17 August 2015
By Marc Fovargue-Davies, Sue Konzelmann and Frank Wilkinson
Many members of the Parliamentary Labour Party fear that the election of Jeremy Corbyn would damage the party and make it unelectable in a General Election. It is, of course, possible that they’re right – after all, their last choice of leader did exactly that. But if Corbyn does win, and his opponents’ worst fears are then confirmed, the position wouldn’t be that different from what it is now. On the other hand, acquiring a track record of interfering very publicly with the democratic process, in order to influence the result of an election, would haunt the party for a lot longer – probably permanently. And that would make Labour far less electable.
Recent reports in the Guardian about the credibility of the Labour leadership contest, describe the verification process for new party members and supporters – and the disqualification of applicants who ‘it believes do not share Labour values’, including ‘signups from the left’ who oppose the Tory government’s current programme of economic austerity. But ‘cleansing’ the list of those allowed a vote is fraught with difficulties of both a practical and political nature. Members of other political parties are relatively easy to spot and exclude. But how do you identify a ‘radical anti-austerity left winger’? And what would be the case for excluding them, anyway? There is a legitimate candidate – Jeremy Corbyn – with a not entirely dissimilar view, after all. There’s also an obvious problem with using ‘Labour party values’ as a criteria for exclusion, including as they do: ‘social justice,’ ‘strong community and strong values,’ ‘reward for hard work’ and ‘rights matched by responsibilities.’ ‘Decency’ might prove particularly tricky, under the circumstances. But there is nothing there about austerity, or being too left wing.
There’s also the problem of precedent. Just three months ago, opposition to austerity was also strongly expressed in Scotland, accompanied by an unambiguous move to the left – wiping-out the Labour vote north of the border. Not only did no-one seriously suggest that the SNP had been infiltrated; but phrases like ‘hard left’ and ‘radical Trotskyite’ were pretty thin on the ground, too.
Aside from the likelihood of embarrassing comparisons with General Franco – who, having lost public support, was famously said to have ‘voted himself a new people’. There’s a much bigger risk for Labour: with Scotland having lost faith in Labour – and upcoming boundary changes making it ever harder to win in England – they really do need a game changer. The support and interest of the large numbers of new, young voters that have recently flocked to join the Labour party, could form the foundation for that energy they so clearly need.
Only a few scant weeks ago, many in both politics and the media were bemoaning the lack of respect for, and engagement with, politicians. Well, now it appears they have their wish; but interfering with the result of the leadership election would merely give all these people another reason to assume that politics really is pointless and politicians are untrustworthy – hardly a fitting legacy for a party that was created to engage and support just such people as part of its mandate.
The thinking is clear enough: when Corbyn joined the contenders for Labour leadership, he was not seriously considered to be a possible winner because he’d be unlikely to win outright in the first round; and he would receive few second preference votes, allowing either Cooper or Burnham to win. Now that there is the possibility that he might indeed beat the odds, there’s a degree of panic – and that rarely results in good policy.
Labour is dealing with more than its own trajectory over the next few years. It has shown that it can survive less than stellar leadership more than once. But unless it can clearly demonstrate foul play in the current leadership race – and find an absolutely transparent way of dealing with it – the party should stick to the rules and abide by the result. Regardless of the outcome, neither Burnham nor Cooper – or even Corbyn – will be forever. A reputation for de-railing democracy might well be.