Labour Isn’t Reflecting

On Sunday 15 December, Labour’s general secretary Jennie Formby announced to staff the proposed timetable for the next party leadership election. The “period of reflection”, which Jeremy Corbyn announced that he would oversee as leader, will effectively end just 3 weeks after the party’s election defeat.

Considering the state of the 2015 leadership contest up until the first BBC hustings, it is astonishing to me that many people want another contest so soon after another unexpectedly large defeat. Many in the party seem to have forgotten the absurd lengths that leadership contenders went to back then in their attempts to cater to the media’s most reactionary instincts. Tristram Hunt declared on Question Time that “Labour had overspent”. Early frontrunner Andy Burnham proudly announced that he would reject any union money for his leadership campaign, and acting leader Harriet Harman told Andrew Neil that the party would be abstaining on the Conservative welfare bill – which included a two child limit on receiving benefits – because the party had “lost the argument”.

Four years later, little seems to have changed – from Stephen Kinnock denouncing “people who go to coffee bars in London”, to former Labour MP Natascha Engel claiming Labour lost its northern seats because “political elites in London seemed to be obsessed with antisemitism, transgenderism and zero-net carbon emissions”. The endless stream of figures from the Labour right, declaring in no uncertain terms that Labour lost because it didn’t hate those who voted for it enough, have now been joined by a few voices from the left. Ian Lavery – touted by some as a leadership candidate – wrote in the Morning Star that “Labour needs more socialism, not liberalism, if it is to win back the confidence of people outside Westminster”. Novara Media’s Michael Walker declared “see[ing] any compromise on ‘defend and extend freedom of movement’ as a tacit endorsement of the hostile environment” as “a weakness of many on the left”. 

In 2015 the entrance of Corbyn to the leadership race was a welcome tonic to a consensus forming from all MPs vying for the leadership that Labour had lost because it had been too left-wing. Now there is no such candidate waiting in the wings with a distinct vision of what the Labour Party got wrong and what it should stand for. There are only competing explanations for why Labour lost.

Of course these arguments should be had, but a leadership election is not the mechanism that should be used to judge which factor most contributed to Labour’s recent defeat. It should be about selecting a leader who is able to hold the government to account and win an election. What Labour needs is an actual period of reflection, with a leader willing to do the work necessary to make the job of members easier at a future leadership election.

The tone that Jeremy Corbyn has struck since the election has not matched up to the requirements of the situation. While his article stating that Labour had “won the argument on corporate power, inequality and the climate emergency” was good in that it presented the opposite response to Harman’s in 2015, it wholly failed to grasp the gravity of what winning government (rather than arguments) means when we are faced with an 80-seat Tory majority.

The myriad issues which the party must confront in the leadership contest order to have a chance of governing again cannot be allowed to become a footnote to two issues that will not be relevant at the next election: Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s pre-Brexit Brexit policy.

Leadership contests favour tired, repetitive soundbites, with candidates able to dismiss huge questions like “how do we win back Scotland” with platitudes about “Labour values”. Asking the membership to judge which leader would best deal with anti-semitism in the party before the EHRC report has been released means candidates can avoid giving explicit answers on how they would tackle anti-semitism within the party. Members should have more knowledge of the extent of the crisis that has engulfed the party before making their decision on who is best placed to lead it. 

There is no insurgent candidate – and there probably won’t be. As such, what this race will amount to is three or four contenders proposing similar platforms and arguing their personality is better suited for leadership than their opponents. A good example of this is the reappearance of the debate around whether Labour is sufficiently patriotic. So far David Lammy has proposed Labour adopt “civic nationalism” while Rebecca Long-Bailey has suggested “progressive patriotism”.

The subtext of both is worrying. The former has been advocated by both William Hague and Nicola Sturgeon and can mean anything from platitudes about “uniting around shared institutions”, as Lammy puts it, to calls to bring back national service. The latter is concerning considering the fact that Unite look set to back Long-Bailey and their general secretary, Len McCluskey, has been outspoken in his desire for Labour to return to the Miliband era approach to immigration – in that immigration should be enthusiastically curbed by Labour in the hopes of winning back the “white working class”.

Lisa Nandy exemplifies the existing school of thought on the issue of patriotism with two articles, one written in early October this year, the other in early 2017. Both use the same anecdote about migrants getting jobs in hospitals before young locals in Britain, France and Germany because of cuts to bursaries. In the 2017 article Nandy, says freedom of movement has “allowed a skilled and mobile population across Europe to gain advantage at the expense of the rest of us”, while the October 2019 article states:

We owe it to the public to be clear. Immigration matters to our lives and our economy. In areas like agriculture and social care it is critical to protect it. The most straightforward way to achieve this after Brexit is through continued access to the single market and we should be clear that this is preferable to tighter controls on immigration, if that is the choice.

This obvious contradiction is not simply a problem for Nandy, but for the whole Labour party. The party hasn’t been clear – and the truth is that there is no faction or MP that isn’t willing to triangulate on immigration. The real debate is not whether or not Labour should be more patriotic, but to whom this patriotism will and will not extend. A leadership election will not solve this debate. It will simply serve as a way for the membership to determine which personality they believe is best placed to triangulate away a contradiction that exists at the very core of the party.

The parliamentary party does not possess the moral or practical capacity to oust a failing leader, and we know from experience their chosen successor would likely be a step in the wrong direction. Labour will be in opposition for the full five years barring a Tory implosion of an unprecedented scale. Whatever choice is made now will likely be final.

When the media, candidates and MPs cannot be trusted to offer any real insight into the reasons the party cannot win power, and considering the fact that every faction of the parliamentary party has at one point in the last fifteen years led the party, it is difficult to see the upcoming contest as anything other than a prolonged expression of the dearth of ideas emanating from Labour’s dominant factions.