The six o’clock news led with the story that 35 of Jeremy Corbyn’s parliamentary colleagues had seen fit to put him on the ballot paper to be Labour’s new leader. Shortly after a family member rang me to ask: “Is he a serious candidate?”
David Cameron’s time as leader of the opposition was characterised by symbols – hug a hoodie, huskies on the polar ice cap and the like. Labour seems to be offering its own symbols to the electorate. Harriet Harman’s attempts to move Labour towards the centre – and therefore towards the voters – on the difficult issues of welfare and cuts will be one. The party’s recoiling from her position will be another – and not in a good way. Anything making Corbyn appear as a serious contender will compound matters. Reports of private polling suggesting he could win or secure a place in the shadow cabinet if he does not win, will bring home the point. In a race that is inspiring to so few, these facts risk scaring so many we need to win back.
Corbyn’s Twittersphere supporters cannot have it both ways. He is either the prophet of the socialist second coming – and therefore alarming to those opposed to his high-tax, pro-nationalisation, CND position – or he is not.
The public gave a decisive result on 7 May. Few believe there was any love for the Tories. There was, however, a clear – net two million strong – view that Labour was not ready. Any sense that the party and the new leader did not hear the message of the voters risks hardening the attitude of potential Tory switchers, rather than bringing them round.
How the race is conducted therefore matters. Gone are the days you can tack left to win the party and move to the centre to win the country. Everything about the leadership is on display – social media, live broadcasts, the day-to-day involvement of the commentariat. There is no private space for Labour to lick its wounds.
It is becoming clear that only Corbyn and Liz Kendall are engaging in the battle of ideas. The other two, considered the front runners, now have second-preference strategies to win: Andy Burnham from Corbyn himself with the help of Unite, and Yvette Cooper from all and sundry so that she squeaks over the line without having said much at all.
Stephen Bush, from the Staggers, wrote: “The big secret of the Labour leadership election: there is not, really, all that much difference between Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall.” If that is true, it is time Burnham, a former vice-chair of Progress, and Cooper, a former patron, make this clear, otherwise they risk a political positioning on Labour’s left from which they, and the party in 2020, will not recover.
Eminent Labour blogger Hopi Sen’s portrayal of the “one-stepping” to the left that some of the candidates have recently been engaged in is well worth a read to understand the direction in which the contest has recently lurched. The leftward shift in tone is risky. It is not to step left we need, but a step up – from those standing for the leadership, and those who gifted Corbyn a place on the ballot.
The public might not be giving us their full attention but in their peripheral vision they will detect any change from the new leader after the contest and punish Labour for it.
When I came of age politically, the Labour Party talked confidently about how it was its failings, not Margaret Thatcher or John Major’s talents, that kept Labour from government for 18 long years. We need to remember this lesson.
George Osborne’s Budget shows the Tories have found their mojo again. Having won a majority once they show the appetite for another. It is time Labour showed it has the same hunger for power – not for its own ends but so we can deliver the social justice this country so desperately needs. Jeremy Corbyn will never be in a position to do this.
Richard Angell is director of Progress
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