Is it too late for Tracy Brabin’s bared shoulder to be entered as a candidate to be the next Labour leader? The contest is in desperate need of an injection of energy and the flesh accidentally exposed to parliament by the Batley and Spen MP has excited more national conversation than anything being said by the current runners.
The American Democrats have just illustrated one way not to stage a successful leadership contest by turning their Iowa presidential caucus into a farce. The British Labour party is demonstrating another way of not doing a successful leadership contest by turning its race into a bore. People like me are giving it our attention because it is our job to do so. People like you, the sort of people who read commentaries like this, are probably giving it a bit of your time because you are above average in your interest in politics. It is fair to say that the Labour leadership contest is not seizing the imagination of the vast majority of the population. It is not even giving the nation a light tap on the elbow.
This didn’t have to be the case. Leadership contests can be a positive for a party if they shop-window talent, introduce fresh and engaging faces and ideas to the public and demonstrate that a party has a lively mind fizzing with fruitful debate about the future. When a contest is held after a severe election defeat, it also offers an opposition party the chance, should it choose to seize the opportunity, to publicly recognise that it misread the electorate and to start to prove to the country that it is willing to listen to the voters and is serious about learning from its mistakes.
You might suppose there is a particular imperative for Labour to do the latter: to demonstrate that it is trying to understand why it was so comprehensively routed at the ballot box eight weeks ago. Lest anyone forget, the election defeat in December was the party’s fourth consecutive rejection by the country and a battering so thumping that Labour’s parliamentary representation is crushed down to its lowest level since 1935. You have to be an octogenarian or older to have any memory of the last time that Labour had so few MPs to rub together.
There has been hesitant acceptance by some of the contenders that Labour made errors, but the interrogation of the root causes of such a calamitous defeat has been feeble. Sir Keir Starmer tentatively ventures that the manifesto was possibly a bit over-loaded with too many promises, yet also refers to that gift catalogue of fantasy wish-lists that voters found incredible as the party’s “foundational document”.
Rebecca Long-Bailey awards Jeremy Corbyn “10 out of 10” for leadership and asserts there was nothing wrong with the fantastic policies that she helped to formulate, suggesting that all would have been just dandy but for Brexit. Lisa Nandy argues that Labour has been losing the allegiance of towns in what we used to call the red heartlands for a long time. This is true enough, but it is an analysis too limited to fully explain why Labour got boxed not just in the north but all around the compass. Emily Thornberry says her colleagues were idiots for ignoring her warnings not to permit Boris Johnson to have a pre-Christmas election. This is also true enough, but it implies that the best way for Labour to avoid losing elections is never to have to face them.
No one says it out loud, even if they privately think it, that the outgoing leader and his hard left clique presented the country with a repulsively deadly combination of toxic politics and rank incompetence fronted by a man both traditional supporters and swing voters shuddered to think of in Number 10. This is one of the great taboos of this contest. None of the contenders have the courage to say it was madness for Labour to fight the election with the most unpopular leader in the history of polling. This is one truth they dare not utter for fear of offending those party members who still worship at the shrine of St Jeremy the Martyr. Another reason for this vow of silence about the multiple failings of Mr Corbyn and his crew is all the contenders for the leadership and deputy leadership were recommending him as prime minister just two months ago, five of them from positions in his shadow cabinet.
The boggling scale of Labour’s defeat has made the party less capable of thorough self-examination. The evisceration in December was of such traumatising magnitude it has frazzled synapses. A new Labour division has opened up between the fantasists and the fatalists. You know you’re listening to one of the fantasists when they say “our policies were popular”, “we won the arguments”, “we almost won in 2017” and “Boris Johnson will soon be found out”. So one more heave under Rebecca Long-Bailey will see us bounding into power next time around.
The fatalists see this for the utter nonsense it is. They grasp it will require a sensationally large swing to overturn a Tory majority of 80 and then gain the huge number of extra seats required to take Labour to a majority at the next election. So the fatalists work to an underlying assumption that it will take at least two elections and around a decade before Labour sees the inside of government again. The fatalists have gravitated towards Mr Starmer not so much because they are brimming with confidence that he can become prime minister, but on the grounds that the former DPP has the competence and the smarts to turn Labour into a professional-looking opposition.
What the fantasists and the fatalists have in common is a reluctance to do any fundamental soul-searching about why Labour allowed itself to be landed in such a deep hole. The fantasists won’t do any of the hard thinking required because they are incapable of it. The fatalists won’t because their ambition is capped at restoring Labour to credible leadership.
None of the contenders remaining in the race is confronting Labour members with an honest account of why the party has repeatedly failed and how, in doing so, it has let down all those it exists to help and protect. The contestants presume that Labour activists simply can’t handle too much reality. This is particularly weighing on the cautious campaign being conducted by the frontrunner. Mr Starmer is behaving like a man walking across a sheet of ice carrying a crystal vase, a man terrified that one bold step might put him on his arse and cost him the prize.
He could exploit his advantage in the race by starting to confront the party with some of the harder truths about its mistakes. He has instead chosen to hoard his lead by concentrating on telling activists what he thinks they want to hear. So he promises to “build on” the “radicalism” of Mr Corbyn and “not the trash the last four years”. This means that his supporters from the sensible wing of the Labour party are planning to vote for him on the basis that he has to be dissembling. “All this rubbish about being faithful to Corbynism,” says one Starmer-backing former cabinet minister. “I’m voting for Keir on the assumption that he cannot possibly mean it.”
This is also one of the legacies of four years of bitter sectarian infighting since Labour took its disastrous wrong turning into hard leftism. It is assumed, probably rightly, that many Labour activists are fatigued by strife and will reward the candidate who best presents themselves as capable of binding together the party’s factions and healing its wounds. Mr Starmer’s projection of himself as that candidate, along with the fact that he meets orthodox expectations of what a plausible leader should look like, helps to explain why both the constituency nominations and the polling of members have him ahead.
For the purposes of winning this contest, you can understand why he blandly incants activist-soothing pieties about the superiority of socialist values and is wary of saying anything challenging that might jeopardise his prospects of securing the leadership. But by avoiding one risk, he takes others. One is that, if he does become leader, he will have a shallow mandate for driving necessary change through the party. Another risk of his keep-it-dull campaign is that he is squandering what ought to be a great opportunity to make a dynamic impression on the nation.
The public often and rightly draw conclusions about how a party might run the country from what they observe about how it manages its own affairs. What they saw of Corbyn Labour scared many voters to death. There have to be better alternatives than to now choose to bore them to death.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer