This summer I’ve become gripped by a new TV drama. A TV drama being played out in front of the nation’s media with episodes of this drama shown on almost every edition of the nightly news. But sadly unlike most TV dramas this isn’t a work of fiction, it’s the Labour Leadership Contest.
The Labour Leadership Contest has turning into a massive duel between the two great traditions of Labour politics. On the one side you have the New Labour establishment represented by Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. On the other side you have the Old Labour socialist insurgent, Jeremy Corbyn. These are two great titans fighting to the death for the ideological soul of the Labour Party.
What makes this political duel so interesting is that according to the latest opinion polls Jeremy Corbyn is in the lead by some margin and very well could be Labour’s next leader. Corbyn who was initially seen as a distant outsider, has to horror of Blairites, become the favourite to win the contest. Tony Blair even labelled those MPs who nominated Corbyn as “morons”. To put a Corbyn win into some context, Labour hasn’t been led by an overtly socialist leader since Neil Kinnock in 1992. Furthermore, Labour has not been led by someone outside the party’s establishment since at least before the Second World War. Even Michael Foot served as a cabinet minister before becoming Labour’s leader.
As a member of the Liberal Democrats, I cannot even begin to contrast the huge differences between the Labour Leadership Election and the Lib Dem Leadership Election. The Lib Dem Leadership Contest was a mostly private affair conducted at regional hustings and through social media and the internet. The short two month contest resulted in a clear victory for Tim Farron, with Norman Lamb transitioning seamlessly from leadership rival to frontbench Health Spokesperson. Tim Farron has already begun to make his mark by leading Lib Dem MPs to oppose Osborne’s latest welfare cuts. While a divided and indecisive Labour Party chose to abstain in the welfare cuts vote.
Labour quite clearly faces a big battle for the party’s soul, maybe even for the party’s very existence in the long term. But how on Earth did Labour go from promoting its own version of Thatcherism to being on the verge of electing a genuinely socialist leader? Despite New Labour’s three successive election victories, it failed to take many traditional Labour supporters with it. Tony Blair’s gamble was that Labour supporters would remain loyal to the party, despite New Labour’s embrace of the Thatcherite free market. This gamble would only work if there wasn’t a credible progressive alternative to Labour. However recently a progressive alternative emerged in Scotland in the form of the Scottish National Party (SNP). The SNP went on this year to annihilate Labour in Scotland.
New Labour didn’t just alienate people in Scotland but many progressive voters across England and Wales as well. Blair hollowed out the Labour Party leaving behind an ideological void, which Burnham, Cooper and Kendall have struggled to fill. However despite its lack of principles New Labour did achieve three successive election victories, the first and only time Labour has achieved this.
Here’s Labour’s problem, New Labour is as much an outdated project as socialism. New Labour supporters lack a distinctive message in an age of economic insecurities. Burnham, Cooper and Kendall are three career driven, media managed politicians made in the model of New Labour. Corbyn is anything but. Does Corbyn look like a potential Prime Minister? No, but it seems difficult to see how any of the candidates have the skills, charisma and imagination needed to get Labour back into power.
This Labour Leadership Contest will define the party for a generation. Will the New Labour modernisers triumph or shall socialism be resurrected from the grave? In the aftermath of the vote, there is a great potential for rifts, fractures and SDP-style breakaways. Do I judge those Labour supporters (including a couple of my friends) who back Corbyn? No, I can hardly blame them for supporting a radical candidate in line with their values, when the only alternatives are so bland and unimaginative.
From what I have seen of Labour’s Leadership Contest, it is clear that Yvette Cooper has the best leadership ability and that Jeremy Corbyn has the strongest values and principles. Regardless of who wins Labour’s great ideological showdown it is clear that the contest will finally determine which direction Labour takes. On the chance that Corbyn does go on to win, then the 2020 General Election will be the most democratically distinctive election since 1987. A genuine socialist party led by Jeremy Corbyn, a genuine liberal party led by Tim Farron and a genuine conservative party led (most likely) by George Osborne would be a fascinating prospect.