I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises.
- Neil Kinnock, 1 October 1985.
‘We cannot waste this defeat’, said Harriet Harman, interim Labour leader, after her party’s bitter loss in Britain’s May 2015 general election. ‘We will dare to look over the precipice at what happened.’
Looking over the precipice, Labour saw the smouldering wreckage of an election campaign. The post-mortem has been traumatic, not least because, as late as election night on 7 May, pollsters and analysts still believed that the party could lead the next government. And it was not obvious whether Labour lost because it was too left-wing, or not left-wing enough. It had been beaten both from the left, in Scotland, by the Scottish National Party (SNP), and from the right, in England, by the Conservatives and the UK Independence Party (UKIP). It was not unreasonable to think that a decisive move in either direction would be the way to avoid being outflanked again – although one post-election review pointed clearly rightwards, identifying a widespread perception that Labour was not capable of fiscal responsibility.
On 8 May, within hours of defeat, party leader Ed Miliband resigned, Harman took interim control, and the process of finding a new leader began. Labour’s electoral procedures required candidates to gain the backing of 35 members of parliament in order to appear on the ballot, and in the six weeks after the election, three candidates crossed the threshold: Andy Burnham, Labour’s shadow health secretary; Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary; and Liz Kendall, shadow minister for care and the elderly. The deadline for nominations was noon on 15 June; that morning, a fourth candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, was ten names short. Over the next few hours, signatures gradually trickled in – but not from Corbyn’s supporters. Instead, a series of Labour MPs nominated Corbyn on the grounds that his participation – as, by a comfortable margin, the most left-wing candidate on offer – would broaden the debate, though they did not want him actually to win the contest. Corbyn reached the required threshold with minutes to spare.
To nominate a candidate for election whom you would rather not see winning might be considered eccentric, but in a closed system such as Labour’s, it makes some democratic sense. Nor is it without precedent: in 2010, the left-wing candidate Diane Abbott reached the ballot with the help of David Miliband, who had encouraged some of his parliamentary supporters to nominate her. Moreover, at the time of his nomination Corbyn seemed unthreatening, personally and politically. His manner is mild, and his politics are so far to the left of what was then considered the Labour mainstream that the nomination seemed unlikely to have any practical consequences. An advocate of unilateral nuclear disarmament, NATO withdrawal and renationalisation of the railways, who had served on the Labour backbenches since 1983, was hardly leadership material.
That judgement has now proven to be spectacularly wrong. The candidate nominated to widen the debate ended up winning it. Three candidates of the party establishment failed to convince. And after an election campaign that appeared to have scared off centrist voters, Labour is poised to move further to the left.
Although shocking, Corbyn’s victory was accurately predicted – unlike the result of May’s general election – by two YouGov polls. When the first, in mid-July, showed Corbyn unexpectedly ahead, John McTernan, who had served as director of political operations for former prime minister Tony Blair, was asked on BBC Newsnight to reflect on the state of the race. ‘The moronic MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn need their heads felt’, said McTernan. ‘They should be ashamed of themselves … They are morons.’ The next day, a BBC radio presenter introduced former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett – one of Labour’s most distinguished serving MPs – by quoting McTernan’s ‘morons’ jibe. ‘I’m one of them’, Beckett cheerfully admitted. ‘I have to say at no point, I am afraid, did I intend – although he is a very nice person – to vote for Jeremy myself, or to advise anybody else to do so.’
While Jeremy Corbyn was rising in the polls, so too, on the other side of the Atlantic, was Donald Trump. One week before the first Republican presidential debate, to be held on 6 August, a national poll showed Trump in the lead, though just barely; ten days after the debate, another poll gave him a 13-percentage-point lead over the nearest challenger.
The two campaigns invited comparison; two populists, derided by political establishments, mounting insurgencies to the dismay of party grandees. But to be credible, the comparison could only be structural, not personal. Corbyn is a socialist and of relatively modest means; his website greets visitors with a vivid red background, against which is a traced outline of Corbyn with beard and newspaper-boy cap. Trump is a billionaire right-wing populist; the livery of his personal Boeing 757 carries his surname in large gold letters. Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens argued that what instead they shared was the ‘business of politics as protest’, a promise to the disaffected that they could ‘stop the world and get off’.
The comparison did greater injustice to Corbyn. Trump was offering populism in its least pleasant sense: a willingness to appeal to public sentiment that other politicians would leave untouched on grounds of decency. On the topic of immigration, for example, Trump alleged, repeatedly, that Mexico was ‘forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists.’ Nor was there a fair comparison to be made in terms of manner. Corbyn is softly spoken, and during the leadership campaign remained polite towards his opponents – although admittedly the same could not always be said for Corbyn’s supporters. The list of people whom Trump has over the years called a ‘loser’ – his favourite insult – includes Senator John McCain, former SNP leader Alex Salmond, conservative columnists Charles Krauthammer and George Will, former Trump campaign manager Roger Stone and, finally, all critics of his own hair.
The crucial, structural comparison, however, concerned the ways in which the priorities of a political party’s representatives and operatives tend to differ from those of its supporters. What worried Corbyn and Trump’s respective party elites was the apparent lack of interest they and their supporters showed towards two crucial concepts: electability and party unity. Alastair Campbell, Blair’s former director of communications, for example, called for consolidation around an ‘ABC’ (anyone but Corbyn) candidate; asserted ‘with absolute certainty’ that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would not win the next general election; and said that a Corbyn victory would demonstrate that Labour had ‘decided to open up an even bigger gulf’ in the party than the one that had become apparent on election day.
For many of Corbyn’s supporters, however, appeals like these – former prime minister Gordon Brown made much the same argument, though without specific reference to Corbyn – were coded demands for a right-wing candidate, and one drawn from a familiar pool of personnel lacking what they saw as Corbyn’s refreshing idiosyncrasy. As one Labour activist wrote:
The arrogance with which MPs tell us that we’re wrong, that we’re too cowardly to make ‘tough choices’ and vote for their preferred candidate, perfectly explains why the membership is not flocking to their anointed one…Of course they will deliver us from our childish and selfish ideas and lead us to where we deserve to be led. Only they know what being ‘electable’ is like.
As the leadership race progressed, arguments against Corbyn’s candidacy resting on the thesis that his election would be practically unwise seemed only to increase the intensity of his support. When Tony Blair intervened to make such an argument in two op-eds, Corbyn’s opponents greeted his judgement as being both astute and profoundly unhelpful. The reason was simple: for many Labour supporters, Jeremy Corbyn has appeared attractive largely because of what, or who, he is not.
Jeremy Corbyn is not Tony Blair. One Labour MP who nominated Corbyn praised him as a change from the ‘stale, out-dated Blairite 1990s’. The head of Britain’s fifth-biggest trade union declared that ‘The grip of the Blairites … must now be loosened once and for all. There is a virus within the Labour Party, and Jeremy Corbyn is the antidote.’
For anyone unfamiliar with Labour’s internal divisions, this might come as something of a surprise. Tony Blair, after all, won three general elections: in 1997, 2001 and 2005. He remains the only Labour leader to have won a general election since Harold Wilson’s victory in October 1974. But to be called Blairite today is rarely intended as a compliment.
One version of Blairism, and perhaps the simplest, can be found in the record of Labour’s time in government with Blair as prime minister. Labour was elected in 1997 after an 18-year period of Conservative government, towards the end of which the Conservatives had suffered furious division over Britain’s relationship with Europe, and a series of high-profile scandals that obliged ministers to resign. Tony Blair, at 43, was the youngest prime minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812, and was welcomed into office by genuinely delighted crowds lining the route to Downing Street. The theme song of Labour’s election campaign had been ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, by D:Ream.
A drastically condensed narrative of what happened next goes something like this: Labour’s wave of expectations lasted six months, until a party-funding scandal forced Blair – awkwardly defending himself as a ‘pretty straight sort of guy’ – to confront the kind of ‘sleaze’ that had defined his Conservative predecessors. As the hopefulness of the election campaign met the messy reality of government, Labour enacted a series of moderate social-democratic reforms, including the introduction of a national minimum wage, spending on health, education and overseas aid, and repeal of an infamous anti-gay section of the Local Government Act. At the same time, Blair’s government consciously avoided traditional indicators of socialist government, such as significant increases in the top bracket of income tax, and made a high-profile public accommodation with business and finance: ‘We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’, Peter Mandelson famously said. The discomfort of Labour’s left wing with this rightward turn was exacerbated by the policies of relatively hardline home secretaries, including security laws criticised for restricting civil liberties. Until 2003, however, electoral success was, broadly speaking, enough to keep open rebellion to a minimum.
Then came the invasion of Iraq. Foreign secretary Robin Cook resigned from the government in protest. In his resignation statement – an insistent attack on the case for war and perhaps the most rhetorically brilliant speech to Parliament in a generation – Cook called Blair the most successful leader of the Labour Party in his lifetime, warning: ‘I have no sympathy with, and I will give no comfort to, those who want to use this crisis to displace him.’ Blair remained leader, and despite the war’s political cost, led Labour to victory again in 2005. But the invasion was the beginning of the end. Before the 2005 election, under pressure from supporters of Gordon Brown – who had long ago reached an understanding with Blair that he would be allowed one day to take Blair’s place – Blair announced that, if re-elected, he would only serve one more term as prime minister. He did not make it that long. Resigning in May 2007, he conceded that the Iraq War had been ‘bitterly controversial’; of the expectations placed on his time in government, he asked that his supporters accept ‘one thing: hand on heart, I did what I thought was right’.
This is all by way of saying that ‘Blairism’ is in one sense, justly or otherwise, shorthand for the disappointment of progressive hope, symbolised by the invasion of Iraq. Opposition to that invasion was a key rallying point for the Corbyn campaign. On 21 August, Corbyn announced that as leader he would make a formal apology on behalf of the Labour Party: ‘to the British people for taking them into the Iraq War on the basis of deception, and to the Iraqi people for the suffering we have helped cause’. The rejection of this form of Blairism is a straightforward argument to move the Labour Party to the political left – albeit, in Corbyn’s case, rather dramatically so.
There is another type of ‘Blairism’, however, to which Corbyn’s campaign is also a challenge, but which is more complicated than simple policy positioning. This second Blairism is a more than 20-year project, driven not solely by Blair but by a series of senior Labour figures, to reshape the party, and to prioritise unity and electability over ideological purity. (It is worth noting that this movement included Gordon Brown; here, the Blairite/Brownite split that paralysed Labour in office is of less significance.)
A crucial victory in this reforming project was won by Neil Kinnock, with the expulsion of the hard-left entryist group Militant Tendency from the party in 1985. In a speech to the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth that year, Kinnock condemned Militant’s record at the helm of Liverpool city council, which had ended, as Kinnock put it, in the ‘grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers’.
The premise of Kinnock’s attack, and the expulsion of Militant, was that Labour could afford neither to allow hardline internal factions to define the meaning of socialism for the public at large, nor to pursue unfettered socialist ambition at the expense of electoral success. Kinnock offered a quotation from Aneurin Bevan, a fellow Welsh Labour politician who had served in the post-war government of Clement Attlee: ‘socialism does not have to be complete to be convincing’.
Driven by the experience of four successive general-election defeats, a generation of Labour politicians, led finally by Blair, drew an even stronger conclusion than Bevan: designing socialism to be complete would convince the British public never to vote Labour. Ten years after Kinnock’s speech in Bournemouth, the battle to reform the party was finally won when Blair won a vote to reform Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution, which had hitherto committed the party to pursuing ‘the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. The new version made reference to the ‘enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition’, to be combined with the ‘forces of partnership and co-operation’.
It is in this context too, then, that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign should be understood. Corbyn, an advocate of the renationalisation of parts of British industry and infrastructure, has suggested that Clause IV might be reformed. But the clause itself is not the crux of the issue. Instead, the question is whether widespread dissatisfaction with the first type of Blairism will bring down the achievements of the second. To put it another way, if Labour is to move to the political left of Blair, the question is whether it can do so without becoming once again a party that sees unelectability as proof of virtuous ideology, and which treats party unity with suspicion.
Labour now faces a truly fundamental challenge. With Corbyn as leader, the party elites – ‘morons’ or otherwise – will have to find a way to win on a platform generally considered unelectable, with a party base inclined to regard the goal of electability as cover for a right-wing agenda. Several members of the shadow cabinet have already concluded that this is an impossible task.
At the end of August, US Senator Lindsey Graham said ‘If Donald Trump is the nominee, that’s the end of the Republican Party’. Corbyn, the British political system and the Labour Party’s circumstances are greatly different. But if this challenge is not met, Labour will lose the 2020 election, and will be out of power for close to a generation. That is more than enough time for a political party to die.
A version of this article will appear in the October–November 2015 issue of Survival.
Matthew Harries is Managing Editor of Survival, and a Research Fellow at the IISS.