How do you win a political argument that you seem to have been losing for a long time? Some in the Labour party are quite keen to know the answer, given their membership may be about to elect as leader a man so far on its fringes that he only occasionally obeys the party’s whip. And while he may be the last person Labourites would like to listen to, David Cameron knows a thing or two about this, having spent the last five years as Prime Minister trying to fight a recalcitrant group of backbenchers who were always demanding he go further than he planned on immigration and Europe.
Those MPs insisted that unless he follow their lead, he’d lose the election, Conservative voters would defect to Ukip and he’d be out of a job. For a long time, the Prime Minister was losing the argument: Ukip beat the Tories in the European elections and stole two of Cameron’s MPs. The rebels asked for more and more from their leader on their various pet subjects and caused trouble until they got it, which invariably they did.
But then Cameron stood up to his detractors, saying he wouldn’t give them any more ground. In a speech last November in which he was expected to cede more ground to the Tory rebels on immigration, he made quite clear he would not go any further. At the time, a number of Conservatives told me they were ‘in complete despair’ about the route the Prime Minister had taken. “He’s probably lost the election for us today,” they said.
A few months later, Cameron won the election, standing on the same platform he’d announced that day in November. He had finally, after years of alternately ignoring them and then caving into their demands anyway, stood up to his critics and proved them wrong.
This is a lesson that anyone who has worked in schools knows well. Children don’t know acceptable limits of behaviour, and will continue to ask for more of something they like, or do increasingly outlandish things until told to stop. Elected MPs are not children – but all of us adults still quite like being told when to stop or when we are wrong, so we don't become puffed-up versions of ourselves.
The same goes for Cameron and his MPs: the Prime Minister needed, respectfully and honestly, to set out where his boundaries were in order for the party to work together. He should have done it much earlier than November 2014. Better late than never, though. And Labourites concerned about the rise of Corbyn should take heed.
Of course, if a party leader talks to his or her backbenchers like a primary school teacher scolds their pupils, then they won’t get very far at all. Or if a politician ridicules his colleagues, then he will find he loses their respect.
Labour leadership: The Contenders
Labour leadership: The Contenders
1/4 Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn readily admits he is only standing to ensure the left of the party is given a voice in a contest dominated by candidates promising to move the party towards the centre-ground of British politics
Profiles by Matt Dathan
2/4 Andy Burnham
Andy Burnham is the current front-runner to win the leadership election according to bookmakers, but the fact that the Conservative party leadership hopes he wins shows the task that awaits if he is Ed Miliband’s successor. He will have to find a way of distancing himself from both the last five years under Mr Miliband and the Blair and Brown years, during which he served in the Cabinet
3/4 Yvette Cooper
Yvette Cooper will also face a battle in convincing voters she offers a sufficient break with the past, having served in Gordon Brown’s Cabinet and she played a key role in Mr Miliband’s team as shadow home secretary. The fact that her husband is Ed Balls will not have a negative impact internally but voters are not likely to look favourably on the prospect of Mr Miliband’s ousted shadow chancellor entering Downing Street if Ms Cooper wins in 2020
4/4 Liz Kendall
Liz Kendall faces criticism over her lack of experience – she was only elected in 2010 and has no experience of serving in government and wasn't even in Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet. But that very lack of experience means she can make a pitch as the only candidate offering real change and a real break from the Blair/Brown/Miliband years
That is why Cameron failed for so long to convince many in his party. He called Ukip voters – many of whom had been Tories previously – “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. He snubbed his own MPs, making the effort with them only when he needed to convince them not to rebel against him. Those Blairites referring to their Labour colleagues as “morons” for putting Corbyn on the leadership ballot paper should remember how much the fruitcakes managed to achieve in the years after Cameron insulted them.
But Cameron was right to tell his MPs what his limits were, and Labourites who think the Corbyn tendency is going to damage their party’s chances of getting re-elected should be doing the same.
This goes for anyone elected party leader who is not also called Jeremy Corbyn. The left of the party will lay claim to a strong influence on policies where it is out of kilter with the electorate, including public spending and welfare cuts. After all, a number of MPs nominated Corbyn because they believed the hurly-burly of a leadership contest would expose his arguments as flawed. That hasn’t happened, which is a great failing on the part of the others standing.
This isn’t to say Corbyn is automatically wrong about everything, but if a Labour leader does judge those on the hard left to be making arguments that no longer sit with the party’s core values, then they should say so. It won’t be comfortable, and it will provoke a great deal of rage from the party faction Corbyn is now the figurehead for. But it will be better than constantly giving that group more ground.
Most of the Labour leadership candidates have talked rather vaguely of their commitment to “Labour values” without really articulating what those values are; they don’t want to offend great chunks of the party electorate they are trying to woo. But, after the election, the new boss needs to set out those values and stick to them if Labour is to have a productive five years in Parliament. That means ignoring unnecessary predictions about losing the election, just as Cameron managed to do in 2014.
So it is astonishing that former Militant Tendency councillor Derek Hatton had managed to say his piece on Newsnight last week before any senior Labour figure had spoken up to say they disagreed with the hard left’s analysis. It fell to interim shadow Chancellor Chris Leslie to do this in yesterday’s Independent, urging party members to reject a “starry-eyed, hard-left economic strategy”. This was the strongest assertion any frontbencher had made about Corbyn being wrong: most Labourites have preferred to waffle on about their colleague’s fine principles without saying they believe those fine principles would damage the country.
If Labourites disagree with Corbyn then they should make that clear. Otherwise, they’ll find the next five years are dominated by his arguments – even if he fails to win the leadership.