Thursday, 16 July 2015

Labour: it's got to be Cooper or Burnham

The main mouthpiece of British high Toryism, the Daily Telegraph, is involving itself in a Labour Party election.

The Telegraph gets stuck into the Labour leadership election
This is made possible by the rules adopted for the election of a new leader to replace Ed Miliband. The old system gave massive weight to the voice of the Trade Unions, which is what gave us Ed Miliband in the first place. This time round every member of the party has exactly one vote (“one member one vote”, as the system is accurately if not imaginatively called).

To accommodate the many trade unionists who are Labour supporters but not Party members, a special category has been created which allows such people to register and, on payment of £3, take part in the election.

The Telegraph has decided to urge Tories to register themselves as Labour supporters and vote for the most left-leaning of the candidates, Jeremy Corbyn. This is because it has rightly decided that Corbyn would stand no chance of winning a general election. Indeed, the paper believes that as leader, he would bury the Party for good.

No one younger than their late forties will have been particularly aware of politics the last time the Labour Party elected a leader from the Left. This was Michael Foot, in the early eighties. Foot was one of the gentlest, most tolerant and most intelligent of leaders the Party has ever had. An expert on Jonathan Swift, he could be regularly seen in the British Library researching the author of Gulliver’s Travels, when he might have been in the House of Commons.

That gentle soul was crucified by the right-wing press. On one occasion he turned up for the annual ceremony commemorating British war dead in a duffle coat. He was mercilessly hounded in the media, as though what mattered in a potential British Prime Minister was his willingness to dress conventionally.

In 1983, Foot led the Party to crushing defeat by the Tories under Margaret Thatcher. The Party took fewer votes than at any other election since the end of the Second World War. Indeed, although there has been much heart searching about the disastrous election result earlier this year, the 1983 results were nearly 900,000 votes worse.

The depth of the disaster was due in large part to a massive, radically left-wing manifesto which has come to be known as the longest suicide note in history. It is a measure of the capacity for self-delusion of certain people on the far left – not I think Michael Foot, who was far more of a realist – that another veteran of that wing, Tony Benn, described the result as a major success for socialism.

Michael Foot and Tony Benn
Didn't work out so well as we might have liked
His argument was that never before had eight and a half million people voted for so strongly socialist a manifesto. To Benn it was apparently irrelevant that nearly 21 million had voted against, 13 million of them for the Tories. And as a result one of the most radical right wing governments we have seen was elected with a massive parliamentary majority.

The Daily Telegraph may be obnoxious and unprincipled, but it’s not stupid. It has realise that Jeremy Corbyn as leader would be as disastrous for Labour today as Michael Foot was 35 years ago. It’s a lesson Labour members need to bear in mind. Corbyn may be the choice of many activists, as Foot was. He does not appeal to the floating voters we need to attract back to us, any more than Foot did. To elect Corbyn is self-indulgent and it plays into the hands of the Telegraph and its ilk.

So who should we choose?

I recently listened to Liz Kendall, one of the other candidates, and heard her describe herself, unprompted, as a “fiscal conservative”. We have plenty of those in office at the moment, within the Conservative Party. It’s also beginning to feel as though across Europe, a movement is starting in reaction to the austerity politics such figures represent. In Greece, of course, in Spain too, in Scotland, even in Germany, where protestors have been taking to the streets against the behaviour of their own government towards the Greeks.

It also seems likely that austerity politics may begin to hurt wider sections of the British population who escaped relatively unscathed during the last five years. As they lose faith in the economic policies of the present government, it would seem unfortunate if all we could say to them was “the fiscal conservatism of this government has failed; now give our version of fiscal conservatism a try.”

That leaves only two candidates, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper. Both are former ministers, and therefore arguably damaged goods, tainted by their association with the Blair-Brown governments. They are also highly experienced, intelligent politicians. Do they have the courage to take the country in the direction it needs to go? I don’t know. But I do know there is no fifth candidate.

Cooper or Burnham may not be the most inspiring of choices. But neither would take us in the direction of the wilderness of 1983, or into the embrace of the very policies that are failing in the government we oppose.

Avoiding either of those alternatives strikes me as vital if we are to give Labour another chance. And the Telegraph the comeuppance it deserves.

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