The Labour leadership election

With the departure of Emily Thornberry from the Labour Party leadership election late last week – she did not quite garner the support of the required number of constituency associations to move through to the next stage of the process – the contest has moved onto its final act.  Between now and 2 April, the party membership will cast their votes in a simple alternative vote election, and the result is expected to be announced on 4 April.

Although past experience of such elections suggests that many of the party’s members will make up their minds on whom to vote for fairly early on in the process, the three remaining candidates, Lisa Nandy, Rebecca Long-Bailey and the current favourite Sir Keir Starmer, will nevertheless continue their campaigning right until the end of the election period.  It is to be hoped that the remaining seven weeks or so of the campaign will be an improvement on what we have seen so far.

For in truth the contest has been a grave disappointment to those who were hoping for the “period of reflection and renewal” that many in the party called for in the immediate aftermath of the election defeat.  There has been little serious analysis of why the party suffered such heavy losses two months ago, and an unwillingness to engage with those outside the party who have put forward their own theories.  The most comprehensive of these was an analysis[1] published a week ago by Lord Ashcroft, a former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party;  its conclusion (that the biggest negative for Labour was Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership) was predictably dismissed by Labour activists and Corbyn loyalists as valueless and without merit, since it contradicted the findings of the party’s own inquiry into the defeat which was at pains to not blame the Labour leader.

Instead, the contest so far has seen a succession of single-issue debates, as each of the candidates has been forced to measure themselves against an arbitrary value point.   This started with a competition over who came from the most authentically working class background;  but while the role of class struggle in the Labour party’s early history is genuine and well appreciated, it is less obvious that it still has that important a part to play in leading the party in the 21st century. 

And when the back-and-forth between the candidates degenerated into a game of who could claim to have suffered the most deprived childhood, the relevance of the debate largely evaporated.  Particularly as most of the working class the candidates were so keen to associate with have long ago given up such class solidarity ideas and merely want to get on, provide for their families, play a role in society at large and generally have some self-respect.  And, if possible, migrate to a more comfortable (which awkwardly usually means more middle class) lifestyle.

It has always been the Achilles heel of socialists throughout the capitalist world that in claiming to speak for the disadvantaged masses, while they say they want the masses to prosper, it is actually better for their future success and relevance if their supporters remain disadvantaged and thus dependent on The Party.  And while the Labour party in Britain has from time to time been more aspirational, not least under the leadership of Tony Blair, it remains a challenge for them that if the Conservatives do well for their supporters, they become even more Tory, whereas if Labour do well for their supporters, the same supporters need the Labour Party less not more.

The campaign then spent a few days on the meme “Never kissed a Tory”.  This slogan, a minor and mildly humorous part of the 2015 general election campaign, seems to have been elevated latterly by some in the Labour party into an existential demonstration of purity and virtue.  And naturally, all the leadership candidates felt obliged to claim that they passed the test.

In truth, the phrase is one of worst pieces of political virtue signalling ever invented.  It shows a meanness, a lack of human empathy and generosity of spirit and a prejudicial (in the sense of pre-judging) approach to one’s fellow citizens which is unbefitting for anyone, let alone a politician hoping to win over undecided voters to their cause. 

Actually, we cannot do better than this riposte on Twitter:  “Why do people care whether politicians are friends with people of different political views? I am a staunch liberal Europhile but I have friends from across the political spectrum. I don’t get this echo chamber mentality that we can only be friends with people we agree with.”  Quite.

If that part of the campaign took a frivolous comment and tried to turn it into a serious political test, the next issue was the reverse, taking a very serious and difficult issue and dismissing it with almost no debate at all.  This was the extremely complex subject of trans-rights, the rights of transgender people and how they take their place in society.

Trans-rights are a genuinely difficult issue and society at large has yet to decide how to balance the legitimate wish of transgender women (in particular) to live their lives as women with the established and entirely justified desire of natural (cisgender) women to have some space that they do not have to share with people with penises – whether they believe they are men, women or whatever.  The subject hinges on the need to limit people’s rights where they interfere with other rights of other people, the “your right to swing your fist ends 1 inch from the end of my nose” dictum which recognises that rights are never absolute, never without consequences for other people and therefore in a civilised society never without restrictions. 

Society needs to think long and hard how to reflect and put boundaries on the relative rights of transgender and cisgender women, and there is no easy answer.  For one thing the subject is fairly new, and a consensus has yet to emerge among the general public even as to what we ought to do in theory, let alone what we should actually do in practice and in the messy real world.  But what one can say is that a political party which thinks it can “solve” the issue by simply declaring not only that one side is absolutely in the right, but also that anyone who does not fervently, publicly and repeatedly acclaim this deserves to be expelled from the party has simply not thought through the issues at all. 

Actually, of course, none of the remaining three candidates in the leadership race – all intelligent, all sensitive to the views of both sides and all very well aware of the minefield of emotions that the subject raises – thinks that the matter is this simple.  And to his enormous credit, Starmer refused to endorse the proposal.  But the attempt to reduce this complex subject to a simple soundbite solution in the first place is in itself revealing:  it arose because of the nature of the election process the party is undergoing, because of the style of campaign that the candidates are involved in. 

Despite the fact that the post the Labour party is trying to fill, i.e. Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition and alternative prime minister at the next election, is a very public, indeed national, position, the whole process so far has been a very private, inward-looking debate conducted almost entirely within the echo-chamber of the party faithful.   Just like the Conservative party leadership election last July, the result has been about as good an advertisement as one can have for returning the choice of leader of the parliamentary party to the MPs, who have the best view of how their senior colleagues really operate (including when under pressure), have to follow the person chosen as leader in the House of Commons, and crucially also have experience of dealing with and needing to appeal to ordinary voters. 

It is increasingly clear that allowing party members – almost by definition not representative of the wider body of those who sympathise with the party and might vote for it, let alone representative of the electorate at large – to elect the leader is not a “good exercise in democracy”;  it panders to extremists and risks alienating those the party will eventually need to persuade to support it at the ballot box.   And the wrong choice of leader could condemn the Labour party to further long years as a minority voice, impotent and largely irrelevant.

And this matters, for despite their decline, and despite the probable long road back to being a party of wide appeal, the Labour party still has a vital role to play.  Britain needs a strong, serious and self-confident Opposition party, both to hold the government to account and to provide a realistic alternative government at the ballot box. 

Under Corbyn, Labour struggled on both counts;  neither the party nor the country can afford a poor choice of leader this time round too.

[1]              “Diagnosis of Defeat: Labour’s Turn to Smell the Coffee”, Lord Ashcroft Polls, 10 February 2020.  See