and supporters. His critics say he cannot secure an electoral majority at the 2020 general elections. But it is far from clear that any of the other three contenders can either.
So far, no one has shown that they understood the causes of Labour’s defeat in 2015 and the problems social democracies have had all over the world following the global financial crisis. Instead, they have preferred to talk about micro policy ideas, such as free childcare and sex education policies. None seem to fit into a larger narrative.
The truth of the matter is that the Labour Party is stuck in a very deep hole. Research from the Fabian Society shows that in order to secure a majority in 2020, Labour needs to gain at least 106 seats in very different parts of the country. Considering the forthcoming constituency boundary changes and the advent of truly multi-party politics, that task seems like mission impossible.
In order to win, Labour needs to find an electoral formula that attracts Tory voters in the south of England and UKIP voters in the Midlands and north-east of England. In Scotland it needs to attract SNP voters and the south-west and English urban centres cities it needs to pull in Liberal Democrat and Green voters. None of the current contenders to the leadership of the Labour Party has so far shown that they are able to pull off this very difficult electoral trick.
Reframing the debate
Andy Burnham, who offers a more personable version of Milibandism, lost his position as front runner as a result of Corbymania. Next to Corbyn he looks bland, confused (he attacks Corbyn’s lack of credibility but offers him a role in the shadow cabinet) and at times desperate.
Yvette Cooper looks like safe pair of hands, exudes competence and has the poise to face David Cameron at the dispatch box. But she is far from inspiring or exciting. Her feminist version of Milibandism (her bid focuses on childcare and on tackling gender inequality and sexism) may sound sensible but it is hardly the stuff that enthuses voters.
Liz Kendall is the only candidate that offers a break with Milibandism (though many of her flagship ideas come from the party’s 2015 manifesto). But she is seen as inexperienced and is paying a heavy price for her association to the Blairite wing of the party.
Kendall’s strategy of telling “hard truths” to Labour members is not paying off – as her position in the polls suggests. She is probably the only candidate with the capacity to attract former Conservative voters from the south of England but she could lose the party many votes in the north-east of England and English cities. Worse still, she may have no impact at all in Scotland.
Meanwhile, Corbyn seems to have understood that there is a growing constituency of citizens that is hungry for a different style of politics and for alternatives to austerity. His problem, however, is that an equally large number of voters reject his ideas.
With slight differences in emphasis, Burnham, Cooper and Kendall like to present their proposals as “grown-up”, credible and in contrast to the “loony-left” politics of Corbyn, which will condemn Labour to eternal opposition. But what none of them can explain is why those supposedly responsible policies have in the past decade condemned European economies to stagnation and European social democratic parties to electoral oblivion.
They seem to accept the narrow confines of the political debate that are set by the right. From the economy to welfare, from immigration to the relationship between state and market, they seem unable to reframe the debate.
None of them have anything specific to say about how they can make democracy relevant in an age of globalisation, though they all promise to “empower citizens”. So they accept that some form of austerity is the only cure for the deficit. They comply with the view that the welfare state has been made unsustainable by the workshy, that migrants are responsible for housing shortages and low pay, and that the only thing Labour can offer is some palliative relief to the inescapable realities of the world. The problem with these allegedly realistic stances is that they are not responsible and, more seriously, make Labour a redundant party.