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Expert Comment: Labour's leadership contest

Labour party Tuesday 14 July 2015

Bill Jones, former Professor of Politics and History at Liverpool Hope University, puts Labour’s leadership contest in the spotlight. 

“I feel this contest has elements of Groundhog Day about it. Firstly, it seems to replicate aspects of the Tory leadership contests between 1997 and 2005, when the party could seemingly do nothing to lift itself up from a floor of 30 per cent in the polls. For the Tories, the fatal injury was the 1992 exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), while for Labour it's receiving the blame for the banking meltdown and resultant deficit. Labour has good reason to claim innocence in the latter charge, but Osborne was brutally effective when implanting this false narrative as Labour agonised over electing either of the two Miliband brothers. To be fair, Labour had supported ERM membership in 1992, but opportunistically blamed the Tories over the debacle at the time. As the current contest continues, Osborne is trying with equal vigour to kill Labour off by re-branding the Tories as the party of the workers.

“Secondly, the current debate within Labour took place during the 1990s and after 2010 - should Labour defend its traditional themes, especially high public spending at all costs, or recast its thinking more favourably to a market-led view of the economy? Old or New Labour? During this same period, the Lib Dems shifted towards the latter view in line with its Clegg-Alexander-Laws-led 'Orange Book' reworking of party policy. Now we have a similar debate, sparked by interim leader Harriet Harmon, who suggested on Sunday 12th July that Labour should reverse its traditional positions and support some of the Tory welfare cuts. She said: “We've got to wake up and recognise this was not a blip. We've had a serious defeat and must listen to why.” Harmon’s argument is that Labour needs to recognise the Tories had won the battle for public opinion on welfare spending.

“Harmon hoped the leadership candidates would speak up in support of her more Blairite line, but all four - with some qualifications from Liz Kendal - opted to attack the cuts. On Monday’s Daily Politics, Labour MP Frank Field applauded Harmon's leadership, but called the candidates' response 'dismal'. Labour MPs discussed the issue on the evening of the 13th July, but while such debate is clearly necessary, at this stage it has achieved no resolution.

“Labour's Tristram Hunt claimed in the Observer, 12th July, that Labour was becoming an 'irrelevance' to British politics, the candidates were 'not asking the big questions about the future of Britain' and Labour needs 'a summer of hard truths'. Hunt supports the New Labourish Liz Kendal, but her candidacy has failed to take off. Instead the surprise second-place candidate is Jeremy Corbyn, a left-winger who only gathered the requisite 35 nominations when colleagues who disagreed with him generously supported him to articulate a left-wing voice in the contest.

“A win by him is unlikely, but if he does spring a surprise win it will be a disaster for the party akin to the election of Michael Foot, or even the Tories' of Iain Duncan Smith back in 2001. What the party really needs is the arrival into its ranks of a politician with the gifts of Tony Blair, but the character, maybe, of the saintly Michael Foot. Unfortunately, talents like the admittedly flawed Blair only arrive once or twice a century and none of the present candidates come close to him in terms of political nous or communication skills, let alone charisma. I fear a long dark night awaits the party.” 

Department of History and Politics

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