In any election, supporters of a preferred candidate often act as though he/she has no faults – whilst their opponent(s) have no virtues. The tragedy of this Labour leadership election is that both sides have embarked on a damaging personality contest whilst the very real threat to the existence of the Labour Party gets barely a mention.
As well documented elsewhere (for example here), Labour has been losing support ever since 1951 – including during the 1990s when the Tories fell apart over Europe. Having won half the votes in 1951 on an 80% turnout, it currently only achieves around one third on 60-70% turnouts.
When I first became aware of the Labour Party (in 1945), it was a mass party, relying on its members and supporters to canvass for votes at elections. Latterly it has relied primarily on appearances on TV and radio by its leaders and, instead of consolidating its strongholds, it has been appealing to the ‘floating voters in the centre ground’. Sadly (and this is my main point) the downside has been to lose support in Labour’s traditional heartlands (such as South Wales).
This truth has been obvious to me for years, merely from listening to neighbours, on the street, in waiting rooms and on buses. The common complaint, which I hear any time I listen (I am a better listener than talker!), is that Labour is no longer cares about “us”. The votes for UKIP and Brexit result from disillusionment with the entire political process – and Labour in particular.
This decline in Labour’s support would have continued if any of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendal had won the leadership election last year. Perhaps if they had, Labour might by now have accepted these truths. An unfortunate side-effect of Jeremy’s election is that every failure (real and imagined) is blamed on his alleged personal unelectability – whilst the true cause of the decline remains unacknowledged.
Many arguments during this leadership election are quite ludicrous. Both candidates can do nothing right in the eyes of their detractors – and nothing wrong according to the more vociferous of their supporters. I don’t know if anyone will be persuaded by the hyperbole but, for sure, post-election unity is becoming more and more difficult.
I’d like to suggest that neither candidate is wholly good nor bad – and that we all need to be very seriously concerned about what may happen when the result is declared.
Concerning Owen Smith, there are two possibilities. On the one hand, he says he now agrees with Jeremy on major left-wing policies, argues that he is better able to unite the party and would be more electable. But, taking this at face value – that is, Owen Smith would promote most of the same left-wing policies – is there any reason to suppose that the right-wing press and media won’t rubbish Owen in the same way? What then? Would the really diehard right-wing in the CLP rally to his defence? – or perhaps mount a second coup?
Alternatively, whilst I concede that Owen could revert to the policies of the Blair, Brown and Milliband, I think it best to ignore this prospect as, were I to do so, this would question his integrity and not assist in rebuilding party unity if/when Jeremy is re-elected.
Concerning Jeremy, it is clear that – barring industrial-scale disqualifications – he will be re-elected with an even larger majority than last year (the main petition in his support exceeds 270,000). The political challenge then will be to create a credible working relationship between a majority of the PLP and Labour’s newly re-elected leader.
It is self-evident that Labour cannot be a credible opposition whilst a majority of its MPs do not support its elected leader. This impasse cannot be resolved by forcing Labour MPs to cooperate with Jeremy (nor by forcing the leader to resign). It needs a degree of flexibility from both wings of the party.
Although I have heard talk of “deselection” of MPs if/when Jeremy is re-elected, I don’t think such threats are helpful. If an MP has declared his or her intention to obstruct Jeremy resuming office and carrying out his duties as leader then, fair enough, they should resign the Labour whip. But in the immediate aftermath of the leadership election, MPs only need to be encouraged to “de-resign”.
Jeremy is not a Messiah demanding unqualified support from followers. He attempted, after his first election, to field a shadow cabinet from all wings of the party and, after his re-election, I’m quite sure he will again attempt to do so. His demeanour and character is that of a persuader – not a Messiah or dictator.
Rather than raise the spectre of deselection or of votes of no confidence, what CLPs should do is vote motions of support for the renewed opposition front bench and, where relevant, support for their MP resuming his/her rôle in the opposition team. I see no value in confrontation for the sake of it.
In parallel with this, we really do need to tackle the abysmal low level of political discussion in our branches and CLPs. My branch hasn’t had any such discussion in years and, despite my having attended every CLP meeting since becoming a member, I have yet to hear any genuine politics discussed.
Despite Labour’s national membership increasing by tens of thousands, here in Torfaen, most new members are unseen and unheard. As a first step to change the narrative, Torfaen CLP meetings should be open to all members – replacing the archaic delegate-only events where representatives of largely moribund branches are the only ones supposed to vote.
Labour’s current membership has become numerically comparable with its high point during 1945-51 and, if this is converted into active campaigners, we could overcome the problem of having a press and media wholly opposed to our policies (as we did in 1945). That has to be our future as a party.