CROYDON COMMENTARY: The ballot emails have gone out (or at least most of them seem to have done), and now Labour Party members have a choice to make. For RORY KELLY, a ‘millennial leftie’, the only trouble is that it is not much of a choice
So Jeremy Corbyn is standing down as leader of the Labour Party after a second General Election defeat, and we’re in the full swing of the contest to select his successor.
Far from being the assumed coronation for the once and future Corbynite, Rebecca Long-Bailey, a groundswell of new members and surprising range of endorsements have opened the door to a real contest. The BBC’s Newsnight estimates that Labour Party membership has increased by about 25 per cent since the General Election in December. It’s anyone’s guess how these new members will shift the balance of power within the party, but it’s a close race between Long-Bailey and Sir Keir Starmer.
Despite this, a millennial leftie like me feels utterly jaded after the election and ambivalent about the candidates on offer. Those who seem qualified have shaky politics and those with better politics seem to lack qualifications.
Jeremy Corbyn’s support base and the Labour Party membership is made up of people of my age group: 18- to 30-year-olds. This group has grown up at the tail end of decades of worsening income inequality to which the financial disaster of 2008 and crippling austerity were only the crescendo.
We have inherited an economy characterised by sluggish growth, unstable employment and a destructive relationship to Earth’s fragile climate. Most importantly, we are unconvinced by feckless middle-of-the-road politicians who tell us that better things aren’t possible.
This is the millennial leftism that elected Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015, and which was roundly defeated by the Conservatives in 2019. This after a decade or so of the Tories trying to placate their hard-right elements, and then finally putting them in the driver’s seat.
Now voters like me are looking for a Labour leader who can bring the same critique of capitalism and left policies to the public, but this time actually win. But it seems to me that the current raft of candidates – yes, Lisa Nandy is in there, too – don’t meet that bar
Starmer, a celebrated Queen’s Counsel and the Director of Public Prosecutions under Tony Blair, is, unbelievably, an even blanker slate than he seems. Starmer has pledged to unite the party and he attempted to outline his philosophy in The Guardian as “to put wealth, power and opportunity in the hands of all”.
This sounds profound. But he’s unclear on what it means.
Leadership elections are always light on policy, but Sir Keir is pushing it. Starmer – who has the support of both of Croydon’s Labour MPs, Sarah Jones and Steve Reed – calls for Labour to stand by public ownership and proper investment in public services, as does every other candidate. He declines to answer whether or not he is politically close to Corbyn or Blair, a question that many like to deride as fatuous even though it’s obviously what all voters are wondering.
Judging him by the company he keeps is no more useful: he has been endorsed both by major unions, and by characters such as Lord Andrew Adonis, who has demanded that “no one who played any significant role in the Corbyn machine plays any role whatever in the future leadership or organisation of the Labour Party”.
Prior to his election as an MP, it is almost impossible to find a political statement from Starmer. In this respect, he really is like Blair, whose friends and colleagues recall him having no visible political ambition in early life. Blair was able to turn his hollowness into a phenomenal strength, squishing himself into the mould that the voters of the 1990s wanted. Starmer probably hopes to do the same, but it’s hard to sign off on a politician who hasn’t finished cooking and could turn out any number of ways before the next general election.
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Lisa Nandy, the MP for Wigan, is running a campaign getting exactly the kind of media attention that a unique and doomed approach always receives in a leadership bid.
Nandy’s pitch is that Labour has economically and culturally left behind working-class voters in the “heartland”: in the north of England, in Scotland, and in the smallest, poorest towns in the UK.
Nandy is much firmer on policy than Sir Keir, calling for an end to the benefit cap and universal child benefit. But more important to Nandy appears to be realigning the party’s concerns with those of Britain’s left behind, like those who “just want a functioning bus network”, in her words.
The problem with trying to bring the Labour party into cultural alignment with its heartland voters is that cultural alignment doesn’t appear to be what these voters want.
The Prime Minister they just voted in sits on the other side of a yawning cultural chasm, belching his way through Greek poetry and vintage wines. They voted for him anyway. Brexit became a proxy issue for all these cultural concerns and all Boris Johnson had to do was make him and his party synonymous with that issue. Rather than limp cultural signalling, Labour needs a world view that speaks to the conditions of these forgotten communities if it hopes to win. Waxing wistfully about small-town life almost certainly won’t cut it.
Long-Bailey has all the left-wing bona fides that should appeal to me. Her work on climate change is second to none, pairing the best of contemporary green politics with left economics to create the only responsible environmental policy in Britain. But Bailey suffers from a problem afflicting all of the Labour Left, and that is political atrophy.
Many of the best candidates simply struggle with both the basics of politics. From media management. to personnel choices (what Seamus Milne was doing so close to Labour High Command I will never know), Labour under Corbyn kept making avoidable mistakes. I don’t like the national anthem either, but if you’re caught not singing it, you hand the right a stick to beat you with.
Corbyn’s failure to deal with accusations of anti-semitism was as much about failing to make his dissenting MPs feel heard as it was anything else. This also goes for Labour’s great bogeyman: negative media coverage. From Foot, to Kinnock, to Miliband, Labour leaders have received profound levels of hostility from the press (especially the tabloids). But merely complaining about this isn’t any kind of tactic.
Labour needs an adept politician with a plan for dealing with that. I won’t count her out just yet, but Long-Bailey doesn’t seem to have confronted the obstacles that kept Corbyn from No10 and these would undoubtedly hurt her chances as well. And I don’t want to choose an honourable leader of the opposition: I want to choose a future Prime Minister.
Moreover, even much of what the candidates have in common is underthought and not getting enough scrutiny. In January, Starmer floated a vintage Gordon Brown policy when he called for a federal United Kingdom. Curiously, this actually puts him in line with Long-Bailey and Nandy, both of whom have also called for greater devolution of powers. So the soft left and the hard left have hit upon this as their solution to bring back Scottish and northern voters to their party.
Aside from the fact that public appetite for such a scheme seems very low, it’s absurd to couch this in the language of the left, as all the candidates have. Local government’s ability to regulate the large corporations that affect their particular region is remarkably limited, without even mentioning the kind of cuts they can be subjected to by central government.
The bulk of austerity since 2010 has been levelled at local authorities, which have led to some of the freakish public-private sector mixes that Inside Croydon has helped chronicle. Anyone who thinks that the left can rely on local politics to tackle national issues can explain to me exactly how the Cornish Parliament or whatever comes next is able to deal with British Petroleum ravaging the climate on a global scale.
Like most people my age, I don’t see retreat into Blairism as an option. If the Labour Party is worthwhile at all, they have to counter the damage done to the UK by austerity and unfettered capitalism. To not do so would be to ensure another Brexit-style backlash against the left a few years down the road.
But candidates that take such issues seriously also need to win elections and have a clear plan for how to do so. Winning with principle is the only serious option. And, at least right now, I and many others like me just aren’t convinced that any of candidates before us can pull that off.
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