The starting gun has been fired. With nominations to stand for Labour leader now closed and Angela Eagle’s brief flutter as a contender quickly shot down we now find ourselves with two remaining candidates: the sitting leader Jeremy Corbyn and the challenger Owen Smith.
So what do we know about our present Labour leader? Corbyn, a Member of Parliament since 1983 and leader of the Labour Party for little under a year now, is quite the political outsider. Historically on the fringes of the Labour Party and British Politics more broadly, his rise to a leader was as spectacular as it was unlikely.
An old school socialist, driven by conviction and always one to address the huddled masses, Jeremy Corbyn is your typical anti-establishment candidate. Continually calling for an entire overhaul of the system – whether it be a column for the Morning Star, leading up anti-austerity rallies, or founding the Stop the War coalition – it’s all about radical change now.
Consequently, his ascendency last year was all the more impressive. After tossing his hat into the ring engagement quickly grew and all media attention switched to his leadership bid. Surrounded by many an uninspiring candidate, Corbyn quickly cobbled together a quarter of a million strong army of students, rank and file party members, the disillusioned and the disciples of socialism. Propelling him to a landslide victory.
However, since this euphoric victory for the radical left things have been a little unstable to say the very least. Media gaffes and schoolboy errors galore have been the least of Corbyn’s problems. Week after week he has seemingly been unable to land a blow that sticks to the Government. Neither has his team been able to establish a strategy as to how this new style of leadership should operate on a daily basis or interact with the media. It is quite clear that broad sections of both the media and the Parliamentary Labour Party have been hostile from the beginning, nevertheless, his leadership has not cut-through but rather imploded under this pressure. Greeting much of the media and his political colleagues with a deeply paranoid and dogmatic disposition are hardly the characteristics of a Prime Minister in waiting.
More recently, Labour performed mediocre at best in local elections, failing to make gains outside its traditional support in larger towns and cities. All while walking further into the abyss in Scotland, trailing behind the once systemically unpopular Tories. Compounded by an avalanche of polling that depicts Corbyn as deeply untrusted by the wider public, and him leading a Labour Party that drastically lags behind the Conservatives in opinion polls. Cries among his colleagues for a change of tact ringing louder still, July has seen the Labour Party defeated in the Brexit debate, failing to communicate with enough of their traditional supporters in making the case for Remain.
What has happened since? The Conservatives have swiftly regrouped, anointed a new leader and got on with the business of governing. Labour threw its toys out of the pram, resigned en masse, and Corbyn found himself on the naughty step of no confidence. Finally winding up as once again part of a lengthy and divisive leadership contest, less than a year after taking up a job that centres around the role of leading.
Perhaps that is just the problem. Corbyn and a significant number of his supporters are simply not into the business of leading. Principled, yes. Deeply passionate about their beliefs, of course. But able to take the entire country on their political roller coaster and glide into Downing Street, I’m not so sure. Corbyn and his most loyal supporters seem less concerned with governing and more worried about ideological purity. Chasing out those in the party who are deemed treacherous or too nostalgic of the New Labour dynasty seems to be enough for too many in the Corbyn movement.
One need only dwell in the echo chambers of social media for a short time and you quickly begin to gain an understanding of the motivations behind Corbyn’s most ardent advocates. The chairperson of Corbyn’s leading supporter group recently stated “Democracy gives power to people, ‘Winning’ is the small bit that matters to political elites who want to keep power themselves.” It would seem perpetual opposition is satisfactory for some, as long as that opposition is keenly left-wing and uncompromising in its beliefs.
This is the biggest problem. We have a Labour Party leadership not only misaligned with broader public opinion but also very much disinterested in engaging with it. Winning the biggest arguments of the day, appealing beyond core supporters and assembling a government in waiting are very far off the Corbynista radar.
For the strength and richness of society, the economy and our democracy itself few would argue perpetual Conservative rule without a credible opposition in sight is a good thing. A Labour Party detached from political reality or a desire to govern can never be positive for the UK. That is why it is essential that Labour begin, however protracted the process may be, to move away from the current state of affairs and become a party fit to win the confidence of the electorate and present a credible plan to govern.
Past Labour governments have done a great deal of good for growing our best businesses, enhancing workers rights, building greater social mobility, protecting the environment, investing in Britain and building world-class public services. Naturally, there have been big mistakes and stumbles, but a strong Labour Party capable of being either the Opposition or the Government of the day can only be an asset for the UK.
For this reason, it is of critical importance that the newcomer, Owen Smith, be given the opportunity to fully present his alternative style of leadership. Where can he build bridges within the Labour Party but also with the public? Where can he offer sensible, moderate plans that build upon previous successes, yet, also know when a radical shake-up is desired? Finally, can he lead a Labour Party that is fighting fit, trusted and fully connected with the public and its concerns?
Critically, it’s what we all need, for the sake of ensuring a promising political future for the UK. A one party state is never a healthy political environment, and a warring, uncompetitive and disconnected Labour Party is certainly allowing one to flourish.
By Lloyd Hatton