Labour is currently in the throes of a leadership battle. With Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall out in front, Yvette Cooper hot on their heels and radical latecomer Jeremy Corbyn throwing his hat in the ring, where on earth should the party go to if it wants to avoid the electoral quagmire?
Labour is currently facing one of the worst crises in its history since Michael Foot’s ill-fated 1983 election. It is under attack from the right, as floating voters resoundingly chose to vote for the Conservatives in last month’s general election, whilst an increase in working-class Ukip votes led to losses in a number of marginal seats in the traditional northern heartlands. To the left, an increase in the Greens’ share of the vote affected Labour in England, but most significantly, the anti-austerity politics preached by the SNP led to the loss of 40 seats in Scotland. This resulted in the highly embarrassing losses of Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy, the latter managing to pull off a ‘double reverse-Farage twist’, as he promised to not resign, survived the vote of no-confidence, but resigned anyway.
Labour is also under attack from the media, who have decried that none of the leadership candidates could possibly win the next election, before the eventual winner even has a chance to straighten the red rose pin on their lapel. Southerners don’t like Andy Burnham. Northerners don’t like Liz Kendall. Yvette Cooper willingly sleeps with Ed Balls. In September 2015, Labour supporters will have to elect one of these leaders, and this person will run the gauntlet of repeated media-interviews, PMQs, and constant comparisons to Ed Miliband. In my mind, there are certain politicians who would fail, but equally there are a couple who may belie their Daily Mail status, and can lead Labour to a much improved election result (it can’t get much worse).
There are three primary reasons why Labour lost the last election: leadership, the economy, and anti-business measures.
Sad as it may be, a large proportion of the electorate choose to apply the ‘Putin Test’ to the election – which candidate would be able to emerge from a meeting with our friend Vladimir without being poisoned by an umbrella. Many people saw Cameron’s suave social propriety as vastly superior to Ed’s flustered good-nature, a position not helped by Miliband’s faux-statesmanship in the leaders debates.
Regarding the economy, Labour failed to show that they were economically responsible, failing to address the issue of over-spending and appearing all too happy to accept various economic statistics which were endearing to the Tories, replying only by whimpering ‘Food-bank use has increased by 1600%’.
Finally, the battleground of ‘middle-England’, which should perhaps be renamed ‘aspirational-England’, was decisively won by the Conservatives. People felt corporations, and thereby livelihoods, were being too harshly treated, and people were stigmatised for wanting to increase their wealth.
If these three issues are addressed, Labour will increase its vote-share, and could possibly even win the most seats, although this would rely on Tory mistakes, such as further degradation of the NHS or a descent into petty infighting in preparation for the inevitably bloody 2020 Conservative leadership battle.
A quick fourth factor needed by Labour – positivity. The SNP won their seats with a populist, enthusiastic denouncement of Westminster. This was on the back of a huge surge of patriotism from the referendum, which led to a highly-optimistic campaign that genuine change could be achieved. This is what Labour should be aiming for, not merely to be elected due to Tory deficiencies.
What candidate is best placed to achieve these four aims? Currently, five people have out their names forward to stand. These candidates can be split into two camps: significant change and message manipulation.
By ‘message manipulation’ I mean that the overall placing of the party on the political spectrum will not drastically alter, but individual policies will be altered to correct Miliband’s failings. The candidates who would seem to follow this path are Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Mary Creagh.
Aiming for a radical shift are the “post-Blairite” Liz Kendall, and the socialist Jeremy Corbyn. Whilst it is possible that Corbyn and Creagh will not make the ballot paper, this article is about what Labour should do next, not what they will do.
The two candidates for change, Corbyn and Kendall, can both be directly compared to each other. In terms of leadership, both have pros and cons. Corbyn is the better orator, more capable of stirring the hearts and minds of voters, but Kendall is likely to have far more Labour support, leading to ease of manoeuvring and a willing shadow cabinet. In addition, positive discrimination may lead to an outpouring of support for Labour’s first ever woman leader, in a similar manner to the positive discrimination of voter turnout in Obama’s 2008 run for the presidency. This may be manifested in the UK through more women voters, or even more women getting onto politics.
Economically, neither can be on particularly strong ground. Kendall may be seen as a modern-symbol of the Blair government, whilst socialism is typically seen as not economically stable by large portions of the electorate and economists alike. This leads to a straight run-off, i.e. a weighing up of which will win more votes – Corbyn’s attraction of left-wing Green and SNP voters, or Kendall’s allure of disaffected Tories and Lib Dems.
Under Kendall, Labour would have little chance of winning back any Scottish seats; under Corbyn, there is a chance. Similarly, Corbyn may attract Ukip voters back to Labour, boosting the vote in key marginals. However, the power of aspirational England is constantly under-estimated, (it was this that catapulted Blair to his 1997 landslide), which means Kendall may save more seats. But can Kendall ever recoup enough from the Tories in the space of 5 short years? Corbyn’s gains could potentially be much more rapid, and so be more significant. Advantage Corbyn.
Next: the candidates for ‘manipulating the message’.
In leadership, Burnham would seem to hold the edge. His speeches at Labour conferences are frequently the most enigmatic at the gathering, whilst his northern roots will cement his standing in Labour’s northern heartlands. Cooper is frequently (although unfairly) cited as boring, a fact which may be untrue, but does not matter in the eyes of the voters. Creagh suffers from the same problem as Corbyn, in that she too may not have enough support amongst the party to be effective.
Economically, all are similar, aiming to follow the same economic plan as Miliband, but would more vociferously elucidate their own ideas, and slander Tory statistics which purport to show economic success. This can only ever be evidenced when they’re actually in Parliament, and so all three will remain equal. However, in terms of the battle for middle-England, Creagh and Cooper may have a slight advantage. Whilst Burnham’s campaign is centred around traditionally Labour qualities such as public services and the northern heartlands, Creagh and Cooper aim to be the aspirational voice of middle England, resulting in a taking of the centre ground but to a lesser extent than Kendall. Inevitably however, this may come at the cost of alienating traditionally northern voters, as Burnham’s northern roots may buy his extra support in this area, allowing him more room to covertly move to the right.
Finally, we are left with a straight fight between Corbyn and Burnham. Corbyn would represent a move back to Old
Labour, while Burnham may be a debonair Ed Miliband. If the four objectives outlined at the beginning of the piece can only be implemented through a radical change, Corbyn should be leader. If these can be achieved through manipulation, Burnham should be leader.
I’d argue that these three aims are relatively easy to achieve without sweeping reforms that Corbyn would purport to carry out. Leadership can easily be improved, as Burnham’s working class, northern roots and oratory skill endear him to the public. It is more fiscally irresponsible to move to socialism that to stick to Labour’s 2015 manifesto, a manifesto denounced not due to its own content, but due to misrepresentation of Tory economic success and a pre-occupation with the over-spending of the previous Labour government.
In addition, Burnham may be able to be less attacking to aspirational businesses and people by merely shifting spending plans. Labour do not tax highly because they enjoy taxation; instead it’s to invest in services that ensure equality of opportunity. Cut corporation tax, which harms smaller business, but shut tax loopholes, and implement the 0.05% Robin Hood tax policies which attack big businesses which should pay more tax, not the smaller businesses which already are squeezed from the market by vast transnational corporations.
This keeps Labour in the same position on the political spectrum, whilst becoming more appealing to middle-class voters. Furthermore, making concessions such as the abolition of Trident and a sustainable energy future may attract left-wing voters. Burnham may not actually introduce all of these, but he’s the candidate who’s most likely to, thereby pulling together two sides of a party whom the working society of the UK cannot afford to split.
Yes, Corbyn may also offer a politics of hope, by pointing to the populist uprisings in Greece and Spain, but this is equally divisive. Burnham’s positivity is more subtle, manifested through a pride for our public services and of the working class, and a belief that Britain can do better than the Tories. Whilst I personally may agree with more of Corbyn’s policies, I cannot envisage him winning in 2020, whist Burnham may be able to, an outcome far preferable to another 5 years of Tory rule.
I may of course be wrong. Kendall could bring through reformist policies which allow Labour to retake the middle-ground. Yvette Cooper may be a revelation in government, after she steps out from her husband’s shadow. It may be argued that the best two candidates, Chuka Umunna and Dan Jarvis, are not standing. The beauty of politics is that it’s not an exact science; people argue, fight, and even throw eggs over it (see John Prescott). But to my mind, there is one man who can recoup seats in the next 5 years, and that man is Andy Burnham.
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