Last night, channel-hopping after a day of grind sitting at my computer whilst waiting for my pre-prepared Waitrose meal to cook, I came across what I think was described as a Labour Party leadership ‘hustings’ session chaired by Krishnan Guru-Murthy during the Channel Four News programme (7.00pm to 8.00pm). In the past – or indeed other circumstances – I would have required strapping into my armchair with leg and arm shackles before I would watch this sort of thing, but latterly I am finding that I am quite taking to my duties as a Rust political commentator/observer and thus stayed with it until my eyes eventually glazed over, which took about fifteen minutes.
As I understand it the deadline for voting in the Labour leadership election arrives on Thursday 10th September and the result is expected to be announced two days later. A report on at least one newspaper website this morning suggests that Labour’s ongoing ‘infiltration/entryism’ problem is not going away and that 120,000 voting papers were only issued within the last 48 hours, so that any impression gained by outsiders looking in that firstly, amongst Ed Miliband’s greater crimes as Party leader was his introduction of a completely cack-handed and ill-thought out system for electing a new leader and secondly, the shower that currently represents the Labour Party in the House of Commons couldn’t run a whelk stall let alone a government, have been reinforced with bells on.
It is no secret that in the UK media Jeremy Corbyn is widely perceived as the runaway front runner in this contest and that Andy Burnham is currently second, Yvette Cooper a close third and Liz Kendall almost out of sight in fourth.
It’s funny how in politics, once a political candidate has somehow gained ‘traction’, to use a fashionable term (possibly unexpectedly, or accidentally, or even inexplicably) it is relatively easy to keep the momentum going – and hard for opponents to stop it or catch up – because, human nature being what it is, we all love a simple and uncomplicated story. “X is going to win by a landslide” is so much more acceptable that “It’s still neck-and-neck between three candidates” to the average punter in the street, simply because we tend to compartmentalise our lives – well certainly anything to do with politics – so that we can forget about it and carry on with the other, far more important, things we have going on.
I’m mindful that in analysing the candidates It will be difficult not to resort to clichés or repeat what hundreds of journalists have already written or spoken.
Corbyn comes across as intelligent and idealistic guy, irrespective of whether you agree with anything he espouses. His big advantage is that he’s always been a maverick and so is relatively untainted by ever having held office or being responsible for anything – which adds immeasurably to his appeal for those who have been repelled by what went before. As he entered the contest he probably had no expectation of coming anywhere but fourth. Ironically that’s exactly why both idealistic voters and those of us watching with fascination from a distance, both of whom would love to stick two fingers up to those within the Westminster Bubble, are hoping he’s going to win. A Corbyn victory might well turn into an all-round grade A catastrophe but at least it might be fun.
Faced with this extraordinary development the other three candidates scarcely know which way to turn. Their biggest issue is that, to all intents and purposes, they’re career politicians who’ve been playing by the rules of conventional politics all their lives – in which the primary goal is to win power – and to them the concept that Corbyn is playing by completely different rules, and thereby might even prevail, is not only puzzling but unfathomable and disconcerting.
It’s easy to understand why. Going into politics is akin to arriving at a new school – you get told, or learn, the rules of the establishment and – in order to progress – you play by them. In which context the possibility that later those rules, that structure, is going to be changed or turned upside-down, so that a completely different set of rules for climbing the greasy pole to power may suddenly apply, appears destabalizing and unfair.
This reaction is all part of human nature. We all crave certainty and the comfort of knowing that if we play the game as devised and try our best, we at least have a chance of progressing if that is our ambition. To be told the rules have changed, or that suddenly there are no rules at all, attacks everything that we’ve lived by up until now and leaves the future looking chaotic and worrying.
Burnham, Cooper and Kendall are floundering. They may or may not have grounding principles and beliefs but hitherto – playing the game to win power – they’ve spent their working lives trying to come up with policies that will appeal to the British electorate. In which project, inevitably, occasionally having to compromise their principles was regarded as little more than a necessary occupational hazard well worth embracing.
So they all began their campaigns by urging their (Labour) electorate to learn the lessons of the Ed Miliband disaster, e.g. recognise that his policies totally failed to connect with the general public (both Labour supporters by inclination and not), and move towards policies that might, most of these in the centre ground of political thinking. In order to create ‘blue water’ between themselves and their opponents in the contest, they then each tried to come up with slightly different positions on the issues that seemed to matter.
When the ‘outsider’ Corbyn first began gaining popularity and support, they first tried to point out that he was a loony-lefter and therefore, if he became leader, would never lead Labour to power. This response seemed entirely logical at the time and was publicly supported by many veteran Party grandees (not least Tony Blair, George Brown, Neil Kinnock and Peter Mandelson) and hangers-on such as Alastair Campbell and Lance Price – after all, historically Labour kept losing General Elections until New Labour came along and won three in a row.
But that proved a miscalculation. Far from being received by embryo Corbyn supporters as a ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ moment – as it had been intended – the reaction to these siren Establishment voices from the somewhat discredited past, not least because (in order to win the keys to Number 10) New Labour had deliberately abandoned some of the more fanciful left-wing Old Labour shibboleths beloved of local activists upon the ground, was one of derision accompanied by a reinvigorated intention to push on.
For the three non-Corbyn candidates this was the time to press the panic button. Should they make overtures of peace towards him? Should they abandon their previous ‘sensible’, middle-ground positions and shift them leftwards as far as they dare without hopefully over-compromising their principles and/or indeed leaving behind any chance of winning a General Election? Or should they stuck to their guns?
From my viewpoint, as indicated previously, the least impressive of all the candidates is Andy Burnham. He comes across as the worse kind of Westminster politician, totally prepared to say anything and everything that he ever decides might will win him the contest he’s just entered. As a result, over the course of the leadership campaign, it seems as if he’s publicly held at least three different positions on every issue that comes up and, the longer it goes on, the greater the likelihood that he’ll notch up a fourth or fifth.
For all her considerable qualities Yvette Cooper is burdened by the twin disadvantages that she looks like a lightweight and is married to Ed Balls – the latter fact tending to persuade 50% of the electorate that her capacity for judgement is faulty.
Being assertive or aggressive – as increasingly she has plainly been advised to be in order to score points against Corbyn and differentiate herself from Burnham – does not come naturally to her.
Similarly, Liz Kendall presents as a lightweight and a fluffy version of one.
However, full marks to Kendall for remaining true to her New Labour creed. She may well come out if this contest as bottom of the pile by a country mile but ironically her reputation is likely to soar after any Jeremy Corbyn victory. I don’t know if she has a future in the Labour Party, but she’ll remain in the public limelight for a while yet.
Inevitably, however, the three non-Corbyn candidates are terminally hamstrung by their Westminster Bubble ‘insider’ background. This Labour leadership contest is not being played by those rules anymore.