Labour’s strategy for 2020 success is still up for grabs - from the right or left

Written by Abi Wilkinson on 26 February 2016 in Opinion

Critics of Jeremy Corbyn can only offer a less humiliating defeat, while some supporters appear to given up on the electability argument altogether.

The most popular explanation of the current split in the Labour Party goes as follows: on the left-hand side – united under the totemic leadership of Jeremy Corbyn – are the idealists.

Fed up of being asked to sacrifice almost every moral principle they hold dear in a relentless, rightwards drive for electability, they’re taking a stand in defence of traditional Labour values. From their perspective, mounting a robust, solidly left-wing opposition is preferable to gaining power by selling out.

On the right of the party – currently lacking, but eager to anoint, a leadership figure – are the pragmatists. They know that it doesn’t matter how principled your opposition is, without winning an election there’s not really much Labour can do to help the people it supposedly represents. In their eyes, anything other than the dedicated pursuit of power is empty, feel-good posturing. No policy is too important to be sacrificed, if that’s what it takes to tempt swing voters.

Though some may take issue with my wording, this narrative is largely embraced by people on both sides of the divide. Certainly, many on the left seem to have accepted the right’s claim that electability is ‘their’ issue. Recent research by YouGov found that, though 72% of Labour members support Jeremy Corbyn as leader, only 47% think it’s likely he can win the next general election. Despite this, 60% think he should stay on and lead the party in 2020. That leaves at least 13% of members who expect him to fail but still, for whatever reason, want him holding the reins.

Unsurprisingly, those on the other side of the debate – who are desperate to see Corbyn replaced with a more ‘moderate’ alternative at the first possible opportunity – are flabbergasted by this. Some have accused his supporters of being privileged narcissists, insulated from the real world consequences of a Conservative government, though statistical evidence contradicts this claim. At best, they’re seen as foolish, stubborn and hopelessly naive.

The thing it’s important to remember is that nobody actually likes losing elections. No Labour Party member – Corbyn-supporting or otherwise – feels anything other than misery at the thought of another five years of Tory rule. Pragmatists throwing their hands up in despair should think seriously about why the majority of party members have chosen to back a candidate they see as an electoral long shot.

Blair claims to be “baffled” by the current leader’s popularity, but he’s actually one of the primary architects of the situation. Conceding the ideological battle was a short-term route to electoral success, but when the economic house of cards Blairism depended on collapsed in 2008, Labour was left with nowhere to go. If, post Miliband, defending public spending is considered electoral suicide, what’s left to set Labour apart? Against Cameron’s Conservatives, social liberalism is no longer a relevant factor.

The selection of a more “old school” left-wing leader is seen as regressive by some, but many Corbyn supporters feel they were offered no real alternative. The third way is a failed project and in its place it has left a gaping hole. Those who’ve given up on the electability argument have done so because they’re resigned to defeat, not because they relish the prospect. Others, through a sort of desperate optimism, ignore Corbyn’s disastrous public approval rating and make unrealistic claims about the election-swinging potential of non-voters.

Both despair and self-delusion might be understandable reactions in these circumstances, but the Labour left can’t reasonably claim to be standing up for those victimised by Conservative cuts – something it accuses the right of the party of failing to do – unless the issue of electability is taken seriously. After all, what use are progressive policies if you’ve not got the power to actually implement them?

The right of the party have positioned themselves as the more electable option, but it’s not clear they currently have anything more to offer than a comparatively less humiliating defeat. Defining a strategy for success in 2020 is very much up for grabs. If Corbyn and his supporters think they can change hearts and minds, great! It’s time to figure out how that is actually going to work in practice. If not, people on both sides of the debate need to admit that Labour is desperately in need of another plan.



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