by Kenny Stevenson
We’ve all been there. The family functions with that one relative who can’t handle a drink. The staff parties where the co-worker everyone hates turns up. The pub trips with friends where a killjoy won’t stay out past 12.
The clan or team or squad often run preceding debates centred on the question: should we invite them? But the Yes side – a coalition of the accused’s counsel and do-gooders too nice to defy the whip – always wins. Nothing ever changes. All post-party analyses are the same – we won’t invite them next time. And so the shit-night-out cycle continues.
So on Monday, when MPs acquiesced and invited Jeremy Corbyn to take a place on the leadership ballot, Labour’s refusal to repel the party’s far-left dragged on.
It took them to the final moments, but Yes to Corbyn managed to muster an alliance to get their man on the panel. Corbyn is not without ardent backers. Owen Jones, the most popular left-wing blogger in the country, backs him and argued a Corbyn-free ballot would have denied the party and country ‘a genuine debate’. He also enjoys enthusiastic support among his peers – Dennis Skinner and Diane Abbott among the most prolific.
But there were also plenty of do-gooders like Sadiq Khan, Emily Thornberry and David Lammy who could not bring themselves exclude Corbyn, despite having no intention of supporting his leadership bid.
I’m being a bit mean by caricaturing Corbyn as an unwanted dinner guest. The man has given his life to the labour movement, spent over 30 years as an MP (and is a thoroughly good one, as I understand it) and is held in high regard by party and trade union activists.
The issue is not with Corbyn personally, but with Labour’s far-left as a whole. Substitute Corbyn for Jones, Skinner, Abbott, McDonnell, McCluskey or Livingstone, and the party faces the same problem.
According to this sect, Labour lost in May because we weren’t radical enough; or because we didn’t defend working-class interests sufficiently; or because we didn’t present a credible alternative to austerity.
Whatever the excuse, it translates from politico-speak as: we weren’t left-wing enough. It’s depressing being a member of a political party in which stalwarts decades my senior have as much political judgement as NUS teenagers with Chavez t-shirt collections.
I won’t waste words arguing why electing a leader to the left of Ed Miliband would be a disaster. Rather, I want to stress the importance of this leadership election.
A starting point for members is to grasp just how bad our current 2020 electoral prospects are. The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) recently published ‘research’ into the 2015 result, concluding the outcome was ‘the most disproportionate result in UK history’. After attending a recent talk by Professor John Curtice, I can say the ERS has it wrong and this election has added nothing new to the pro-PR case.
To give just one example, in 2005 Labour won 55% of seats on 35% of the vote, while this year the Tories won 51% of seats on 37% of the vote. I mention the ERS report because party members must understand how we lost in May. Yes, some policies were popular with voters – the living wage, energy price freeze, 50p tax rate, etc – but the party was not the victim of first-past-the-post anomalies.
We have a Tory government because Labour lost battles on two fronts. First, the well-documented SNP siege left us with only one comrade standing in Scotland. In England, the party failed to inspire former Lib Dem voters as the Tories bagged the majority of seats held by their former Coalition partners. Assuming SNP support holds strong, Curtice reckons Labour will need to lead the Tories by over 12% in 2020 to form a government.
Labour does not win elections without convincing Tory voters to back the party. Given the state of play in Scotland, it is more vital than ever we elect a leader who can appeal directly to England and overturn the Tory lead.
That is why the upcoming hustings series is so important – or rather, was. Let’s put aside Corbyn’s lack of credibility (indeed, one could argue none of the candidates are particularly electable) and focus on how his inclusion may upend the hustings’ formats.
A three-person line-up, with participants of varying shades of pink, would have anchored the debates to the centre ground and allowed for common-sense discussions on why we lost and how we win again.
MPs, however, could not resist including a token red on the panel. Corbyn, rather than offering objective critiques of the party’s policies and electoral performances, will provide populist soundbites that appeal only to his followers.
So when the other candidates attempt to discuss the deficit, Corbyn will simply call for an end to austerity.
When immigration crops up, Corbyn will claim bankers and tax avoiders are the only social ills. When an activist from the floor inevitably asks the candidates if they would describe themselves as a ‘socialist’, Corbyn will give an affirmative one-word response to the delight of his followers.
In short, his candidacy is a distraction: audiences will be populated by clapping seals; other candidates will be on the back foot; and the proper debate the party desperately needs will be stifled.
Corbyn’s inclusion was not, as Sadiq Khan implied, necessary to ensure a good ‘democratic process’, as a proper democratic process would have allowed our elected representatives to nominate candidates on their own accord. The decision to include Corbyn only legitimises the party’s discredited far-left and gives credence to the nonsense it can contribute constructively to Labour’s electoral strategy.
And so the vicious cycle wheels on. Maybe it’ll take just one more battering before we realise certain comrades should be left off the invite list. Then, and only then, can the party begin.
Kenny Stevenson is a Politics PhD student studying UK immigration policy and public opinion. He is a member of Glasgow Cathcart CLP