Enough navel-gazing. It’s time Labour got back to work | Zoe Williams

Factional divides must now be put aside if the party is to devise the radical policy platform Jeremy Corbyn promised

Let’s start to rank debate in order of usefulness. There are plenty of political conversations that bring the thrill of intractable difference, the exhilaration of coded animosity – arguing not the point but the person, despising them for the unsaid thing you’re sure they think. These have dominated long enough on both the left and the right.

Labour seems intent on gnawing its own leg off to escape the trap of Blairite versus Corbynista, and while the Conservatives may appear united in victory, they are actually losing their identity in the service of it. There are plenty of Tories who think like Ken Clarke, and who would prefer to have joined Ed Miliband’s Labour party than to turn overnight into a better-oiled Ukip. The fact that only Clarke himself will say it out loud may seem incidental as they sweep the polls, but it will not be without consequence in the long term.

As magnetic as they are, the downside of these debates is that they obliterate the agenda, leaving nothing on it but one irreconcilable item. We have a government that can talk about nothing but Europe, and an opposition that can talk about nothing but Tony Blair. If you wanted a Labour party that was not just united and electable, but also creative and generative, where would your attention be?

The extent of the electoral loss in Copeland is a dead end: it was an open-and-shut disaster. There is no media conspiracy to make it seem worse than it was, no historical or psephological reading that can mitigate the loss, nor any mileage in balancing it against Stoke and calling it quits. But the hyena-like circling of the carcass of Corbyn’s plan is morbid; the delight of making his allies account for the defeat, then laughing at their wild answers, merely feeds the stubbornness and sense of siege that is keeping Project Corbyn alive.

Shami Chakrabarti, the shadow attorney general, gives her verdict on Labour’s Copeland byelection defeat

Likewise, the anguished speculation about when he’ll do the decent thing and step down has precisely no effect. It leads directly to the question of who would replace him, and drags the focus back by its neck to the spectrum of left to right within the party, placing likely candidates on a Pantone scale of Blairiness – Chuka Umunna as the Blairiest, Dan Jarvis as army-Blair, Kier Starmer as metropolitan elite-Blair and Clive Lewis as Corbyn the Second.

What does Blairite even mean any more, in this party? His worst errors – Iraq, PFI, financial deregulation – are repudiated now by everybody, give or take Peter Mandelson, and his successes nobody will talk about, for fear of being allied to the failures. Since there is no such thing as a Blairite, it would be better to judge likely successors by what they say and do, whereupon you’d worry more about how close Umunna’s views are to those of George Osborne, you’d notice that Jarvis says and does almost nothing, and you’d recognise a lot of issues on which Starmer is actually to the left of Lewis – and hopefully then question how useful this shorthand is.

The important point is this: Labour sacrificed its acceptability to the mainstream, its view out of the Overton window (those ideas the public will readily accept), in order to rebuild itself with a radical programme. That has not materialised.

I supported Corbyn’s leadership for exactly this reason – that the party needed to think ambitiously and all the other candidates were standing on the explicit promise of having no more radical thought than their imaginary, aspirational, hardworking, Passat-owning electorate would allow. I also thought of Corbyn as a John the Baptist figure, who would make way for Jesus when the time came. That was a terrible analysis of his character, but the fact that the programme has failed to materialise is the greater problem.

Being anti-austerity is not a plan. Wanting to deal with injustice – whether in pay ratios or in the refugee crisis – is laudable, but has no direction. It must be the guiding moral structure for your journey, but it can’t be the map itself. Claiming to want a “conversation” about immigration when you don’t intend to change your stance isn’t any more of an offer than Ed Miliband’s famous mug.

If you believe, as surely most in the Labour party do, that immigration is merely a carrier issue for underlying dissatisfactions, then rather than tell people you’ve heard their concerns but unfortunately their concerns are wrong – worse still, backing that up with some data and a little light rhetoric on the universal rights of man – you need to turn your attention directly to those underlying issues.

Corbyn does this to an extent, describing quite well and consistently the crisis in living standards and overstretched public services, but only to the point it can all be blamed on the government. This is not, as the pollsters put it, “cutting through”. If it sounds far-fetched for an immigrant to be forcing down your wages, how much more improbable is it that Theresa May’s at fault? Wages have been stagnant for a decade; she’s only been prime minister for five minutes.

If Labour were to focus their debate instead on housing, they would open up these possibilities. They could approach with humility, starting with a mea culpa on the failures of the Labour government to build enough homes. It could even create a discontinuity with the Blair era, without rancour.

They could describe the situation without euphemism (the unaffordable “affordable”) or defeat the Tory claim that people should just get used to renting. They could ally effortlessly with the business voice, which is currently at its most trenchant and positive, at this once-in-a-generation moment when corporations’ natural allegiance could be plucked off the Tories as easily as getting a breadstick from a baby. They could float ideas radical enough for their hardcore (a social housebuilding programme, a land-value tax), modern enough to inspire optimism (community land trusts, crowdfunded developments), and they would all sound more reasonable and realistic than the current plan – to maintain a failing status quo while masking it with implausible language. They could turn the pressures of immigration into a subset of a wider agenda, rather than having constantly to respond to it as the main event.

A change of leadership in the Labour party is inevitable, but seeking to hasten it only strings it out. Anyone with even a passing interest in seeing the party survive should be asking not who should lead it, nor even who it can win over, but what it’s actually for.


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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