The Labour leadership contest: what we’ve learnt so far

Photograph: David Hunt via Wikimedia Commons


As voting ballots are finally distributed to eagerly-awaiting members of the Labour Party, now would seem as apt a time as ever to take a step back and reflect on what the leadership contest has meant for the party so far, and what it could mean for British politics going forward.

The left of the Labour Party never truly went away

The amendment of Clause IV and ascension of the Blairites was never truly followed by a purge of the party’s left. At the grassroots level in particular, support for Jeremy Corbyn is as good a demonstration as any that the party tent was only broadened in 1994, rather than torn open and replaced by the modernisers.

This continued presence of the left may prove critical to the party’s future. Despite Tony Blair’s strong intervention, it is positive that the Corbyn supporters whose political heart beats on the left do not ‘get a transplant’.

To take one example, polls have consistently demonstrated clear public support for the renationalisation of railways and, to a lesser extent, energy. Corbyn’s presence in the contest has importantly forced the hand of candidates such as Andy Burnham, an experienced heavyweight in the party, to also declare his support for similar renationalisation proposals.

The continued significance of the left will therefore be as critical to the party’s electoral fortunes as ever.

Unity and stability are the most important pillars of Labour success going forward

Blue Labour versus true Labour, Old Labour versus New Labour, Blairites versus Brownites; the civil wars must cease if the party is truly going to realise its 2020 vision.

Should Liz Kendall or Jeremy Corbyn emerge victorious, their opposing factions in Westminster must unite behind them to portray an image of harmony to the electorate following a period of such turbulence.

Unfortunately however, it doesn’t appear that such a fanciful prospect is going to materialise. Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt, both supporters of Kendall, have already spearheaded a new group named ‘Labour for the Common Good’ as a potential resistance faction in anticipation of a Corbyn leadership. A post-Miliband Labour Party marred by internal conflict will surely strip away all of its remaining governing credibility, opening the door to a Conservative Party boasting a hatful of talented leadership candidates for 2020.

For all its many factions, the Conservatives have held their party together remarkably well. Neither the Eurosceptic vultures nor the baggage of coalition has destabilised the party. They remain, until the 2017 European referendum at least, in relative political harmony. Labour would do well to learn some lessons from this.

This leadership race could be make-or-break for Chuka Umunna

Making predictions in politics is rarely a rewarding endeavour. Yet it would strongly appear that the outcome of this contest will be as important for the ambitious Chuka Umunna as it is for any of the contending candidates.

With no ensuing scandals, the Shadow Business Secretary was probably quite right to withdraw his candidacy only days after throwing his hat into the ring back in May. At just 36, he is very well placed to stake a strong claim for the leadership in the future, and has plenty of time to adjust to the intense media interest from Fleet Street which inevitably comes with the territory.

But it will certainly not be an easy climb up the greasy poll for the former garage DJ. If we are to believe the charge that a Corbyn leadership would lead Labour into the electoral wilderness, then the discrediting of the left will undoubtedly be complete – paving the way for the slick, stylish and modernising Umunna, seen by many as the torchbearer of Blairism.

Should any of the other three win, Umunna may subsequently struggle to articulate a new and distinctive narrative, a problem he appears to have already identified in positioning himself within the newly-emerging ‘Blue Labour’ movement.

Whoever makes the inaugural leader’s speech at the special conference on the 12th September, they will inherit a party stricken with dissenting voices at both the parliamentary and grassroots levels. Labour must find a common voice to address its most profound challenges and retake the social democratic platform that has historically delivered success. Credibility on the economy, a coherent alternative to Conservative austerity, a rediscovery of its early 2000s constitutional reforming impulse, and government intervention in services such as transport and energy; with evidence of public approval, this could be the policy compound for a Labour majority in 2020. For now, at least, the leadership contest rumbles on, its outcome and immediate aftermath critical to the party’s next decade.

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