Labour is one bad decision away from rock bottom – but it could redeem itself with an interim leader

Rather than rushing the post-mortem, it would be better for the party to allow a non-factional temporary replacement to oversee a root-and-branch review

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 18 December 2019 14:28
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Tony Blair slams Jeremy Corbyn's Labour leadership during UK election

Rebecca Long-Bailey, the front-runner in the race to succeed Jeremy Corbyn, has been dubbed the “continuity Corbyn” candidate by her opponents. You might think the label would be a disadvantage after Labour’s crushing defeat. Wrong: it will be viewed as a plus by many of Labour’s 500,000 members.

Sir Keir Starmer illustrated the dilemma for those running on a non-Corbyn ticket today as he tacked to the left.

The shadow Brexit secretary did not join the deafening chorus of criticism of Corbyn at last night’s explosive meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party.

He insisted the party should not “oversteer” away from Corbyn’s radicalism, praising the outgoing leader for opposing austerity. Revealingly, Starmer told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t need somebody else’s name tattooed to my head, some past leader, in order to identify and make decisions.” Who could he possibly have in mind? Without his name being mentioned, Tony Blair is omnipresent whenever Labour agonises over its future direction. The mirror image of “continuity Corbyn” is “Blairite”, a dirty word for many of the members who will choose Labour’s next leader in March. Floating voters might think it odd that candidates must distance themselves from a man who won three elections, and is the only Labour leader to win one since 1974.

Starmer was right about one thing – the need to end the factionalism of the Corbyn era, which contributed to the party’s shattering defeat. I fear it might already be too late. Centrists claim Corbynistas want to reheat 1980s socialism, forgetting that Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto deprived the Tories of their overall majority (even if he overdosed on promises in last week’s election).

Left-wingers accuse their opponents of wanting to turn the clock back to New Labour. That, too, is wrong, and would be foolish. The process of taking Labour’s traditional working-class supporters for granted started under Blair; I recall his allies arguing “they have nowhere else to go”. It ended in last week’s catastrophe. But Blair did build a winning coalition of the working and middle classes, epitomised by his unfairly mocked “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” slogan. Labour needs to win over both audiences. Corbyn failed. Although the final rupture was created by Brexit, it would be a huge mistake to dismiss it as a one-off, and assume the working class will come flooding back.

Team Corbyn knew this day might come, and so entrenched its grip on the party’s levers of power. The mission now of senior figures at Labour HQ and on the national executive committee, and trade union leaders such as Unite’s Len McCluskey, is to ensure Corbynism survives Corbyn’s departure – under Long-Bailey’s leadership. She is unmistakably the one to beat.

Labour centrists fear a stitch-up by the party machine to prevent non-Corbynistas becoming members or registered supporters in order to get a vote in the ballot. Such votes helped Corbyn to his unexpected victory in the 2015 leadership contest. An early cut-off date would scupper plans by Corbyn’s critics to recruit 100,000 members or supporters.

The anger among Labour MPs and those who lost their seats is palpable, and justified. Corbyn is in denial, telling the PLP the election “was ultimately about Brexit”. Convenient, as it reminds Labour members that Starmer dragged Corbyn to a more pro-EU position. But the election was also a referendum on Corbyn. His allies, desperate to protect his legacy and policy platform, cannot accept the fundamental cause of Labour’s defeat: he was not seen as a credible prime minister. Instead, Corbyn claims Labour “won the arguments”, and blames his defeat on media attacks that were “more ferocious than ever”.

One miscalculation by Team Corbyn was that invoking the memory of Thatcherism’s devastating impact on the north and midlands would stop Labour voters flocking to the Tories. It didn’t work, even in mining areas.

Such mistakes should be thoroughly examined. But there are worrying signs the Labour machine will prevent a no-holds-barred inquest, and deny alternative voices such as Starmer, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips, Emily Thornberry (who entered the race today), a proper hearing in a long enough debate.

It would be better for Corbyn to stand aside now, to allow a non-factional interim leader such as Margaret Beckett, who was acting leader in 1994, to oversee a root-and-branch review taking a few months, rather than rushing the post-mortem and installing a new leader in March.

Labour has no divine right to exist as the main alternative to the Tories. Its defeat could have been even worse; the presence of Brexit Party candidates prevented it losing a further 20 seats to the Tories.

The country desperately needs a strong opposition to stop the new government abusing its untrammelled power. If, as I fear, Labour offers more of the same and fails to learn the right lessons, it will look increasingly irrelevant in the eyes of the voters it needs to win back.

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