How Labour’s modernisers can survive in the party of Corbyn

“I could’ve been a contender”: vanquished Blairite standard-bearer Liz Kendall. Reuters/Neil Hall

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After Labour’s election defeat at the 2015 general election, many Blairites believed that their shattered party needed a turn to the right to revive the New Labour electoral magic.

Instead, they are living a political nightmare, having lost first the country to the Conservatives and then the Labour party to Corbyn and his supporters. The result has plunged those who have always viewed themselves as the vanguard of Labour party “modernisers” into crisis.

As Peter Mandelson has conceded: “modernisers no longer carry Labour’s middle ground”. If they want to win it back, they must first take stock of what’s happened, and then overcome some seriously daunting challenges.

Turn it around

Before the outcome was announced, there had been rumblings of a legal challenge to the result, or even a parliamentary coup to depose Corbyn should he win. Now he’s triumphed not by a whisker, but with a landslide, the Blairites appear to realise they must be seen to accept the result. A sore loser, after all, is unlikely to win the public’s sympathy.

But it remains to be seen if the Blairites can accept how just how marginal they’ve become. Although Blairism still attracts the support of many MPs and senior party figures, Liz Kendall’s 4.5% showing in the leadership contest implies that enthusiasm amongst the grassroots is desperately low.

So instead of spoiling for a coup, they must adapt to life under Corbyn. Several key figures, including most of Corbyn’s defeated rivals, have said they will not serve in his shadow cabinet. Yet they are unlikely to mount direct attacks on the leader in the short-to-medium term. They know that if they appear churlish or divisive, they might get some of the blame if the party fails to show signs of recovery by the end of the year.

Meantime, they may look for opportunities to limit the fallout from Corbyn’s reign, using the party’s structures to try and stop Labour taking positions they deem particularly harmful. That may mean trying to discourage Corbyn from backing the campaign to exit the EU in the upcoming referendum, or threatening Britain’s membership of NATO.

The modernisers must also reassess their attitude to party colleagues. During the leadership campaign, the Blairites came across as loftily condescending, suggesting that anyone who thought differently was either mad or a revolutionary. Many seemed positively miserable about the influx of new Labour party members and supporters, reinforcing their image as a narrow Westminster elite concerned about their own careers above anything else.

Tony Blair himself was honest enough to admit that he did not understand the massive wave of support for Corbyn, but this was insufficient to lead him question his own attitude to the phenomenon. A more humble approach may be called for, one which concedes that rival viewpoints are valid in a period where no section of the party yet has a convincing blueprint for how Labour might regain office.

Moving on

The Blairites also need to revise their whole analysis of British politics. During Blair’s premiership, the traditional left-wing vote had nowhere else to go, leaving Labour free to adapt policies to seek more votes in the South. Yet now Labour is simultaneously losing support not just to the Tories but also UKIP, the Greens and the SNP.

Pollster and political scientist John Curtice has argued that “events north of the border show the Blairite analysis of why Labour lost is frankly wholly inadequate”, and indeed, the party’s centrists have had very little to say about how to win back Labour’s lost Scottish heartlands.

More generally, they have struggled to set out an appealing centre-left agenda, raising suspicions that they had not really moved on from Blair’s “third way” vision.

Having woefully misjudged the leadership campaign, all Corbyn’s opponents must avoid compounding this error by assuming he will quickly fail as leader. While the likes of Chuka Umunna and Caroline Flint have opted for life on the backbenches, others (among them one-time Blairite Burnham and Tony Blair’s old flatmate, Lord Falconer) have already decided that engagement is the better approach.

Corbyn’s dramatic surge was largely fuelled by a profound dissatisfaction with traditional Westminster politics and a thirst for bolder opposition to the Tory agenda. These issues are much bigger than Labour’s own problems, and demand fresh, daring ideas from anyone who wants to chart a different political course. So if they want to stay relevant, the modernisers may have to modernise in ways they never anticipated.

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