Thirteen months ago I wrote a short piece just ahead of the announcement of the result of the 2015 Labour Party leadership contest. The eve of the 2016 result seems like a good day to reflect on what has changed in that time.
You can read for yourself my warnings about what Corbyn’s supporters would try and do, of what the atmosphere in the party would be like (and the comments below the line on them) and decide how wide of the mark I was. The most important development though has been the fruition of my hope that there would be unity amongst the anti-Corbyn camps, and that has been shown throughout this year’s leadership campaign. It’s no secret that not all of us who oppose Corbyn would necessarily have started with a shortlist of Owen Smith and Angela Eagle, or chosen Smith as our candidate. Nor would anyone suggest that all of Smith’s policy proposals have been supported by those of us who oppose Corbyn. But what is important is that we have done what the Corbynistas have done, and unite around both the candidate and the cause.
The contrast with the 2015 contest couldn’t be starker and precisely demonstrates the approach that is required to win general elections. The competition to succeed Ed Miliband was partly a narrow ideological debate and partly a test of soppiness. What started as a ballot of how many of the party’s members supported the four identifiable strands of thought turned into a flood of desire to feel better about things. Corbyn won in part because the differences between Burnham’s soft leftism, Cooper’s Brownism and Kendall’s Blairism (none of those labels are particularly accurate) were indistinguishable by comparison to his simple anti-austerity message. But he also won because a large number of party members were fed up with being sensible about things and went with what felt nice.
In the late 1990s Tony Blair did not have the support of everyone in the Labour Party, but (nearly) everyone in the Labour Party was fed up with opposition and wanted to win the next general election. Members then also wanted to feel nice about things by actually being in power and recognised that uniting behind Tony Blair was the way to do it. In 2016 we have the odd situation where large sections of the party are either unfussed about winning the next general election or actively don’t want to. For while there are certainly Corbynistas who would rather retain their principles over gaining power there are also some of us who think that a Corbynista government would be extremely dangerous. In any event a significant number in the party, including the overwhelming majority of MPs, certainly don’t think that uniting behind Corbyn will win the election. I would go further and say that Labour has a better chance of overall success as a party in a general election if individual parliamentary candidates make it clear to their constituents that they oppose, or at least don’t particularly support, Corbyn.
My view hasn’t changed over what those of us who oppose Corbyn and his supporters need to do. We must hold our nerve and continue to expound the reasons why the electorate should choose to support a party led not by extremists like Corbyn and McDonnell, but by those who share the view that Labour is the party of work, of success, of growth, of modernity, of equality and of international democracy. I’ve argued in other articles about the need to draw a clear distinction between us and what Corbyn represents. We can articulate that difference within the party. MPs can articulate that difference in Parliament. And the next challenger for the leadership can articulate that difference in 2017. In 2016 the opposition to Corbyn has been able to unite people behind a broad coalition of views that includes soft left, Brownite, Blairite and even some Corbynite opinion, and behind a single candidate. In other words the Owen Smith campaign has, happily, proved that a broad church strategy is still possible.