After Jeremy Corbyn scraped on to the Labour leadership ballot with seconds to spare, he joked to an ally: “Now, make sure I don’t win.” A seasoned, experienced frontline politician with backing from their parliamentary party would have found the last months beyond gruelling: and Corbyn only stood out of a sense of duty, to prevent the leadership campaign becoming a stampede to the right, rather than out of personal ambition, and without any apparent realistic prospect of victory. But here’s the thing. Many of his opponents on the right of the Labour party pride themselves on their electability, on being good at politics, but show little understanding about why they lost so badly in their own party. It baffles me. Without such a post mortem, involving contrition and political self-awareness, how do they expect to win back the leadership? As my colleague Stephen Bush puts it, anti-Corbyn Labourites are “keener on rubbing the lessons from the general election in the faces of the left, rather than subjecting itself to a painful post-mortem following Corbyn’s own landslide.”
The right of the party is composed of two factions. The New Labour wing – chiefly represented by Progress – are in retreat after their candidate’s disastrous showing in the leadership election. Their views can be summed up (with the caveat that, yes, this is a generalisation) as follows: hawkish on defence and foreign policy, passionately supportive of the alliance with the US, sceptical about Labour’s trade union link, less interested in the concept of social class, more open to electoral reform, supportive of market ideology, and committed to LGBT rights. The Old Labour Right – in the shape of the ascendant Labour First – share the foreign policy stance, but are more supportive of the trade union link, are more social democratic in their economic outlook and opposed to markets in public services, more tribal, more interested in social class (particularly if it helps to portray their left-wing opponents as bohemian effete bourgeois liberals), more sceptical about (or outright opposed to) electoral reform, and more open to social conservatism. The Old Labour Right often have a more macho quality (some Blairite critics even privately opt for “thuggish”), though their political outlook represents a genuine current in particularly Northern and Midlands working-class communities. But – with honourable exceptions – neither faction seems that interested in addressing why they lost: that they lacked any meaningful vision, leaving a vacuum that could be – and indeed was – filled.
Their failure is, in part, a failure to learn from Tony Blair of all people. Towards the end of last year’s leadership race, Liz Kendall appeared to show regret at how she had approached the Labour membership. Indeed, a campaign that seemed to finger-wag at members, suggesting that much of what they believed was rubbish and delusional (Labour was “behaving like a petulant child who has been told you can’t have the sweeties in the sweetshop” and who were now “running around stamping our feet”, as Kendall ally Chuka Umunna put it) was doomed to failure. That wasn’t Blair’s approach in his successful 1994 leadership campaign. He liberally used the word “socialism”; he recruited the support of soft left luminaries like Robin Cook; he ran a positive, feel-good, optimistic campaign, and was rewarded with a surge in Labour membership after his victory.
Someone who has embraced the role of anti-Corbyn Labour pundit is John McTernan, former chief of staff to ex-Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy. McTernan is the sort of man who seems to relish antagonising those who disagree with him, particularly if they are to his left. The louder they boo, the more pleasure and vindication he derives. But McTernan seems to have no analysis of the rise of Corbyn, merely contempt. The prescriptions he offers for a Labour vision including privatising the National Health Service,opposing public ownership of rail (he thinks rail privatisation is a resounding success); and merging the fire service with the police. With all due respect to McTernan – he has always been civil to me – if the likes of him become identified with the modern Labour right, they are doomed. The Labour right is at risk of becoming defined by a contempt – or even loathing – of the left and little else.
Old Labour right types who would – rightly – urge understanding of what drives working-class people to vote UKIP show no such intellectual curiosity about what made 6 out of 10 voters in the leadership election opt for Corbyn. Sometimes their analysis seems to boil down to believing a bunch of sandal-wearing pinko Islingtonistas have overrun their party. This has often been their approach to the left: the embattled Simon Danczuk, for instance, once amusingly accused me of hailing from the “posh part of Stockport”. Some bitterly plot revenge: a counter-revolution to suppress the Labour Jacobins. You do not need to be a political genius to guess the identity of the then-Shadow Cabinet minister who, in the immediate aftermath of Corbyn’s victory, promised a reckoning that “will have to be brutal, putting the left in a box for 30 years or out of the party.”
Take the recently-sacked Michael Dugher, martyrised in the eyes of the Old Labour Right. An interview with this week’s Mail on Sunday emphasised what a ruddy bloke he was – “his idea of a night out is six pints of Guinness with his muckers” – and he was at pains to promote a slightly contrived “I say it how I see it” demeanour. How he believes a strategy of attacking his party’s leadership in right-wing papers will persuade – rather than antagonise – the party membership is unclear.
This column risks being dismissed as unhelpfully fuelling a prospective civil war. But the interventions of the likes of Dugher are perplexing: they are feted by the right-wing press for a reason, and although they may inflict damage on the party, they only alienate the membership, including those frustrated with the leadership. There are darker murmurings: some MPs talk of the inevitability of a split, with speculation about how the right could take the Labour brand with them. A more constructive approach would be to focus on developing the political vision that is currently missing. As Stephen Bush notes, some non-Corbynites are trying to do this. Take Liam Byrne’s speeches calling time on neo-liberalism; Rachel Reeves’critique of George Osborne’s economic model; Jonny Reynolds on electoral reform.
There has to be a recognition that Corbyn won because of a thirst for a genuine alternative to Osbornomics; a contempt for the established political elite (a phenomenon sweeping the Western world); and a desire for a foreign policy that doesn’t produce the calamity of the Iraq war and its ISIS offshoot. Politically savvy Labour opponents of Corbyn would surely ask how they could satisfy these desires and attempt to offer an inspiring vision in response. If they don’t, they will certainly provoke much bitterness, but little else.