23 July 2015

Is the Labour Party finished?


The headline to this article is, in one sense, a classic Question To Which The Answer is No. We have, after all, been here before – we asked the same thing about Labour through its last low point in the 1980s and early 90s; we asked it about the Tories during their trough of the late 90s and early 00s. In both cases the pendulum swung; they moved to meet it; they bounced back to government.

You’d have to be either a pretty sour pessimist or an overly excitable optimist (depending on your politics) to look at Labour today and say with any confidence that it’s over. For one, it’s hard to believe that, in the end, the party will throw itself on to the rocks by electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader. The idea of a Corbyn/Tom Watson double ticket is by turns hilarious, terrifying and dispiriting.

Were the unthinkable to happen, it must surely be possible that the centrist faction will quite simply decide it has had enough. Having watched the failed Miliband experiment reach its predictable and predicted calamitous conclusion, any shift further to the left should only confirm that the game’s a bogey. To borrow a phrase beloved of leftie Scots Nationalists, they didn’t leave the Labour Party, the Labour Party left them.

The rigidly tribal world of our party politics increasingly looks like an oddly feeble, anti-modern construction – a hangover from an era in which society’s tribes could be more readily identified and required their own distinct tribunes. Do, say, Liz Kendall or Alan Milburn really have more in common with Jeremy Corbyn and his deadheaded horde than with a compassionate Conservative such as Robert Halfon? Are the nuanced views of John Rentoul closer to those of barmy Owen Jones than to, say, Tim Montgomerie? I’m sure they’d all object to my implication, but they’d be wrong.

So are we closing in on another SDP moment? Probably not; Corbyn won’t win. Which leaves us looking at the next five years under one of the other candidates. I am one of those much-derided Blairites, and therefore I like what Kendall says. Is she ready? Is she up to it? I have no idea, but she is at least fresh, interesting and willing to challenge her party. She will get Labour talked about in the right way, where the others threaten to grind through to 2020 offering different shades of grim leftishness, a significantly less interesting story than Boris v George v Theresa. One advantage to Labour of the TB/GBs was that no one gave a toss about the Tories while those two big beasts were biting lumps out of one another.

But Kendall seems out of it. The money is on Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper. Cooper’s gender helps her, but she is probably the most uninspiring figure in the race – patronising, predictable, bearing the fatal taint of a buggin’s turn retread. Burnham appears to have more substance and a touch more daring, but does he pass the blink test? Can he inspire the electorate to turf the Tories out? I have my doubts.

A key difference between Labour and the Tories is that the latter have an instinctive understanding of and lust for power. They are comfortable with the compromises and shape-shifting required to win office and retain it. They attempt to capitalise on the mood of the times. The former have rarely shown these qualities. It s why they usually lose – they still don’t seem to be able to forgive themselves for the 1997-2005 blip.

Blair made the point yesterday: ‘Twenty-one years ago I became leader of the Labour party. A lot has happened since then. We discovered winning successively. And now we have re-discovered losing successively. Personally I prefer winning.’

He also explained that you don’t have to betray your principles to win. But you do have to inhabit the same world as the majority of the electorate and be in tune with their aspirations. The general election result showed that the People’s Party were miles away from this. The leadership contest suggests they still haven’t learned their lesson – the idea that voters are crying out for a dose of real socialism is bonkers. Labour may not be finished, but does a party in this state stand a chance of winning in 2020? QTWTAIN.

Chris Deerin was Head of Comment at Telegraph Media Group, 2008-2013. He is now a writer and communications adviser, based in Edinburgh and London, and writes a weekly column in the Scottish Daily Mail.