Less than three months into a long, drawn out Labour leadership contest, you’d be forgiven for sympathising with the Conservatives’ election message that the Labour Party equates one thing: chaos. One of my personally favourite statements about the whole debacle was a tweet from @ChrisDeerin, who asked if someone could switch the Labour Party off and then on again (to which @GoldKonig responded that simply switching them off would suffice).
This was all supposed to be an expansive process of looking into those personalities vying for Labour leadership, giving them maximum publicity so that Labour could ‘reach out’ to those vast swathes of the general public, millions of whom positively voted against their agenda for chaos on May 7th. Rather like the 2005 Conservative leadership race, it was a grand attempt to engage the public with the party, and get the electorate at whole to look into options for its future. But in contrast to the Conservative leadership race a decade ago, Labour’s equivalent never quite had the personalities or potential to deliver; looking into options for Labour’s future, the party is having a nervous breakdown as the public looks on in astonishment.
Back in 2005, the Conservative race comprised of David Davis, with cross-party credibility as a political bruiser who at the time had weight behind his punch; Ken Clarke, previously the Chancellor who, for all his eurofanatisism, bequeathed to New Labour the strongest economic foundations any government has ever inherited; Sir Malcolm Rifkind who, despite more recent negative stories, was at the time a highly respected and capable politician and international statesman; Dr Liam Fox, a credible and persuasive bulwark of the party’s Right; and David Cameron, a young, fresh talent who excited public imagination and went on to lead the party back to government, winning a higher share of the vote in his second election being leader of the party than in his first.
In contrast, Labour have four candidates whose collective and individual magnetism appears to be having the opposite effect, repelling potential voters even after this, a particularly sour electoral failure for the party.
First, we have Andy Burnham, the Health Secretary who presided over deaths and disaster at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital, and who has incredulously attacked Conservatives for ‘privatising the NHS’ after having himself tendered to market the largest single transferal of NHS assets into private hands in the organisation’s history. Secondly, there is Yvette Cooper, the other dull, “everything was fine under Brown and Miliband – the public are wrong” candidate, whose elfish charm fails to inspire the hearts of Labour supporters, let alone the general public. There is Liz Kendall, whose naïve political manoeuvres and mannerisms thus far fail to arouse a belief that she is the new ‘heir to Blair’, a politician whose political shapeshifting and Machiavellianism led Labour to their only electoral successes in the last four decades. And then there is Jeremy Corbyn, whose parliamentary nominators have publically regretted their erstwhile backing for his candidacy after having been called ‘morons’ by an advisor to Labour’s erstwhile government. Corbyn’s clapped out, statist politics died off, really, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall – a miserable epitaph to the failed and fatal formula of socialism that had once held this nation back from its potential, as well as plummeting half the world into economic, cultural, and social darkness. And yet still, this final obscure candidate has taken the lead in so many private polls and constituency party nominations.
From this, there are two things that can be said: firstly, the Parliamentary Labour Party obviously lacks any girth of talent, and has been left with a ‘least worst’ shortlist. That shortlist comprises of Andy and Yvette – more of the same in terms of recent themes and failures – Liz, lacking in political credibility to drag the party kicking and screaming back towards the centre ground, and Jez, a clapped out socialist who is to the left of Michael Foot, Labour’s most catastrophically out-of-touch leader, possible ever.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this illustrates that the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) had underestimated quite how barmy those Labour supporters who remain aboard the Red Titanic have become. MPs have admitted to supporting Corbyn’s candidacy in order to help the party have a debate, without truly hoping he becomes leader. Margaret Beckett, who once stood in as leader of the party following John Smith’s death, has publically come out as regretting nominating the socialist CND-er – she, and other nominators, clearly didn’t believe that their membership would be so unwise as to vote for this odd breed of 1970s soviet socialism, and are regretting having given that option to them. But they are.
Rather than being the ‘debate-worthy’ academic inclusion to procedures envisaged by Labour’s elite, Corbyn has consistently claimed the support of vast swathes of Labour’s loony stormtroopers. In late July, a leaked private poll showed Corbyn claiming 42 per cent of first preference votes to Yvette Cooper’s second place on 22.5 per cent. Out of all Labour Constituency Parties, Corbyn was endorsed by 162 with Cooper, again, coming second with 121. The PLP is now concentrated on withdrawing shadow cabinet members’ involvement in the event of a Corbyn victory, and is busily infighting with the party at large.
Whoever wins the leadership contest, Labour is in trouble. A process that was designed to include the public has left them in stunned silence as the party publically rips itself apart, furthering the impression that it is not currently a potential party of power, and more of an estranged and conflicting pressure group whose clients consist of middle class students, public sector managers, and the inhabitants of Benefit Streets across the land. While the PLP glibly debates between the slender merits of Blairism, Brownism, and Milibandism (I really don’t think the last ‘ism’ was ever going to gain traction), the membership at large has moved further back, so enraged by so-called austerity – at a time when overall government spending has actually increased – and so obsessed by the idea that we are in the grips of some neoliberal conspiracy to slash their beloved state benefits, that they are left debating between Kinnock, Foot, Che Guevara and Stalin. Wolfie Smith and the Tooting Popular Front would be proud of their Labour Constituency Party comrades in the leafy, Three Counties market town of Bedford, for instance, who nominated the self-styled seventies socialist, Corbyn, for leadership of the party. Everyone else just thinks they’re bonkers.
Labour needs to realise that they are the only group of people left believing this claptrap, and that the electorate backed the Conservatives’ more sensible approach already in 2015. The truth is that government spending as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) is currently still higher than at any point under New Labour pre-crisis levels, and it is around £100 billion higher than it was in 2010. Whilst the Conservatives are trying to eliminate our deficit, the idea that we are going through some sort of stone age of welfare destruction is plainly ludicrous, and people know it. The idea that we have suffered a tidal wave of ‘austerity’ is incredible.
Furthermore, the idea that we are in the midst of a neoliberal conspiracy is also plainly wrong. The theory goes that, “in 1979, Margaret Thatcher set about liberalising the financial services sector and slashing the state; the recent financial crisis was caused by the former and justifies furthering the latter”. It’s wrong. Firstly, the deregulation mantra is little more than a myth. Thatcher presided over a government that actually illegalised insider trading, introduced regulation of the life insurance industry after a century of next to no regulation whatsoever, introduced bank deposit insurance, regulated the sale of insurance and investment products for the first time ever, and oversaw the first ever regulation of UK bank capital under Basel I, agreed during that Conservative government. The central tenet for which Thatcher was attacked was her government’s commitment to controlling money supply in the economy as a key priority. It was a Labour government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown that saw the money multiplier in the financial services sector rise to over £30 for every £1 put in after having introduced incentives for banks to lend unsustainably from the 1990s onwards – the money multiplier almost doubled under their tenure. The same people who attacked the Thatcher governments for keeping too tight a control over money supply are now claiming that money gushed too freely due to those governments: they were wrong then, and they are wrong now.
Neither Thatcher, Major nor Cameron would ever have taken Britain into the most recent global financial crisis with a larger budget deficit than that which we had coming out of the previous crisis. But Labour did. During a recession, economists expect the deficit to increase via automatic stabilisers as tax receipts diminish and spending increases. Despite that, the reason for cutbacks in some elements of spending is because Labour governments accrued a mammoth deficit, larger going into 2007/2008 after years of growth than that in the early 1990s, coming out of a global crisis. We were on track to get to Greek levels of deficit disaster in 2010, and people know in their bones that this would have been catastrophic for Britain.
The Labour membership is wrong about their diagnosis of Britain’s woes, and so they are failing to provide the prognosis. The PLP is slightly closer to reality (although still a fair mile off), and so they are more aware of the problems that lie ahead for them in terms of definition of strategy and message – given the lack of talent, no-one appears to have stepped forward to offer to do that for them and to bring the membership with him or her.
Until Labour gets real about the problems they caused, and the disastrous consequences of the alternative to what is actually quite a relaxed deficit reduction programme under this government, they cannot, will not, and should not be trusted with a single penny of taxpayers’ money. Perhaps someone will have to switch the Labour party off and on again to achieve this. Or maybe their problem is too ingrained and permanent. As Hayek said: “if socialists understood economics, they wouldn’t be socialist.” The British people know in their bones that any breed of socialism would be disastrous for Britain, and most erstwhile moderate Labour voters know in their heads that the heydays of picket lines, trade union hegemony, state ownership of industry, and limitless spending are inconsistent with the needs of a modern world and aspirant population. If the die-hard lot that remains as the Labour party membership cannot feel in their hearts that 1980s-style, opposition-based politics is internally cacophonous and jarring with modern Britain, then perhaps Blair – their only leader to have won an election in over 40 years – is right: they will need a transplant. Whoever wins, Labour is in trouble.