It would be an understatement to say that the Parliamentary Labour Party has been guilty of oversharing in recent weeks. While the Conservatives do much of their backstabbing in private, the Labour Party prefer to do it live on the BBC. Right or wrong, those in the PLP who regard Jeremy Corbyn as unelectable have – by attacking him so publicly – made their judgement a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So what does Labour do now? For those who would like to see a strong opposition, the current scenario looks grim.
The problem is a fairly simple one. After years of Blair and Brown, most of the leading figures in the Labour Party who might be strong candidates – David Miliband being the most obvious example – are too Blairite/Brownite to appeal to an electorate that backed Corbyn in such overwhelming numbers.
The lists of runners and riders doing the rounds are dominated by the centre and right wing of the party, few of whom can claim to appeal to a younger, more idealistic membership. Indeed, even those with more left-wing credentials, such as Angela Eagle, are now saddled with a voting record that ties them to the more ignominious parts of Labour’s past, including the Iraq War.
The solution is more difficult to identify than the problem. Labour needs someone to capture the energy of the new young members who voted for Corbyn while appealing to a broader electorate. This is no easy task: it involves embracing a different kind of politics, and it certainly means finding someone who can capture the public’s imagination.
The current list of candidates – Jeremy Corbyn, Angela Eagle and Owen Smith – all have fine qualities, but none of them is likely to pull off the difficult task of winning over Labour members, a majority of the PLP and the electorate. Two are acceptable to the PLP, but less likely to win over the public or the party. The other, Corbyn, is popular with the party members but has lost the support of his fellow parliamentarians.
Seeking a fresh face
Something has to give. If ever there was a time to take a risk on a younger, less experienced (in parliamentary terms) new leader, it is at precisely this turbulent, post-Brexit moment.
Indeed, the tragic death of Jo Cox was a reminder that within Labour’s ranks there are many younger MPs who, if thrust into the spotlight, might inspire the party, the public and fellow politicians. Let me mention just two.
The first is Clive Lewis, MP for Norwich South and currently shadow defence secretary. He is on the left of the party and still loyal to Corbyn, but without the baggage of some of Corbyn’s inner circle. He grew up on a council estate in Northampton, was the first member of his family to go to university, and was one of a small group chosen by the Labour government under Gordon Brown to stand as national role models for young black men.
Lewis is a likeable performer and, as might be expected from as a former BBC political correspondent, comfortable in front of a camera. One of his more controversial positions – opposition to the Trident nuclear weapons system – is given credibility by his military background as an army reservist infantry officer, serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2009.
He might not be inclined to run against Corbyn, but the shrewdest move Corbyn could make would be to drop out of the race and endorse Lewis. While some members of the PLP might be unhappy with Lewis’s left-wing politics, his overall appeal would make him difficult to oppose.
A Northern powerhouse?
The second potential candidate is Lisa Nandy, the MP for Wigan. Like Jo Cox, she is a northerner with a background working for charities (the homelessness charity Centrepoint and The Children’s Society.
Seen as a rising star, she was until recently shadow secretary of state for energy and climate change in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. Much like Owen Smith, she is on the centre-left of the party and, like him, recently resigned.
As a “unity candidate”, she is more plausible than Eagle and more personable than Smith (who may be a skilled political operator, but comes across like one, too). She is in an excellent position to speak for young people who feel shafted by Brexit.
Either one of them would give the Labour Party a fresh new look. Both have had careers outside parliament and thus a much better chance of appealing to a politically cynical electorate. Their entry to the leadership contest might just invigorate the whole process. Without them – or young MPs like them – the current contest looks distinctly uninspiring.