by David Butler
A party is selecting a new leader and is using, for the first time, an open selection process. The early front-runners from the moderate wing of the party, who have dominated the party in the previous decades, have faltered and disappointed. Others, young and dynamic politicians, have refused to run for personal and political reasons. Instead, the insurgent, an outsider candidate from the left of the party is gaining momentum. He is backed by a wave of younger activists who are disappointed by the party’s previous period in government with its compromises and controversial war and are idealistic for a new settlement. As the campaign progressed, the moderates try to rally around a candidate, any candidate, to stop the insurgent left. However, it is too late. The insurgent suddenly finds himself party leader.
The year is 1972 and George McGovern has just become the Democratic nominee for President.
On his way to the nomination, McGovern defeated the combined talents of three leading party moderates, Senator Edmund Muskie, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. George J. Mitchell, a Muskie staffer and later Muskie’s successor as Senator, reflected afterwards that “Muskie’s appeal was to reason, to legislative accomplishment, to sort of general policies in the best interest of the country. The primary electorate was interested in emotion, passion, strong views on every issue, and the general election candidate who tries to navigate a nomination process by not being clear on very hot button issues finds it difficult in the nominating process”.
McGovern’s supporters wanted emotion and clarity in their candidate; they were the heirs to the spirit of Bobby Kennedy’s tragic last campaign. His support base was made up of ethnic minorities, women, the young and New Left activists; they were anti-Vietnam, pro-drug liberalisation, pro-abortion and supportive of a basic income. His supporters mixed the heady idealism of youth and anger at Nixon and the Democratic party establishment.
Corbyn’s supporters, according to a recent YouGov poll, preferred a leader who will make a shift to the left and providing effective opposition to the Tories to one that understanding how to win. As Jonathan Freedland so accurately observed, Corbyn’s support is about identity, not power. His supporters want authenticity over the (perceived) cynicism of the party’s moderate wing and a break from the supposed disappointments and failures of the ancien régime.
Like McGovern’s supporters, Corbyn backers have turned their guns on their own side. From the accusations that Liz Kendall is a “Tory” to the CWU referring to Blairites as a “virus”, the real vitriol in this contest has not been towards the Conservatives in power but towards people who have sacrificed much for the Labour cause.
There is nothing new about this. After the defeat in 1951 (as well as during its tenure in office), the Attlee government was attacked from the Left for not got far enough with nationalisation, building the atomic bomb, introducing NHS charges and the fighting communism in Korea. At the end of the Wilson-Callaghan government, again the party elite was criticised for failing to implement the 1974 manifesto in full and the 1976 IMF deal which saw the UK shift towards monetarism; this provided the fuel for the internal party reforms that sparked the SDP split, destructive Benn-Healey deputy leadership fight and the Longest Suicide Note in History. The tragedy of Labour history is that it is cyclical, not linear.
The Muskie, Humphrey and Jackson of this race are Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. Burnham and Cooper have positioned themselves carefully, seeking not to offend the Left or the Right. Burnham flip-flopped on welfare and he and Cooper have failed to set out any defining mission for their proposed leadership. Their campaigns have been vanilla in the extreme. Kendall’s analysis of Labour’s failings is correct and her attempts to move Labour towards the centre are necessary for the Party to win. Yet, she has employed too much of the short, sharp shock and too little of the optimism, hope and moral language needed build a winning coalition within the Labour selectorate. She has begun to do this but it has been lost in the sound and fury of the campaign.
Winning by default is rare, rarer still in parties that have just suffered a traumatic loss. There was an assumption that people who see the light after the disaster of Milibandism; this was wrong. The right of the party has failed to put forward a candidate who has articulated a popular message that could reunite Blair’s intra-party coalition of pragmatists, rightist revisionists and the soft left. We should reflect on why we have failed to express an optimistic, coherent and compelling vision of the future. David Miliband, channelling the great Philip Gould, once wrote that “idealism is the oxygen of politics, but realism is its anchor”; our oxygen supplies are in severe need of replenishment.
David Butler is a Labour activist. This article is an adaptation of an earlier piece