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The many dilemmas of Labour's leadership

January 17, 2020

As the Labour leadership election moves into its next phase with the five surviving candidates looking for support among constituency parties and affiliated groups, everyone with an interest in the long-term health of British politics should take an intelligent interest in the outcome. Doing so exposes some serious dilemmas.

I am viewing this through the prism of a Liberal Democrat who has always believed the party – and its predecessor – should plant itself firmly on the centre left of British politics, seeing many in the Labour Party as natural allies on issues of progressive reform but parting company with them over the role of the state. From that perspective, it is disappointing that Clive Lewis fell at the first hurdle. His advocacy of electoral reform was very welcome but it now seems unlikely that any of the other candidates will embrace that essential step towards modernising our democracy.

What of those who are left in the contest?

It does look, at this stage, to be shaping up as a contest between Kier Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey, although Lisa Nandy and Jess Phillips are both running vigorous campaigns. Emily Thornberry appears to be the rank outsider.

There are plenty of people, especially Liberal Democrats I speak to, who think that Long-Bailey would make Labour unelectable. I tend to agree with that analysis. This is taken to be a good thing. Of that, I am not so convinced.

First, we need a credible opposition that looks electable in order to keep the government on its toes. That applies whoever is in power.

Second, the idea that another far left Labour leader would clear the centre ground for the Liberal Democrats, especially with the Tories led from the right, seems to be a complete fallacy.

If this was true why did the Lib Dems do so badly in the recent General Election? The centre ground was wide open, yet they failed dismally. We know alot of the blame can be laid at the door of the ill-conceived Revoke Article 50 policy but fear of a Corbyn government also had a large part to play. The Liberals do not fare well when large numbers of people fear a left wing socialist government.

British voters recoil from the prospect of a left-wing socialist government

The scenario was similar to the 1980s. The Tories were led from the right by Margaret Thatcher and Labour had two successive leaders from the left – Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. The Liberals were joined in the centre by the high profile Social Democratic Party. The result was three elections of relative failure and frustration for the Liberal/SDP Alliance and later the Liberal Democrats.

It took the resurgence of Labour under John Smith and Tony Blair to create a political climate in which the Liberal Democrats could flourish nationally. Without a Labour leader that could be easily demonised as a left wing monster, moderate voters felt safe in voting for a centre party rather than swallowing hard and taking cover by voting Conservative. Our polarising electoral system constantly forces people into such unpalatable choices.

Jo Swinson naively played to this dynamic during the campaign by appearing to be more hostile to Jeremy Corbyn than Boris Johnson, although she would have been dammed if she did and dammed if she didn’t, such is the difficulty of fighting from the centre when Labour is led from the left.

It will be better for the health of British politics and the future of the Liberal centre ground (which I make no apologies for caring about) if Labour opts for the dull common sense offered by Starmer over the left-wing purity of Long-Bailey. As the 1990s and early 2000s proved, a Liberal Democrat resurgence does Labour no harm as it takes votes from the Tories.

From → Politics

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