by Trevor Fisher
The Labour leadership campaign was a traditional selection process, despite extraordinary features.
While the Corbyn surge and the tripling of numbers entitled to vote flowed from changes made in the procedure, the thinking behind the leadership selection has lapsed behind the constitutional changes made and being made by the coalition government and its Tory successor, most importantly the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
This meant that the new leader has to spend the best part of five years in opposition. By the time the conference season is over, by October 7th, the leaders of all the opposition parties will be facing four years and seven months in opposition. Pledges to do this and that in government are marginal at best. As Fiona Millar has said, the duty of an opposition is to oppose.
The Labour leadership election was thus de facto not about electing a possible future prime minister. It was about leadership in opposition. This reality vanished from the selection process, which produced a series of policy initiatives for a manifesto which is in the remote future.
If there is no successful opposition, then the policies to renationalise rail, bring schools back under local authority control, or whatever are irrelevant. Labour remains, as it has been since it was set up in 1900, a vehicle for representing Labour at Westminster, but there is no strategy for doing this in a way which derails the government and build support in the country.
A key lesson set out by Professor David Runciman in the London Review of Books immediately after the election (10th-21st May 2015) has been missed. Runciman argued “For Labour it is finally time to abandon the idea that its primary purpose is to secure majorities in the House of Commons and that it should do nothing to put that prize at risk. It needs to become more like a typical European social democratic party, which recognises that nothing can be achieved without forging alliances with others.”
Runciman accepts that this will be difficult, but is himself behind the curve of European social democracy and other centre currents which are clearly in trouble.
The Blair strategy of the 1990s is defunct because the obvious partner in the centre went into coalition with the Tories and was destroyed as a political force. If Labour is to move left, which is the logical argument of the current situation in Scotland – and perhaps Wales and also in relation to the Greens – it also has to tackle the problem of UKIP to its right.
Opposition finds Labour trapped in a vicious pincer movement between the Tory attack and the bluster of a motley crew of small parties, parliament being the focus of gladiatorial battles. Beyond parliament elections in the devolved nations, Cities with mayors, local councils and above all the European scene provide an endless series of banana skins to slip on. Failure must lead to the leader having to face the music. Unlike the Tory party, Labour does not sack failing leaders. It has to break with this ancient habit.
However a deeper challenge is to revive the soft left of the 1980s. Labour remains polarised between a hard left which is essentially Bennite and a hard right which is essentially Blairite. The current which developed in the Labour Co-ordinating Committee (LCC) in the 1980s, with its roots in the council left around figures like Ken Livingstone and David Blunkett. is notably absent.
All the current candidates come from the Westminster bubble, an enduring problem as it is now Oxbridge dominated. Labour thinking has to have an extra-parliamentary dimension, which the soft left around the LCC had in the 1980s.
The challenge is to create a forum which can focus on the Tory plan for the future, notably its assault priorities of attritional war on local services and an assault on the trade unions. Yvette Cooper at least understood the threat to the unions and her idea of a legal challenge is worth considering.
Currently however George Osborne is negotiating behind closed doors with Labour leaders in the conurbations for deals whose covert aim is to destroy the Labour Party in its core constituencies – something the SNP has already done in Scotland.
There are few signs the threat is understood.
The ability to think outside the bubble is something a revived soft left could provide. Facing up to the Tory project is similar to the challenge to Thatcherism in the 1980s which the soft left attempted. A forum for looking at the problems facing Labour and how the Tory onslaught would be a way to take debate forward, though the difficulties are formidable. We know that Cameron will quit in mid term. It is essential to analyse what the Tory party will do as it develops its strategy.
There are many challenges facing Labour in opposition, but that of countering the Tory project is the most difficult. Corby must be given at least two years to prove himself and the current negativity of the Blairite right must cease.
There must be no attempt at a palace coup, the democratic process of the party has produced a decisive result. However the culture of the Labour party must change in fundamentals. David Runciman is right. It can no longer define itself by activity at Westminster. Labour has to find the correct balance between life at Westminster and the media bubble and the daily experience of working people. Recreating an internal current within which that debate can take place is vital.
Trevor Fisher was a member of the Labour Coordinating Committee executive 1987-90 and secretary of the Labour Reform Group 1995- 2007