Labour Leadership Contest

Token left candidate set to win election

Voting in the Labour leadership has just started and the ‘token’ left candidate Jeremy Corbyn, regarded as little more than a joke by the media, by galvanising the anti-austerity support into a genuine movement now looks mostly likely to win. With the first signs of the popularity for Corbyn and his anti-austerity message, the right-wing of the Labour Party and their idealogical friends in the political establishment snorted with derision declaring Corbyn unelectable.

The right wing and their allies in the press have descended into outright, even blind panic judging by Peter Mandelson’s eccentric attempt to halt the election to prevent a Corbyn victory.

What began as barely concealed contempt turned into insults. Tony Blair retorted to those expressing a desire to follow their heart and vote for Corbyn, telling them to get a transplant[1].

Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a rally
Jeremy Corbryn Speaking at a Labour leadership rally

This contempt has transformed into vitriol and smears. A Labour MP in an open letter accuses Jeremy Corbyn of turning a blind eye to child abuse. In another smear attempt, a newspaper in an exercise of guilt by association charges Corbyn with giving encouragement to anti-Semites.

It’s worth dwelling in some detail on the reasons behind Labour’s election defeat, particularly as there is hot debate with many conflicting theories, especially given the impact of the Scottish National Party and UKIP.

A useful starting point is the frequent accusation levelled at an anti-austerity platform that Labour will be doomed to electoral defeat, just as it was under Labour’s left wing leader Michael Foot in the 1983 General Election.

1983 – It was the manifesto that lost it

The glib pronouncement of Labour’s 1983 manifesto being the longest suicide note in history makes for a good sound bite but is a gross distortion.

Labour continued to enjoy substantial poll leads over the Conservatives after Michael Foot was elected as Labour leader in November 1980.

The forming of the Social Democratic Party in 1981 by a section of Labour’s right wing ate into Labour’s support but Labour still attracted greater support than the Conservatives with leads of up to 14% in the polls.

This was to dramatically change with the start of the Falklands War in April 1982 where Conservative support surged into the 30% and 40%. The national pride that victory in the Falklands War brought cut across the process that was moving inexorably to a Conservative defeat.

For Labour the 1983 General Election results were a disaster. The Conservatives won by a landslide in terms of seats even though their vote dropped to 13,012,316 from the 13,697,690 they received in the 1979 General Election. The split in the anti-Tory vote also caused significant damage. The SDP section of the SDP-Liberal Alliance, mostly ex-Labour ‘moderates’, suffered a near wipe out losing 22 of their seats.

The evidence shows that far from Labour’s 1983 manifesto being responsible for defeat, it was the Falklands War victory compounded by a split in the anti-Tory vote.

Neil Kinnock, the antidote to the left

Elected as leader in 1983, Neil Kinnock went on to lose the next two General Elections in 1987 and 1992. This despite taking the party to the right, disowning Liverpool City Council in their fight against cuts and distancing Labour from the Miners in their 1984-85 strike against pit closures.

Sun election headline
It’s The Sun Wot Won It – April 11, 1992

I was a member of the Labour Party at the time and canvassed in the General Elections of 1987 and 1992. Anecdotally, Kinnock’s taking on the called “left wing extremists” had very little impact on voters I canvassed. My experience was that the expulsions and the anti-left speeches, while enthusiastically applauded in the press, served to undermine Labour’s credibility. Militant and the left were mostly mentioned by Conservative voters and even then in relatively small numbers. Labour and non committed voters expressed frustration at the “in-fighting” and “disunity”. The Labour Party leadership appeared more preoccupied with fighting members of its own party than it was on fighting for the day to day issues affecting ordinary people.

Tony Blair’s three victories

Tony Blair’s triumphs in the 1997, 2001 and 2005 General Elections are held up as a model example of ‘moderate’ policies being essential for ‘electability’.

The reality was that by 1997 the Conservative government had become mired in sleaze and corruption and tearing itself apart over Europe. The Labour Party, re-branded as New Labour faced a Tory government rotting on its feet and a party racked by divisions.

Labour aided by an upswing in the economy and the continuing disarray in the Tory Party, won the 2001 General Election and the following election.

While the Labour Government made worthwhile achievements such as introduction of the minimum wage it also took the country into the Iraq war, with Tony Blair subsequently admitting that “The blowback since … has been fierce, unrelenting and costly.” It was a decision that was still costing Labour in 2015.

Far from the rosy picture painted by the right wing, Labour became increasingly unpopular as it drifted to the right haemorrhaging nearly four million votes from its 1997 victory to 2005. The New Labour project was to end in failure at the 2010 General Election.

2015 election – The shock of defeat

The result of the 2015 election came as a shock, even the most realistic of us expected Labour to emerge with the most seats.

Harriet Harman’s response in an interview with Andrew Neil, was to signal capitulation to the Tories. This was to result in the humiliation of the SNP mocking Labour in parliament that they were now the official opposition.

Harriet Harman was right in saying that there was no great enthusiasm for the Tories, but Labour’s problems were of its own making. Policies were fired out like so much chaff with nothing binding them into a coherent platform. They were inconsistent, incoherent, at times incompetent and if that wasn’t demoralising enough, they then wheeled out the Ed Stone!

The Scottish catastrophe

The collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland and its poor showing in many English seats has attracted some of the most superficial and banal analysis.

This was typified by Andrew Marr in an interview with Jeremy Corbyn, (Andrew Marr show – BBC1 26-07-2015 52:08) where he stated:

What seems to have happened is that the electorate moved to the left in Scotland and to the right in England. Isn’t the logic that the Labour Party cannot retain unity across Scotland and England…

Labour’s catastrophe in Scotland was the fault of its own disastrous tactics. Rather than mounting its own campaign against independence coupled with an anti-austerity message, Labour instead chose to stand with the Tories on the platform of the Better Together campaign. The right-wing of the Labour Party are fond of lecturing that left policies will result in electoral suicide. Collaborating in the Better Together campaign with those who had inflicted so much damage on the working classes in Scotland was not only gross stupidity but was also electoral suicide.

Not even the SNP, who have a vested interest, have claimed their trouncing of Labour was due to a desire for independence. Nicola Sturgeon, the day after the election said “The vote yesterday was an overwhelming vote against continued austerity and that issue will be put at the top of our agenda…“. The result in Scotland shows the potential support for an anti-austerity programme.

Labour’s heartlands

Rowenna Davis, writing in a recent Fabian Society publication, Never Again lessons from Labour’s key seats, could be describing many of the traditional Labour heartlands in her description of Southampton Itchen as:

…the eastern side of the city of Southampton, a port city that has seen huge deindustrialisation over the last 20 years. The likes of Ford, Pirelli and Vosper Thorneycroft which used to provide dependable, respected work for huge numbers of people in the city, have now disappeared, to be replaced with more white-collar, unstable work.

Study after study[2] points to the economic stress that afflicts many of the regions outside of the South East. In a study by the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI), the North West and North East regions suffered the greatest cuts in public sector employment, along with the South West[3].

A Low Pay Commission report shows in 2013 the northern regions with the higher proportions of minimum wage jobs, 7.5% for the North East and just over 6% for the North West.

The overwhelming majority of low turn out seats tend to be Labour. Labour seats in the Midlands, Northern and Yorkshire regions are characterised by higher rates than the national average of those on out of work benefits and correspondingly, lower rates of employment. The same also applies to Scotland[4].

The challenge of UKIP

UKIP, pointing the finger of blame at immigrants and exploiting the alienation of some of Labour’s traditional support reaped dividends in the elections.

According to a Yougov survey the average UKIP voter is a working class older white male, with lower educational qualifications and reads the red top newspapers. However, a British Social Attitude Survey paints a more nuanced picture. Though socially conservative, their attitude towards the rich and business is even further to the left of Labour supporters[5].

The survey also reveals many UKIP supporters describing themselves as ‘struggling’ and ‘really struggling’. This is clearly a disenfranchised, exploited and insecure group where anti-immigrant sentiments are more a ‘cry of anguish’ at their circumstances, they can be particularly receptive to the ideas peddled by UKIP who are skilled at anti-establishment rhetoric.

Unfortunately, sections of the Labour Party draw the wrong conclusions in thinking that talking tough on immigration will win over UKIP supporters. They miss the point on two counts, firstly UKIP supporters do not trust them and secondly, getting tough on immigrants will not improve or solve the problems faced by working class voters who support UKIP.

Instead of aping the Tories in tough talk, Labour should have answered with a pledge for socially useful and economically beneficial investment programmes. For example, a house building programme that would create thousands of jobs and be integrated with apprenticeship schemes. High-tech industries would be nurtured and encouraged by employing the latest techniques in energy saving, building and conservation, that would also have a positive impact on productivity by improving the skills of the work force. There would be the additional benefits of improved social mobility.

Many of the Labour heartlands in Scotland and England are working class areas under economic stress, Labour’s traditional support felt abandoned to face the onslaught from the Tories. Too many of Labour’s core voters stayed at home as Labour failed to energise and enthuse its base. There was no contradiction in the shearing of Labour votes to the left in Scotland and to the right in England. As the saying goes nature abhors a vacuum, in Scotland the SNP filled the void with an anti-austerity message and in England UKIP were the beneficiaries.

These are not ordinary times

The seismic tremors of the Great Recession are still being felt, events once thought impossible now happen within the blink of eye.

We have seen the rise of left movements such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. We have also witnessed the annihilation of the formally left Greek party, PASOK, and the Labour Party in Scotland.
To these should be added the phenomenal rise of Jeremy Corbyn.

What is inconceivable today could become probable tomorrow.

The mantra of much of the political establishment and the media is that Labour has no chance of winning the next election if Corbyn is leader. However, not all are as confident in this assessment. Ken Clark, in an interview with the Huffington Post, warned that “If you have another recession or if the Conservative Government becomes very unpopular, he could win.

There is every indication of difficult times ahead for the Tories. The anaemic, productivity poor, economic recovery could soon be derailed by the problems being experienced by China[6] and the Euro zone.

Ordinary people are disillusioned with a system that ignores and fails them and they are beginning to grope towards an alternative. The other three candidates just offer piecemeal policies carefully calibrated for ‘electability’ while party members and supporters have left them behind and are looking for a more profound change.

Jeremy Corbyn has struck a chord and caused alarm amongst the elites. They do not subscribe to the stupid position of Tories such as Toby Young with his endorsement of the #ToriesForCorbyn campaign. They have recognised Jeremy Corbyn as an expression of an anti-austerity sentiment in transition to a united movement based on the still considerable power of the Labour Party and the Trades Unions.

As for Jeremy Corbyn winning the next election if elected leader of the Labour Party? These are not ordinary times and what is inconceivable today could well be probable in 2020…

Gary Hollands – August 16th – 23rd 2015.

Notes and references

1. We should remind ourselves that the then special Middle East envoy, Tony Blair, was stood on the volcano that was to be the Arab Spring oblivious to the impeding eruption.
This is the same Tony Blair giving dire warnings of Labour’s annihilation if Corbyn wins. If this record is any guide, his powers of prediction are little better than that of a fairground clairvoyant.

2. Centre For Cities report ‘Cities Outlook 2015’. Of the 64 cities surveyed 16 of the 20 cities that experienced a net loss of jobs over the period 2004 to 2014 were in the Midlands, Yorkshire and northern regions of England.

3. The North East lost the greatest percentage at 19% followed by the South West at 15% and North West at 14%. The SPERI study also shows the two northern regions experiencing among the lowest rate of private sector employment growth, giving lie to the Tory claims of the public sector stifling the private sectors. A TUC assessment of ONS figures from 2010 to 2015 also shows the same pattern, Scotland similarly suffers losses at a greater rate than the UK average.

4. A House of Commons Library facility, the Constituency Explorer, some interesting features are revealed when examining Labour seats in their northern heartlands.

5. The following table is an extract of table 6 of the British Social Attitude Survey.

British Social Attitudes 32
% Agree UKIP supporters Conservative supporters Labour supporters All
Excerpt of Table 6. Attitudes to inequality by party identification
There is one law for the rich and one for the poor 76 39 71 59
Ordinary people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth 76 41 72 60
Management will always try to get the better of employees if it gets the chance 72 41 60 53
Big business benefits owners at the expense of workers 62 39 63 53
Government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well-off 40 22 52 39

6. Since this line was written China has just suffered (24th August 2015) Black Monday that has ricocheted around the world’s stocks and commodities markets.

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