“But what about Greece?” The question is posed by many Labour members when they are canvassed on the phone by supporters of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall.
A quiet revolution is happening inside the Labour Party, a Syriza moment that could install the veteran left-wing backbencher Jeremy Corbyn as its leader in six weeks time. A week ago, this prospect was discounted by senior Labour figures. This weekend, they know it is a real possibility.
A new, younger generation of Labour members is being wooed brilliantly by Mr Corbyn. All he has to do is be himself – a calm, articulate figure with a clear message: there is an alternative to austerity. It reassures Labour members who, having been rejected by the electorate in May, want to be loved rather than insulted by those who aspire to lead their party.
“We tell them Greece got screwed in the end, but they don’t care,” one member of a rival team sighed. Like the Greeks who flocked to Alexis Tsipras, the new wave of Labour members feel they have nothing to lose but their chains.
Mr Corbyn’s unexpected rise has blown his three rivals off course. Ms Kendall’s Blairite medicine was always going to be hard for the party to swallow. Many Labour members –and the trade unions -- do not share the Blairite analysis that Ed Miliband conducted a five-year experiment with a left-wing agenda. They saw it as austerity-lite and do not want Labour to be a pale imitation of the Tories.
Who will be the next Labour leader?
Who will be the next Labour leader?
1/7 Andy Burnham
Andy Burnham has promised to restore the party's "emotional connection with millions of people," if elected
2/7 Mary Creagh
Mary Creagh has called on her party to win back “Middle England”
3/7 Liz Kendall
Shadow health minister Liz Kendall is seen as a Blairite
4/7 Yvette Cooper
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper became the fourth person to join the Labour leadership race
5/7 Tristram Hunt
Tristram Hunt, the shadow Education Secretary, has said he will not run for the Labour leadership as he had not gathered the required nominations of 35 MPs. He has instead endorsed the moderniser Liz Kendall.
6/7 Dan Jarvis
One of the favourites to succeed Ed Miliband as Labour leader – ex-Army paratrooper Dan Jarvis – has ruled himself out, saying he won't do it because of his children
7/7 Chuka Umunna
Chuka Umunna dropped out of the Labour leadership contest just three days after he announced he was in the running
Now that this view now has a vehicle in Mr Corbyn, it poses a real problem for Mr Burnham and Ms Cooper. They both “get” that Labour needs to appeal to many people who voted Conservative in May. I suspect that if they won the leadership, they would be more centrist than they now appear. But for now, they are being sucked left by the Corbyn effect. He told the New Statesman the answer is to “grow the electorate” – persuade some of the 36 per cent who did not vote in May to turn out. To his rivals, this is a cul-de-sac: Mr Miliband got very little return from policies which helped the bottom 10 per cent because many of them don’t vote.
Mr Corbyn has the crucial ingredient of momentum. A few weeks ago, Unison, the second biggest union, was set to nominate Mr Burnham. But his refusal to vote against the Government’s Welfare Bill angered the union. He backed Harriet Harman, Labour’s acting leader, who wanted the party to abstain. Unison was not impressed by his pledge to oppose the Bill if he wins the leadership. As one union insider put it: “On such a dividing line issue, it was too much and the momentum for Jeremy just kept building. Blame Harriet for the Corbyn coup.”
With Mr Corbyn in the race, Mr Burnham and Ms Cooper look to some Labour members like part of the political establishment. Mr Corbyn, a serial rebel against his own party’s leadership who is never without a cause, is a credible anti-establishment figure inside one of the two big established parties. He seeks to turn a party into a movement, like Syriza. His rivals find that the old tunes – such as dire warnings about letting the Tories in if Labour lurches to the left – have little impact on many of the 65,000 members who have joined Labour since May.
Labour has again been caught napping by a grassroots, anti-mainstream politics uprising, this time in its own back yard. It did not forsee the Scottish National Party tide that would sweep it away in its Scottish heartland, even after the SNP lost last autumn’s independence referendum. Similarly, Labour ignored repeated warnings that Ukip would eat into its working class support, lazily believing it would harm only the Tories.
What did the SNP and Ukip have in common? An appealing, authentic leader who told it straight and was capable of riding the populist wave. Some on the left believe the Greens missed their moment this year because Natalie Bennett did not pass the leadership test, in a way the party’s MP Caroline Lucas would have done.
Boris Johnson, another populist who plays brilliantly to the gallery, evidently hopes the same magic stardust will help him see off his less exciting rival George Osborne when David Cameron stands down. Mr Johnson paid Mr Corbyn a revealing tribute this week, describing him as “passionate, principled” and “authentic” unlike the “vacillating opportunists” he is up against in the Labour election.
The lesson of this contest may well be that Blairism needs to reinvent itself to have any future inside Labour. When younger party members are told that Tony Blair won three elections, all they think about is the Iraq War and the introduction of university tuition fees.
Modernisers know they need to get rid of the toxic “Blair” brand to regain influence. New Labour will have to become Next Labour, looking forward with new ideas, not harking back to the old ones.
Labour’s flirtation with its long-ignored left flank plays into the Tories’ hands at the perfect time for Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne, as they seek to colonise the centre ground with their “One Nation” Conservatism. It is the mirror image of the Tories veering right under William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, which helped Mr Blair hold the centre ground – and win elections.
There is genuine excitement among those enthused by Mr Corbyn’s campaign. The danger for Labour is that they do not seem to care that the most likely outcome is a long period of Conservative rule.Reuse content