It’s no surprise that most Labour MPs have difficulty adapting to a new political environment in such a state of flux.
he Labour leadership election is effectively over. Despite his opponents throwing everything they have at him, Jeremy Corbyn is sure to be re-elected, and probably with an increased majority. Had all Labour party members had a vote, this majority would no doubt have been more overwhelming still.
On their own terms, this is an astonishing defeat for the Corbyn-sceptic camp. They argue that Corbyn’s greatest weakness is his inability to win an election. But when they call a leadership election, pitting him against their chosen candidate and under election rules of their own choosing, they still manage to lose. A defeat under these conditions demonstrates that they are completely unequipped to take on the political challenges that face them.
Nonetheless, we should not mistake this failure for general ineptitude. Most MPs are thoughtful, well-educated, and hard-working individuals. The problem is that they are in jobs they did not sign up for, and for which they are woefully unqualified. During the Blair years, when most of the current generation of Labour politicians cut their teeth, the party expected MPs to be effective state managers. The global economy was strong, and it was possible to effect change through relatively minor tinkering with the levers of government. It was, in a sense, a largely non-political era. MPs needed to sound credible on the doorstep, and know how to operate a parliamentary committee.
The contrast with today could not be starker. The general population is increasingly alert to the fact that we face multiple crises for which 20th century social democracy does not have answers. People are becoming more politicised, and they are looking for overarching solutions to the problems they face. What is needed now is not technocratic state managers, but political leaders who can mobilise people around clear, consistent, ideological solutions.
Their unsuitability led them to commit six key follies.
1. Failure to understand the election system they created.
Corbyn won so resoundingly last summer because his campaign was the only one to recruit thousands of new voters from outside the party. This influx of the left continued under his leadership: the selectorate was already disposed to support Corbyn.
If Labour moderates believe what they say, they must think there are millions of Labour supporters who would welcome a change in leadership. Their strategy could have rested on recruiting these to the party. But this path was not open to them, due to changes to the election rules they proposed themselves. With a hiked £25 supporter fee, a tiny 48-hour window to sign up, and a membership freeze date back in January, there was no hope of being able to recruit the numbers they need.
2. Inability to understand Corbyn’s appeal.
Unable to recruit large numbers, the only remaining option was to turn Corbyn supporters. This was made impossible by Labour MPs’ staggering inability to understand the motivations of these members.
Corbyn’s support base is largely disillusioned with mainstream politics. Winning these people requires the recognition that trust in the parliamentary Labour party is catastrophically low, particularly after the deeply unpopular #ChickenCoup. This is a bitter pill to swallow, as it involves MPs taking responsibility for the mess they have made. Instead, they continue to act as though Labour MPs command the respect of the membership.
This led them not to see the problem with insisting that Labour MPs should restrict party members’ choice to a single challenger. They did not foresee the outcome that for many voters, the election would be framed as ‘the PLP vs the membership.’
3. Emphasising competence, with Mr Bean as their candidate.
Once they had changed the rules to eliminate their best chance of winning, and successfully framed the election in the worst possible terms, they then had to select a candidate and a message.
There has been no shortage of blunders during Corbyn’s leadership, so his opponents were perhaps right to focus on the issue of competence. They might have won with a slick candidate committed to a similar political programme but with a savvier media strategy.
Instead we got Owen Smith.
In his first TV interview, he accidentally misspoke and said: “austerity is right.” He later suggested that the West should negotiate with Isis, and he keeps on talking about his genitals. If the campaign was intended to demonstrate Corbyn’s incompetence, it should not have put forward gaffe-prone Smith as its standard-bearer.
4. Basing the election on a claim of electability, but refusing to substantiate it.
Closely tied to the assertion that Smith is the more competent candidate is the assertion that he is also more electable. The overwhelming majority of members, regardless of their politics, would be willing to compromise a little if it meant the difference between government and opposition. The Smith campaign knows this, and has emphasised electability from the start.
Amazingly, they appear to have made no effort to explain why Smith is more electable. It has simply been declared as though it were obvious to everyone. No one is buying it: only one in eight of the Labour selectorate believe he can win a general election, and only one in three of his own supporters. So why compromise on principles?
5. Patronising and insulting the selectorate.
Continuing with the theme of alienating potential voters, the Smith campaign also has an intriguing interpersonal approach. Central to the Labour right’s electoral approach is a belief in ‘meeting the voters where they are.’ For the leadership election, this means engaging with the bulk of members who support Corbyn’s ideas.
There have been moments when it appeared that the Smith campaign understood this. For instance, they have tried to give a platform for ex-Corbyn voters who have switched sides. But these efforts are more than undermined by the patronising tone taken by key Labour figures. Tom Watson’s claim that young members’ support for Corbyn is due to arm-twisting by ageing Trotskyists, and not a desire for better future after years of being ignored, is a clear example of this. Smith repeated this allegation when he suggested that “entryism” is the most reasonable explanation for why a hustings audience might not agree that Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, was “doing a brilliant job.” This was just a few months after the Scottish party fell to third place for the first time since 1910.
Some of Corbyn’s opponents despise the hard left more than the Tories, and key figures in the Smith camp think left wing members are fools. In a sense, this is no surprise. They are forced to look for bogeymen – like the arm-twisting Trotskyists – because they cannot comprehend the possibility that the left has a point and that it is their own actions which have driven so many people away. Doing so would slay the sacred cows upon which they base their entire political outlook. Instead, they make excuses and behave like a dying regime holding onto its last vestiges of power.
6. Junking commitment to women’s representation.
The above points lay out how Corbyn’s opponents have stumbled at every step: from deciding the election rules, to speaking to potential voters. But throughout all of this, one might expect a highly mobilised support base. After all, many are driven by a belief that a Smith victory is needed to save the party they love. Surprisingly, Smith has done an impressive job of demoralising his own core support.
The Labour right characterise themselves by a commitment to pragmatism: a charitable way of saying that they will compromise on most of their principles. But nonetheless, they do hold some principles inviolable, one of which is a commitment to women’s political representation.
Smith’s candidacy does not sit well with this. He has in the past opposed all-women shortlists, (a shibboleth for some sections of the Labour right), he appears to resent women being given airtime, he has used sexist metaphors and dog whistles to attack Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon, and is alleged to have bullied Angela Eagle out of the leadership contest.
This kind of behaviour is hugely demoralising, and his supporters will resent having to defend it. It may not prevent them from voting for him – as most are driven primarily by their opposition to Corbyn, and not their support for Smith – but it will have discouraged many from participating more vocally and actively in his campaign.
Much has changed in the past decade, and it feels like most MPs are from another era. It is no surprise that they are having difficulty adapting to a new political environment, particularly as it is still in such a state of flux. We live in a period which the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci might describe as one where “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”
But then, no one mentions Gramsci on the #labourdoorstep, so why should we care what he has to say?