Labour Party leaders this week urged leftwingers to support anyone but Jeremy Corbyn in a leadership election that could see the United Kingdom’s second largest political party veer sharply to the left.
Two of the candidates to succeed Ed Miliband — who resigned after losing the election in May — warned that a Corbyn victory would make Labour unelectable in 2020.
In a combative speech on Thursday, Yvette Cooper, Labour’s otherwise cautious shadow home secretary, rejected the notion that “power doesn’t matter so long as our principles remain intact,” urging purists in the party to “tell that to the woman in tears because she can’t afford her bedroom tax arrears.”
Tell that to the working parents on tax credits about to lose thousands of pounds who can’t afford new school shoes for the autumn term. Tell that to all those people who are being hit by Tory government.
It’s not enough to be “angry,” Cooper said. “We’re the Labour Party. We have a responsibility to change the world or what’s the point of us at all?”
The surprisingly frank speech prompted Dan Hodges, a former Labour Party and trade union official who writes for the right-wing Telegraph newspaper, to endorse Cooper, arguing, “this was a brave speech, easily the bravest of her career.”
Yvette Cooper knows this is probably her last opportunity to lead her party. And she knows a lot of what she said today is not what many people in that party want to hear. But she said it anyway.
That was brave. More significantly, it was the act of a leader.
The Guardian, Britain’s leading left-wing newspaper, similarly argued that Corbyn and his supporters are defining themselves wholly negatively, by Conservative policies they are against, when Labour needs to win back significant numbers of Conservative Party voters if it is to return to power.
Whoever wins must engage with the anti-austerity arguments pulsating through the party, harness young people’s passion and take the fight to the Tories in ways that appeal to the middle ground as well as the left.
Like Hodges, The Guardian believes Cooper is the best candidate to do that.
The Daily Mirror, a Labour-supporting tabloid, prefers Andy Burnham — but only because he offers a lighter version of Corbyn’s socialism.
Burnham, the party’s shadow health secretary, recently told the BBC that Corbyn’s policies “lack credibility.”
It’s not possible to promise free university education, renationalizing the utilities, without that coming at a great cost and if you can’t explain how that is going to be paid for then I don’t think we’ll win back the trust of voters on the economy.
But Burnham does want to renationalize railways, abolish tuition fees in favor of a graduate tax, reverse liberalizations in education and health care — without a plan to pay for it.
The only candidate willing to clearly repudiate the leftist tendencies of Miliband’s Labour and advocate a return to the centrist policy of former prime minister Tony Blair’s “New Labour” is Liz Kendall, a junior lawmaker from Leicester West who told the BBC this week that her party risks sending a “resignation letter to the British people as a serious party of government” by electing Corbyn.
“I don’t want to see our party go back to the politics of the 80s, just being a party of protest,” she said.
Blair himself, who led Labour to three election victories between 1997 and 2005, warned on Thursday that Labour was in “mortal danger” and “walking eyes shut, arms outstretched, over the cliff’s edge to the jagged rocks below.” A victory for Corbyn, he argued, would mean “annihilation.”
Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t offer anything new. This is literally the most laughable of all the propositions advanced by his camp. Those of us who lived through the turmoil of the 80s know every line of this script. These are policies from the past that were rejected not because they were too principled but because a majority of the British people thought they didn’t work.
Labour spent eighteen years in opposition from 1979 to 1997 when the far left and militant trade unions conspired to make the party unelectable. Moderates split to form an alliance with the liberals while the deregulation and privatization policies of Margaret Thatcher shifted the center ground in British politics to the right. Only when Labour accepted the new market consensus under Blair did it regain the trust of Middle England.
More than 600,000 Britons are registered to vote in the leadership contest, only half of whom are Labour Party members. The rest are affiliated trade unionists — whose leaders have endorsed Corbyn — and new members, many of whom are young, activist and only paid £3 for the right to vote.
The second group is arguably to the left of the first while most party members are to the left of Labour voters.
Recent polling by The Times revealed that a majority of party members thought Labour had lost the election because it didn’t resist the Conservatives’ austerity program hard enough. 63 percent said Labour had failed to defend the “good things” it did when it was last in government.
Only a third of Labour Party voters agreed those were the main reasons it fell to 232 seats in May — down from 258 in 2010 and 349 in the 2005 election.
Rather, most voters attributed the defeat to the weaknesses of Ed Miliband.
Under his leadership, Labour criticized every austerity measure the Conservatives enacted and seemed only to promise more of the public spending largesse that made those cuts necessary in the first place.
When the right came to power in 2010, Britain was borrowing £149 billion, equivalent to 11 percent of economic output. Labour had allowed the national debt to rise from around 50 percent to almost 80 percent of gross domestic product.
In coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives cut the deficit in half and brought down unemployment to the lowest rate in Europe after Germany, Norway and Switzerland. Growth last year was the highest in the developed world.
Only days before the election did Labour pledge it wouldn’t widen the deficit if it won. By then, it was too late. David Cameron, the Conservative leader, could credibly claim that Labour should not be trusted with command of the world’s fifth largest economy again. Voters agreed. They gave his party its first overall majority in twenty years.
Voters mistrusted Labour because it couldn’t bring itself to admit mistakes were made when it was last in power. The survey published in The Times showed that this, and the absence of a “plausible policy” to shrink the deficit, were seen by voters as important reasons why Labour lost. Among party supporters, by contrast, these factors hardly registered.