Labour, we are told, is descending into vicious in-fighting. Leadership candidates are being physically held back by their staff to prevent them from throwing punches at each other. Witnesses claim Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper had a Dynasty-like catfight at a recent hustings, with Liz being dragged away, making a threatening motion with her finger across her throat. Meanwhile, Andy Burnham gave Jeremy Corbyn a dead leg for nicking his eyeliner.
Except, of course, none of this happened. Sadly. You can tell an observer’s age if he or she reckons what we see today in the fight to succeed Ed Miliband is remotely comparable to what used to happen during every public debate back in the ’80s. In those days, with the party imploding around them and the Thatcher government facing no opposition, inside or outside parliament, physical threats and violence were standard practice on both sides of every argument.
More than three decades later, the “he-said, she-said” tittle-tattle about who wrote this article or whose staffers produced that graphic are the stuff of the playground compared with the Wembley special conference of 1980, for instance.
That a civilized debate among four candidates and their supporters can be so easily classified as “acrimonious” says a lot for how expectations of behavior have risen. The party and the media alike want that open “debate” which everyone is agreed is obligatory – they just don’t want an argument.
But that’s what they’re getting.
It’s nonsense, of course, that individual candidates are setting out the policies Labour would pursue under their leadership just short of five years in advance of the polls opening. Those are decisions the new leader and his/her Shadow Cabinet team will decide on at a much later date, if they’ve any sense. The much bigger question at stake, and one that each of them must answer, is: are members electing a future Prime Minister? Or a future former Leader of the Opposition?
For far too many Labour party members, the latter prospect isn’t so bad. After all, winning an election “at any cost” so easily translates, in Labourspeak, into “sell-out” and “Tory-lite”.
As if the task ahead of the party in the next four and half years wasn’t daunting enough (it needs to win nearly 100 seats just to obtain a slim overall majority, and that’s before Cameron’s imposition of new “equalised” constituency boundaries), Labour is having to persuade its own members that government is not only a noble goal but the only realistic one if it’s to avoid being dismissed as an impotent party of self-indulgent protest.
Because there’s a truth that dare not speak its name in Labour party circles: every party leader that has succeeded in moving from opposition to Downing Street has only done so by persuading former Tory supporters to vote for his party this time round. All of them. Yes, including St Clem of Attlee. The same rule applies in 2020, but that’s where the Corbyn-supporting Left put their fingers in their ears, close their eyes and shout “I can’t hear you!” in a loud voice. Labour can win power by mopping up all the ultra-lefts in the Greens, the Socialist Workers’ Party and the SNP. Non-voters will flock to the red flag once Corbyn inspires them, apparently. What’s even more depressing is that they probably believe all this.
Whoever is declared winner on September 12, the party risks looking like a contestant in a three-legged race whose partner has decided to take part in a sit-down protest and is having to be dragged, ever so reluctantly and petulantly, towards a finish line that is moving ever further away.
This article was originally published by the Daily Telegraph