Leadership contest shows Labour needs to get serious

The Labour Party goes through bouts of introspection.

At these times, which inevitably follow electoral reversal, Labour throws all its energies into internal dispute.

It was famously said of the Left in the 1980s that they “refused to compromise with the electorate”. Doctrinal purity or factional harmony has all too often taken precedence over winning in the Labour Party.

Labour didn’t suffer much during these impotent sulks, except for a few trashed careers and bruised egos. It was the people who rely on a Labour government who felt the party’s elective irrelevance most keenly.

History seems to be repeating itself. After the worst general election performance since 1987, with their Scottish heartland seized by the SNP, Labour is once again refusing to compromise with the voters.

This can be seen in the contest – the term flatters this limp squabble – to replace Ed Miliband as leader. Parties in the doldrums struggle to attract talent and, as the pretenders to what passes for a crown in Labour circles show, the People’s Party is at one of its historic low points.

Liz Kendall, MP for Leicester West, is easily the most impressive of the crop but because this is the Labour Party, activists are looking for every possible reason not to back her. Kendall could knock Labour back into shape and that’s just what some people fear. They are not in the mood for politics; they fancy a bit of therapy.

No wonder she has been branded “Taliban New Labour”, a sobriquet designed to suggest ultra-Blairism on her part. (Or possibly her time in Kandahar tendering out suicide bombings to PFI contractors.) It says a lot about what’s going on inside Labour’s institutional headspace that its most successful leader is so reviled.

Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are the frontrunners in large part because neither is particularly associated with Tony Blair. While not left-wing in the traditional sense of the term, both are uncomfortable occupying the centre ground where elections are won and lost. They are best understood as the continuity candidates, rival options for Labour members who would rather abdicate responsibility than go on the offensive against the government.

Thus far the leadership election was shaping up to be a battle between the Coke and Pepsi of political mediocrity. The entry of Jeremy Corbyn changes that. Nominated by some MPs for the asinine reason that he should be “part of the debate” – he is part of the debate and has been on the losing side throughout his career – Corbyn is an unreconstructed Bennite, whose apparent selling point is that he can reconnect with the key SOAS graduate student and CNDer demographics.

Eighties nostalgia is in vogue but most people can settle for throwing on some Human League and cringing over photos of big hair and shoulder pads. Only the Labour Party could hanker for a rerun of the 1983 election, for that is what would follow if Corbyn defied all the odds and emerged victorious over his opponents.

That is unlikely but his mere presence on the ballot is a symbol. It tells us a section of the party remains committed not only to undoing the Blair reforms but those of John Smith and Neil Kinnock too. It is an admission that the Labour Party is still home to a strain of ugly extremism.

Corbyn addressed a Stop the War Coalition event in March 2009 and boasted: “Tomorrow evening it will be my pleasure and my honour to host an event in Parliament where our friends from Hezbollah will be speaking. I’ve also invited friends from Hamas to come and speak as well. Unfortunately, the Israelis would not allow them to travel here.”

Friends from Hezbollah, a terrorist organisation whose leader Hassan Nasrallah says of Jews: “If they all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide”.

Friends from Hamas, a terrorist organisation that has transformed Gaza into a tyrannical enclave of jihadism, misogyny, and homophobia. Its charter swears it to the “obliteration” of the State of Israel.

The same charter goes on to say: “Our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious. It needs all sincere efforts. It is a step that inevitably should be followed by other steps. The Movement is but one squadron that should be supported by more and more squadrons from this vast Arab and Islamic world, until the enemy is vanquished and Allah’s victory is realised.”

The question is not why 35 MPs nominated Jeremy Corbyn for leader of the Labour Party. The question is why such a person is still allowed in the Labour Party.

The party’s travails would be comical if there wasn’t so much at stake. At least voters in Scotland have the SNP. A navel-gazing, ideological Labour Party leaves England without any effective opposition to David Cameron’s government. And by their solipsism, they are giving the Prime Minister free rein to redefine his as “the workers’ party”. Tories are talking about raising the minimum wage, helping hard-pressed families, and giving more tax cuts to the poorest in society while Labour is determined to bury the legacy of its most sustained and transformative period in government. If this party went into satire it could put Armando Iannucci out of business.

Labour is supposed to be a serious political party, not the fifth season of The Thick of It. If they don’t like the idea of a generation in opposition, they should start acting like grown-ups.

Originally published on STV News.

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