Labour MPs have been plunged into what looks like nothing less than panic.
Opinion polls show that Jeremy Corbyn, the candidate of the ‘hard left’ for the party’s leadership, has forged his way into the lead. Mr Corbyn, who was reluctant to run for the job but believed the views of leftwingers like him needed representing, managed to be on the ballot only because several MPs who don’t share his views nominated him in order that all shades of opinion in the party would have someone to vote for. Now he might actually win. His supporters, of course, are cock-a-hoop. But centrist and right-wing Labour MPs fear his success could condemn the party to the opposition benches for years to come. So what should Labour do?
Before all this happened Labour’s leadership election had hardly set the world on fire and this may be, in part, why Mr Corbyn is doing so well. The centrist, mainstream candidates, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, seem to many to offer simply more of the same – that same that lost Labour the last two elections. The Blairite candidate on the right, Liz Kendall, has been prepared to be more outspoken and to argue against the recent legacy of the party. But what she’s outspoken about tends not to appeal to most of the 300,000 Labour members and supporters who will be voting. And even her strongest defenders acknowledge she has nothing of the electoral magic of Tony Blair. Currently she’s running a poor fourth out of four.
Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn, who has never held a position either in government or on the opposition front bench, has put some passion into the campaign by advocating the platform he has supported ever since he was a young acolyte of Tony Benn. In its current manifestation, that includes an end to austerity, the abolition of tuition fees and the repudiation of the nuclear deterrent. In short, rather than shift to the centre, which many commentators think Labour needs to do to prevent the Tories occupying that much desired territory, Mr Corbyn believes only a radical, left platform can both distinguish Labour from the Tories and offer the country what he believes it needs. George Osborne, of course, says the Tories already occupy the centre ground.
On Wednesday Mr Corbyn said: “If all we offer for the next five years is austerity lite, cuts in welfare and little other than being approved of by certain rightwing newspapers, it does not excite people. This Tory government is very ideological and we are accepting too much of what they are doing.”
This sharp disagreement about how to respond to the government’s agenda came into focus earlier this week with the votes in the Commons on the government’s planned cuts in welfare and especially tax credits. Labour MPs went in all directions and even the leadership candidates conceded it had all been a ‘mess’.
What converted dismay at a shambles into outright panic was a YouGov poll for The Times which showed not only that Mr Corbyn was way ahead of the others on first preference votes but that he would win a final ballot against Mr Burnham by 53% to 47%.
Something needed to be done (according to those terrified of a Corbyn win), but what? Some argued that, as the horse trailing in the race, Liz Kendall should withdraw and give her backing to either Mr Burnham or Ms Cooper so that one of them would emerge as the clear challenger to Mr Corbyn. The fact that this wouldn’t really help in a non-first-past-the-post electoral system suggested this was no more than a ploy by the Burnham or Cooper camps to help their candidate. In any case, Ms Kendall declined, saying: “I’ll be fighting for what I believe in to the very end.” She also made clear, like another Blairite shadow cabinet member, Chuka Umunna, that she would not be prepared to serve in a shadow cabinet under Mr Corbyn as leader.
Other Blairites have been even more forthright in warning the party of the dangers of a Corbyn win. Lord Mandelson said that the very existence of Labour as an electoral force was at stake. And on Wednesday Tony Blair himself gave a rare speech about British politics in which he said that those Labour members who claimed that their heart was with the leftwing candidate needed to ‘get a transplant’.
This led to a stinging rebuke from his former deputy, Lord Prescott, who said such abuse of ordinary Labour members and supporters was ‘unacceptable’.
Blame for the situation Labour has got itself into has been focused on those MPs who backed Mr Corbyn’s nomination even though they didn’t agree with them. John McTernan, a former adviser to Tony Blair, called them ‘morons’. One of them, the former acting leader, Margaret Beckett, reluctantly accepted that. Another, Frank Field, justified his action even though he expressed horror at the prospect of a Corbyn victory. He said Labour should have had the debate about what sort of party it wanted to be before the leadership election was launched but that, as this had not been the case, it was right that the hard left view be represented.
With temperatures rising fast in the parliamentary Labour party, Lord Prescott told his colleagues to ‘calm down’. And there is reason to think this panic may be premature. Mr Corbyn is unlikely to win enough first preference votes to win outright on the first ballot and many think a centrist figure will come through to beat him in the final round. His lead in the YouGov poll is hardly unassailable.
Yet others are not so sure. The party has recruited 55,000 new members and affiliated supporters since its defeat in the May election and around a third of these are under 30. Some observers think these voters are looking for a way to break up the old duopoly between the Tories and Labour in which, in their view, there is little to choose between them. They may look abroad too to see how this duopoly is already being challenged in other countries, largely on the back of the votes of the young. That is the story of Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. They may also feel that unless Labour offers something radically different they may lose votes to the right. That’s what’s happened in France where many former socialist voters have swung behind Marine Le Pen’s Front National. UKIP is waiting to play the same trick here. Mr Corbyn will seem to many to be alone in offering this opportunity.
It was all very different when only Labour MPs were eligible to pick the party leader. Now the contest is flung open and no one really knows even who the electorate is. No wonder the mainstream Labour leadership is starting to panic.
What do you think they should do? Do you think a Corbyn leadership would make the party unelectable or do you think it would inject the fire into British politics many people think it now lacks?