Comment | Labour’s Dilemma

It seems a long time ago since 2nd May 1997, when those of us who had been up all night first went outside and were greeted by the wonderful glow of warm sunny weather and the first Labour government in 18 years. On that morning it felt like anything was possible. It was a marvellous feeling for those of us of a certain persuasion, but it was also a high water mark for a party that has shed around four million votes in the time between Michael Portillo memorably losing his seat to Stephen Twigg and that paralysing moment at 10pm on May 7th 2015, when that exit poll heralded the first fully Conservative government in 18 years.

While never fully accepting Blair as a leader, many of Labour’s more traditionalist supporters were prepared to go along with him because he brought them electoral success, and Labour were desperate for it. The splits, however, began to show in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq…a step too far for many Labour people, myself included, and if it had not been for the fact that the Conservatives were still haunted by their defeat in 1997 then Labour might well have suffered more in 2005.

In this sense the 2015 election has much in common with that in 1997 (and 1979 for that matter). On each occasion the losing party, as with a defeated army, were ideologically scattered; the coalition of ideas that holds any political party together was broken. Those at the more extreme end of the party, like a millennialist group whose world has survived their predictions of doom, were more convinced than ever that they were right. Perhaps this is why a poll this week put Jeremy Corbyn ahead in the Labour Leadership contest, at the end of a week that has finally seen Labour begin to think about its opposition.

Last week I wrote about how the ‘thin sheen of humanity’ soon fell away from Osborne’s budget and listed the many ways in which it provided an opportunity for Tory supporters to continue to develop their narrative in which the poor and vulnerable are at best cast aside and at worst vilified. Given how obvious this was, and it was fairly common currency within a couple of days of Osborne’s speech, you would have thought – no expected – that the opposition parties, and most importantly and notably Labour, would have stood up and shouted from the rooftops that this was a bad budget for the very people the party has traditionally stood up for.

Instead we had the spectacle of the party’s interim leader, Harriet Harman, saying that Labour would not oppose many of the changes to tax credits that the Tories were putting forward; something that, quite rightly, caused outrage amongst many in the party. It is no wonder that many Labour supporters now want to turn to Corbyn in order to re-assert Labour’s core values, and many have re-joined the party to explicitly vote for him. At the same time The Daily Telegraph published an article on line urging Conservative supporters to join Labour to vote for Corbyn, and ‘condemn Labour to years in the political wilderness’.

LabourHarman’s comments this week underline why many in the Labour Party are desperate to oppose a Tory Government which has really hit the ground running and is already showing the sort of zeal for small government and disdain for the vulnerable that they are desperate to stop. In this respect Corbyn is arguably the most likely of the leadership candidates to do this, and take Labour back to its socialist roots.

In many ways this seems to be an attractive proposition for a party that has been so badly damaged by recent history, a party that has singularly failed to set the political agenda since at least the 2008 crash…the irony being that it was the very capitalism that the Tories espouse that caused the crash in the first place. So for many he represents an opportunity to roll back the years of what they see as the emptiness of Blairism and replace it with something far more substantial. The question is whether Corbyn could embody this and fight the sort of contemporary and forward looking campaign that would result in a Labour government in 2020?

Corbyn is clearly a politician of great integrity in an era where they seem to be in short supply, but he also comes with a lot of baggage amassed through decades of dedicated and consistent left wing activity. While for many this is his strength, in the same way as it was Tony Benn’s strength, as the blatantly scurrilous Telegraph piece underlines it will also be something that the right wing press will unpack again and again, and they will do it mercilessly.

Of course the argument should be that the press should not be allowed to dictate the terms of our politics, but that is not likely to go away in the next five years…and neither is our electoral system. So while we have first-past-the-post, a left wing Labour Party is going to really have its work cut out to win back those four million voters who were attracted to Blair. This will mean an extraordinary confluence of events, very effective communication and, frankly, luck if it is going to be anywhere close to power.

So if Labour does elect Corbyn in September it will be doing no more than it did in 1979 and the Tories did in 1997. On both those occasions that party had to wait 18 years before being elected back into office. The question that Labour supporters must ask is whether that is a potential prospect that they can live with in order to re-ignite the party’s socialist principles. If the alternative is what many see as a Tory-lite party with any of the other three candidates it is hardly surprising after this heavy and demoralising defeat that the answer might well be yes.