You wouldn’t think it is possible but the UK Labour Party is now in an even bigger mess than it was on May 8th – the day after their shock election defeat and the resignation of Ed Miliband. The leadership election is now a total shambles with one MP saying it should be postponed – even though the result is not due to be known until September 12th and ballot papers have not even been sent out yet. How did Labour get into this state?
First lesson is never nominate a “joke” candidate. When veteran left winger Jeremy Corbyn announced his intention to run he was treated as a joke. After all apart from anything else he surely wouldn’t get the 35 MP nominations (out of 232) needed to be able to stand. But some Labour MPs (in order to “have a debate”) nominated him with no intention of voting for him – since after all he was a “joke” candidate with no chance of winning against “serious” candidates Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. But – for all the fact that Corbyn like Michael Foot in the 1980s would be totally unelectable – at least you know what you’re getting with him. No one seems to know what the other three stand for. And so like the episode of “The Simpsons” where a radio station offers an elephant as a joke prize thinking no one will want it – and then Bart Simpson comes along and wants the elephant (which the station doesn’t have) Corbyn mania is seeping the Labour Party with one poll putting him ahead. The Labour establishment – including some MPs who nominated him! – are now in full “stop Corbyn” mode and are even claiming the party is being infiltrated by militants and communists who are joining the party in order to vote for Corbyn.
This may or may not be true. But if it is Labour has only itself to blame. So desperate are they for new members anybody can join Labour for just £3 – and if they do they get a vote in the leadership election (it is Labour members who vote for the leader). The Conservative supporting Daily Telegraph has encouraged its readers to join Labour so they can vote for Corbyn who they think is unelectable. It has become such a farce that at the weekend Labour MP John Mann actually called for the contest to be delayed in order to vet new members. What Labour should have done of course is insist that only people who were members on May 8th – the day Miliband resigned and the election was triggered – were eligible to vote.
And that is Labour’s other problem. The election has gone on for far too long. It started on May 8th. It is not until August 12th that the deadline for new members comes, not until August 14th that ballot papers are sent out and not until September 12th that the result will be announced. Four months! This has left Labour totally rudderless in the Commons under a caretaker leader Harriet Harman who both she and the MPs know will be out in September. This means she has no authority. While the decision to abstain on welfare reform was wrong – you are either for something or against it – she didn’t have the authority to control her MPs – 48 of whom rebelled against her line. One suspects a leader who wasn’t a caretaker would be more able to control their backbenchers. Also as this means Labour are more concerned with their leadership election it means the Conservative Government is getting a far easier ride in Parliament than its small majority of 11 suggests it should.
In contrast the Liberal Democrats – also in shell shock after the election and whose leader Nick Clegg resigned on the same day as Miliband – have already held their leadership election and have a new leader in post. Namely Tim Farron who was elected on July 16th. Nearly two months before Labour will have theirs elected! In fact for a party who had their MP tally reduced from 57 to 8 in May the Lib Dems are in quite good health. Party membership has gone up and their ghastly poll ratings have improved from 8% to 10%. Not much it is true but baby steps…. The Lib Dems amazingly are in a healthier state than Labour.
I don’t think Corbyn will be Labour’s next leader. The election is held on the “alternative vote” method which means if the top candidate gets less than 50% the second preferences of the bottom candidate are taken into account. So even if Corbyn is top on first preferences I can’t see many of the other three candidates supporters giving their second preference to him. And Labour surely can’t make the mistake that they did with Michael Foot in 1980 or the Conservatives did with William Hague in 1997.In the UK elections are won from the centre ground. A party that deserts the centre gets hammered. A lesson that both Foot’s Labour Party (1983) and Hague’s Conservative Party (2001) learned the hard way.
The problem is a party’s members are generally more extreme – or certainly have stronger beliefs – than the rest of the country’s more apathetic electorate (that is why they join a party in the first place) So what they want is not necessarily what a party needs to get elected. The Conservative membership after 2001 swung even further to the right with Iain Duncan Smith. That choice was a disaster but very luckily the party’s MPs overthrew him in 2003. If he had led the party in a general election I reckon they would have suffered such a devastating defeat they would not have recovered even now.
And that is what Labour members must realise. If they elect Corbyn the country will not vote for it and I suspect Labour MPs – the majority of whom will not have voted for him – will either defect to another party or – like what happened to Duncan Smith – bring him down. Before the May election the talk was of a defeated Conservative Party splitting with the right wing defecting to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). It would be ironic indeed if the party to split would be Labour. But Labour members must decide. Do we want to be in power or just be an impotent protest group? Should be an easy answer…