Abi Wilkinson: Labour has an Eagle, but it needs a miracle
Is Angela Eagle really the best the anti-Corbyn lot have got?
If you’ve taken a side in the Labour civil war, the easiest thing is to go on the attack. To point out the flaws in the other side’s arguments, the challenges their chosen candidate(s) would face in the pursuit of party cohesion and, crucially, electoral success.
On social media and in beer-fuelled pub debates, expressing any doubt or criticism tends to provoke the same response: “oh yeah, so what’s your alternative plan?”
The thing is, both Corbyn’s supporters and his critics are right. The proposed alternatives really are rubbish. All of them. We can squabble endlessly about which course of action is likely to lead to the least horrendously humiliating general election defeat, but what does it matter which specific method of suicide we choose? I’m sorry for using such a morbid analogy, but as a longstanding Labour supporter I’m finding that hope is in short supply.
Attacking is easy precisely because defending any faction, strategy or posited leadership candidate is incredibly hard. Corbyn polls badly and has lost the support of the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party. However unfair you think his treatment by both the media and his own MPs, it’s really hard to see how things can be turned around now. Focusing on the competence of his team, as I have done previously, also misses the point. What we’re in need of is a miracle.
Yes, Labour’s membership has swelled under Corbyn. I don’t think anyone is denying that he inspires fierce loyalty from many of those who support him. The fact is, though, that’s not enough. To win an election Labour also needs to steal a significant number of votes from parties positioned to the right of it on the political spectrum, and right now that’s not happening.
Prior to Theresa May’s anointment as Conservative leader — when the Tory party was undergoing its own post-referendum civil war and the inept, inexperienced, uber right-wing Andrea Leadsom was looking like a plausible contender — Labour was still polling seven points behind. Seven points, when circumstances were about as favourable as its possible to imagine. In all likelihood, that gap will have only increased in recent days.
I should clarify that I’m not arguing Labour must move rightwards to be electorally viable. My personal beliefs mean I’m deeply invested in that not being the case. Somehow, though, you do need to convince people who’ve previously voted Conservative to get on board with your vision. The idea that inspiring non-voters renders this unnecessary is a fiction that has been debunked numerous times. As things stand, there is little evidence that Corbyn is capable of selling left-wing ideas to a wider audience.
So then, what about Angela Eagle? The soft left former minister who is currently being touted as the great, unifying alternative. Despite having serious reservations about her suitability — particularly, about the wisdom of picking a pro-Iraq War “unity candidate” immediately following the release of the Chilcot Report — I allowed myself to feel slightly optimistic about her ability to heal the party’s rifts. Desperation, that’s what it was really. When you’re facing oblivion, it’s amazing what starts to look like an appealing way out.
On Monday afternoon, the idea that Labour might become an effective, unified political force under Eagle was exposed as the fantasy it always was. Her campaign launch was rendered farcical by Leadsom’s decision to drop out of the Tory leadership race at the exact moment she was due to take media questions, leaving her standing awkwardly as the vast majority of assembled journalists scrambled for the door, but it would have been a dud either way.
Stood between garish, hot pink Union Jack banners that gave the impression she might have been launching a new makeup range, or perhaps a channel 5 daytime chat show, the veteran politician cut a thoroughly underwhelming figure. Asked why she though she was capable of defeating Theresa May, Eagle responded “because she’s a Tory” — a curious response given that being a Tory hasn’t proven to be much of an electoral obstacle in recent years.
Interestingly, it seemed to replicate some of the biggest weaknesses in the Corbyn camp: media ineptness and an erroneous belief that simply being left-wing is enough. Eagle has stated that she’s not challenging Corbyn on policy grounds, but rather that she’s simply a more competent, effective messenger who is better able to unite the party. If her campaign so far is anything to go by, it seems unlikely that’s actually the case.
Certainly, it’s hard to believe she’ll manage to get the membership on board. It’s possible that the task was always an impossible one, but is this really the best the anti-Corbyn lot have got? Presumably, many of them have been plotting to dethrone Corbyn since the moment he became leader.
We’ll soon find out whether Corbyn will be permitted to stand in the upcoming leadership contest or if the NEC will vote to keep him off the ballot. Either way, a split is looking increasingly likely.
If Corbyn is kept of the ballot, he’ll almost certainly mount a legal challenge. If that fails, it seems probable that many of his supporters would continue backing him if he chose to form an alternative party. If Corbyn’s on the ballot, members will simply select him again.
This leaves opposing MPs with limited options. Either they break away now or they wait and attempt this same, futile process again, with the threat of deselection permanently hanging over them.
Most union leaders currently back Corbyn, but it’s unclear which party they’d direct funding towards should a split take place. In any case, under our FPTP system splitting the Labour vote is unlikely to lead to electoral success for either new party.
Whatever happens next, it’s hard to see a route out of this mess. Maybe we’re not actually fighting over our preferred method of suicide, maybe Labour is already dead.
Picture by: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/Press Association Images