Labour’s long, sweaty summer

We could be left with a leadership of two white, lefty males. The obvious antidote is to choose a ‘balanced ticket’

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Even for the most dedicated democrats, the most devoted democratic socialist, the most obsessive political anorak, the Labour leadership election provides ample proof that one can have too much of a good thing.

Although it has been only a few months since the resignation of Ed Miliband as leader, the campaigns for leader and – with growing significance – for deputy leader feel as if they have been going on since the dawn of time. They, and we, deserve a break from it all. The fact that the four leadership contenders could only agree on a partial cessation of hostilities for a couple of weeks does not bode well for their ability to work together in a shadow Cabinet.

That will also be made all the trickier by Jeremy Corbyn’s devotion to fundamentalist socialism. The latest manifestation of this we reveal today – that he will seek to reinstate Labour’s historic Clause Four commitment to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy. It is a symbolic moment. When he was running for leader in 1994, Tony Blair went on television to pledge he would not repeal the old Clause Four. That was then the first substantial thing he did as leader at the subsequent party conference. Mr Corbyn, by contrast, seeks to mislead no one about his intentions.

Which brings us to an interesting quality of his, one that has also been highlighted, curiously, by the popularity of Donald Trump in the Republican race for the White House: authenticity. The usefulness of politicians who mean what they say and say what they mean may be exaggerated, but at the moment the public likes them – as we also see in the (relative) popularity of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. By contrast, politicians who seemingly stood for straight-dealing but who were subsequently found wanting, such as Mr Blair and Nick Clegg, attract a vitriolic response from the electorate. Of course, it is not always clear which is which: as someone wise once said, “the most important thing is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”   

Authentic or not, Mr Corbyn is in the lead, and if the bookies and the pollsters are right, he will soon be conjoined to Tom Watson, the likely next deputy leader. Given Mr Watson’s – entirely justified – campaign against phone hacking and the worst excesses of the press, Labour is even less likely to be given much of a hearing in the media. We would also be left with a Labour leadership of two white, middle-aged, lefty males.

The obvious antidote to this is for Labour members to consider choosing a “balanced ticket”, with, say, Caroline Flint, a more centrist candidate, balancing Mr Corbyn; or Mr Watson providing a counterbalance to the Blairite Liz Kendall. A balanced pairing has usually been the norm for Labour: Jim Callaghan and Michael Foot; Michael Foot and Denis Healey; Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley; Tony Blair and John Prescott. Some were, fancifully, labelled a “dream ticket”; all were, for the most part, surprisingly harmonious partnerships.

Whoever wins will face a huge challenge to preserve unity and to create a coherent programme. The debate about what that should be has been one happy consequence of this long, sweaty election, but it has not been resolved. Mr Corbyn’s old political ally, Tony Benn, who also had an air of authenticity, used to say that elections were wonderful things because they represented a “healing process”. That was not immediately apparent in some of the bitter fights he started during the Labour “healing” period in the early 1980s, which marooned it in opposition for 18 years.

Will Labour’s self-inflicted wounds be cauterised by the time the new leader and deputy appear at the party conference in Brighton in a few weeks? Experience suggests not.