If Labour’s next leader is Jeremy Corbyn, the party may split – and, if it does so, no longer be a potential party of majority government. To Conservatives, this prospect may seem to open up the best of all possible worlds. After all, socialism is well past its sell-by date, having failed wherever it’s been tried. In its extreme form, communism, it heaped up a charnel-pile of millions of people. Wouldn’t the most merciful course be to send it on the Liverpool Care Pathway?
And if Labour went the way of Pasok in Greece or perhaps PSOE in Spain, then – who knows? – a new moderate social democratic party might emerge, becoming our own Party’s natural electoral counterpoint, and shifting Britain permanently to the centre-right. Or, arguably better still, the country would return to its pre-Labour status quo, with Liberals and Conservatives contesting it out for office, and only a fringe rabble of Greens to remind us that, in electoral terms, this is the twenty-first century and not the nineteenth. Or perhaps the differences could be contained within a single party itself – ours – since we already contain our own rainbow coalition, spreading all the way from Tories to libertarians. Never mind another term in 2020. Who’s for 2120? Vote Corbyn for a hundred years of conservatism!
But the best of all possible worlds isn’t one we can live in, which was Voltaire’s point in creating Dr Pangloss in the first place. Nor is it desirable to dream of it. Whether we like it or not, only 11 million out of Britain’s adult population of 46 million or so voted Conservative last May. Great swathes of the country on the electoral map are red – or not blue, at any rate. London, most urban areas, much of Wales, nearly all of Scotland, young people, poorer voters, ethnic minorities, union members: most of these places or people voted for other parties than ours.
It would endanger our democracy were these millions to be deprived of the hope of having their views represented in government. It is when people feel that they have no say at the ballot box that they storm the barricades. It would be harmful to our party, too. Some of us remember the triumphalism of the late 1980s and early 1990s: the talk of Thatcherism going on and on and on, and the Party remaining semi-permanently in government. It was followed by a Blair landslide and two further Labour election victories. Thank you – but never again.
If enough people in Britain believe in socialism then they must, in one way or another, see it practised in government sooner or later. It is best weakened, diluted and watered down within a coalition that also contains social democrats, which is exactly what Labour has traditionally provided. That the party has a distinguished history of being completely wrong – on post-war nationalisation, unilateral disarmament during the 1980s, Scottish devolution in the Blair years, the Brown-led legacy of debt and deficits – does not mar its fundamental legitimacy.
Furthermore, there has always been a bit of a gap between socialist ideas and Labour people. Only the most blinkered partisan would deny Ernest Bevin’s effectiveness in standing up to the Soviets, the cuts under Denis Healey that helped to prepare the way for Margaret Thatcher, Frank Field’s long role in Parliament as a force for welfare reform and, for those of us not in love with the European Union, Labour’s own Eurosceptic tradition: Hugh Gaitskell, Barbara Castle, Jack Straw (in his earlier days) and, up to a point, Ed Balls – the man who played a decisive part in keeping Britain out of the Euro.
But there is a more practical point to hand than these compliments to opponents. Britain would be better off with a bigger Conservative majority than 12. A landslide would perhaps be excessive, since these bring their own problems. But a nice recipe for good government today would be a Cameron-led Government with a majority of, say 75 or so, and an effective, lively and responsible opposition to do its constitutional duty – which only Labour, like it or not, can provide. It is not doing so today. There is turmoil on its ship.
At this stage in the Parliamentary cycle, it is usual for Shadow Ministers not to work too hard, since they know they won’t be in position for long. For some, however, the question is now perhaps less staying in post if Corbyn wins than staying in Labour at all. This is obviously bad for the party but has more subtle dangers for the Government. Let’s face it, the Conservative Party has a tendency to swing from extremes of inexplicable panic to hubristic over-confidence: were this not so, we would not have been through seven leadership elections in about 25 years – three of them the result of challenges and one, that of 1995, actually created by a Party leader himself.
Since the election, the Government has postponed capping care costs for the elderly, delayed the implementation of tax-free childcare, shelved plans for the electrification of the Midland mainline and scrapped the Green Deal. Some of these about-turns are desirable and all of them may be necessary. But the country needs a forceful opposition to hold Ministers to account for them. It needs a Shadow Team who will set their alarm clocks a little earlier and sip their Horlicks a little later – who will fight and fight and fight and fight again to get on the Today Programme, table Urgent Questions in the Commons, stump the length and breadth of Britain with Gladstonian energy, and sink attack dog teeth into Ministers’ calf-muscles. Above all, it needs unity. Not only is it not getting it, but it looks as though it won’t get it even if Corbyn doesn’t win.
In the early days of his challenge, we described him as ConservativeHome’s candidate for Labour’s leadership. This was fun at the time, as were those merry attempts from some on the Right to sign up for a vote. But the summer has turned serious. Liz Kendall isn’t going to win. And Andy Burnham doesn’t deserve to win. The man who started out in the Commons as the model of a modern Blairite is now sucking up to Unite. This tells you everything that you need to know about his campaign.
During her own, Yvette Cooper has said very little of any consequence. But we know enough about her to grasp that she is the Brownite continuity candidate – part of the failed legacy of Labour’s 13 years. However, she will have to do, given the absence of a more sparky candidate. She is the last man standing, so to speak. Far be it from this site to give Labour tactical advice, but the Conservative Party didn’t do badly when it chose a woman leader. It is time for Labour to have a go.
Cooper thus finds herself endorsed by the Guardian and ConservativeHome. We have an uneasy feeling that the backing of either, let alone both, is unlikely to do her any good.