• Sunday, Aug 09, 2020
  • Last Update : 02:41 pm

Labour’s lost leaders

  • Published at 12:00 am January 13th, 2020
Boris Johnson-Jeremy Corbyn
Conservative leader Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn are seen during a televised debate ahead of general election in London, Britain, November 19, 2019 Reuters

Is the UK poised for 20 years of unbroken Conservative rule?

Are any of the six candidates running for leadership of the Labour party likely to defeat Boris Johnson’s Conservative party at the next UK election? Electoral precedent says no, an 80-seat majority is too big to overturn by 2024. The Tories could well stay in power for the whole decade.

Or, to put it another way, the UK is poised to have 20 unbroken years of Conservative rule. So much for the two-party system. The depth of Labour’s doldrums becomes clearer if you recall Margaret Thatcher herself only managed 11 years.

Somehow, despite Labour comfortably being in power for the first decade of this century, despite David Cameron needing a coalition for half of the last decade and every possible type of Tory shambles unleashed by his referendum in the second, the Conservatives didn’t just end up on top last month, but “Get Brexit Done” kicked Labour back to its lowest number of MPs since 1935.

While Johnson has the wiggle room to let down some of his supporters and plenty of incentive to lay claim to the centre ground, the clear domination of the Conservatives in the House of Commons by more right wing than usual ideologues and English nationalists is a godsend for the SNP.

On top of everything else then, Labour’s goal of returning to government risks being made even harder should Scotland follow the SNP’s wish to leave the UK, taking with it at least 50 anti-Conservative constituencies.

For some time to come then, possibly many years, expect to see more headlines about the opposition in crisis, and “battles for the soul of the Labour party.” Winning the leadership race will only be the start of a struggle, potentially as long and thankless as Neil Kinnock’s during the 1980s to put Labour back on the path to power.

Corbyn -- while painted by more than one newspaper as a lifelong Leninist devoted to overthrowing democracy -- seems, upon examination, to actually be more of a New Internationalist reader in his inclinations. This makes it doubly tragic that his failure to deal with and, just as important, be seen to deal with cases of anti-Semitism in a party that has historically been at the forefront of anti-racist movements (and where Israel/Palestine has never been a wedge issue) has severely damaged Labour’s reputation.

For this alone, he deserves to go, and the party needs a reset.

But the mountain to climb is so large that not only must Labour pick the right candidate this April, but they will also need to quickly prove themselves effective enough to improve party morale and rebuild trust and confidence among voters.

Easier said than done.

Opening the leadership ballot to people who sign up as “registered supporters” makes predicting the vote tricky, and not necessarily helpful. People who sign up online and haven’t been through the routine of local party meetings or enduring criticism from the public while canvassing, may not always be best placed to sense what wins elections. 

How members vote once the nominations process closes remains to be seen but applying the patterns of the last three leadership votes makes for a straightforward process of elimination.

The one key factor Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn shared while winning their leadership bids is that they were not part of the Blair/Brown governments. Applying the same logic, Mayor Sadiq Khan argues now is the time to “not just change the lead singer but the whole band.”

Fair enough, but, given what happened to the Liberal Democrats, not being seen to be overly Remain seems as pertinent a factor as not being seen to be stuck on Corbyn. 

By this reckoning, only Lisa Nandy would be eligible, although if you think being seen to move on from Corbyn is the most important factor, then Phillips and Starmer have to be considered as well.

• Rebecca Long Bailey: Not overly vocal for Remain but labelled as the “continuity Corbyn” candidate. Also not as well known outside the party as others in race

• Clive Lewis: First to throw his hat into the ring and shares with Lisa Nandy willingness to foreground electoral reform. Persuasive but not well known enough

• Emily Thornberry and Sir Keir Starmer: Both high profile effective parliamentarians, but while not perceived as Corbyn allies, were both key members of his front bench. And also, both pro Remain/2nd referendum advocates and inner London MPs, the perceived opposite of Johnson’s victory map

• Jess Phillips: Most non-Corbyn candidate. High profile midlands MP with cross-party and media appeal, has the strength of personality needed for a long struggle, but may not be popular enough within the party, despite Labour family background

• Lisa Nandy: Reasonably well known nationally. Sometime critic of Corbyn and early opponent of second referendum. Also has Northern seat and left-wing roots

In reality, of course, unity and keeping the show on the road are what all these candidates and their supporters need to concentrate on, regardless of who wins in April. Failure to do so risks consigning the party to irrelevance and giving Boris Johnson a free hand to reshape Britain forever.

Niaz Alam is Dhaka Tribune’s London Bureau Chief. A qualified lawyer, he has worked on corporate responsibility and ethical investment issues since 1992. He sat on the Board of the London Pensions Fund Authority between 2001-2010, is a former vice-chair of War on Want and was Hon. Secretary of the Foreign Press Association in 2018-19.

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