Labour chooses a new leader, again, except this time it’s kind of fun


After its election debacle last May, when Labour got crushed, the road back, or forward, or in any direction whatsoever has been a bit uncertain. Results were so bad that Labour’s Ed Miliband, the Lib Dem’s Nick Clegg, and UKIP’s Nigel Farage all resigned. Why Farage resigned is a bit unclear, although UKIP only gained one MP, against some higher expectations, and Farage himself didn’t achieve a seat. However, the thing to keep in mind about this election is how dominant the conservative vote was—The Conservatives and UKIP together managed to garner over 50% of the vote, and all those overblown fears about another coalition government, or about an outright Labour win, proved to be misplaced.

So Labour is a bit stuck here. It won 232 seats, down 26, including a landslide win for the Scottish National Party in Scotland, which won 56 of 59 contested seats—practically all from Labour. The big losers were the Lib Dems, who lost 59 seats, and currently hold just 6. So they may be toast. The country has moved in a conservative direction, it might be argued, for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the most important of which is that it’s actually not uncomfortable with where Cameron seems to be taking things. Not my own view, of course, particularly in Green areas, but there it is. Actually, a little more nuance is probably appropriate—the country just wasn’t buying what Labour was trying to sell.

Actually, that’s not particularly surprising—it’s not clear to me what Labour was selling either. It all seemed to be whatever the government would propose, Labour would be against it. There was no overarching vision of where Labour wanted to take the country—and still plenty of bad memories of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (who at least comports himself with some dignity these days, unlike Blair, as we’ll see). Labour’s major constituencies at the moment appear to be the urban intelligentsia—Guardian readers, for example—and the public service unions—teachers, nurses, that sort of thing. This is hardly a recipe for a solid political foundation for a major party, we wouldn’t think, but what do we know?

So the three “favorites” for Labour Party leadership—at least up to a couple of weeks ago—are all strongly identified with New Labour. The two major candidates—Yvette Cooper (whose partner, Ed Balls, was shadow chancellor before losing his own seat in May) and Andy Burnham, are now attacking each other, with Cooper calling for Burnham to step aside from the voting. Liz Kendall is so far to the right that she’s been accused of being a Conservative ringer in the line-up. Kendall has been particularly vociferous about Corbyn ruining the party, but all three have implied much the same—at least until Burnham indicated he would make roon for Corbyn in Burnham’s leadership group. This all has a bit of a circus aura to it at this point.

Anyway, the level of anti-Corbyn invective has been remarkable to behold. Not only the other three candidates—all of whom predict a catastrophic failure at the polls should Corbyn become party leader. Since the bookies are already saying that this is unavoidable at this point, I guess we have some sort of Armageddon to look forward to here. Tony Blair, in his own inimitable fashion, has weighed in with his own Armageddon scenario. Gordon Brown, to his credit, at least didn’t mention Corbyn by name, but just warned against the danger of become a “protest party.”

The real question is what is it about Corbyn that has everyone freaked out. Is it concerns about Old Labour coming back? Clearly, this is part of the concern of the other three candidates, all of whom are closely identified with New Labour—which has just been soundly rejected for the second straight election, but which still has no coherent manifesto? So, yes, there is some real concern here, from a whole range of self-appointed mavens such as Peter Mandelson (who had to resign twice from government positions) and former leader Neil Kinnock. And there’s no question that Corbyn has some throwback quantities, if one wants to think of them that way (or they could be thought of as forward-looking qualities–it depends). He wants to re-nationalize the railroads—and perhaps the utilities as well. He has some clearly anti-Austerity ideas—although he is hardly unique in this respect, in or outside of the UK. But there is clearly a perception that Corbyn is the wrong sort of party leader, at least among those who aspire to party leadership themselves. In addition, he’s supposed to be a really nice guy—everyone, everyone agrees on this point. In spite of all the invective directed his way, he refuses to make any negative comments whatsoever about his competitors.

Perhaps it’s the CND—Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—background. Corbyn has been involved in this for decades, and is in favor of some degree of unilateral disarmament. He has certainly raised questions about whether Britain should proceed with its planned £13 billion upgrade of the Trident Nuclear submarine. Again, he is hardly alone in this–a number of Tory MPs have raised similar questions. But, like the privatization arguments, these are debates that probably should receive more attention. There has never been a major discussion of what got privatized, and how—it just all got rolled up un the great unraveling of UK government ownership meticulously and perhaps too enthusiastically described in Daniel Yergin’s The Commanding Heights. But there are all sorts of reasons for some sectors to be better privatization candidates than others. And that seems like a suitable conversation to have if one is looking to change the direction of one of Britain’s two major political parties. Just consider the range of opinions still being expressed about the rail privatizations in the UK.

All of these issues seem to be an area of interest to the 100,000 new Labour voters who have signed up the past several months to vote for party leader. There were 200,000 Labour voters signed up to vote for party leader a couple of months ago; there are 300,000 now. A couple of months ago the odds against Corbyn becoming Labour Party Leader were 100-1. Now one of the bookmakers is already paying out on bets, saying a Corbyn victory is a “done deal.” This should get interesting.