Isabel Hardman

Labour in chaos: what are the party’s options?

Labour in chaos: what are the party's options?
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Labour is in an almighty mess at the moment. Those involved in the leadership campaigns are surprised by how the mood in the party has changed from quite open acceptance of a need to change in the days after the election defeat to angry dissent when change is suggested, as evidenced by the reaction to Harriet Harman’s welfare policies this week. The party isn’t quite having a row about what it should stand for at the next election, preferring instead to argue about how it does opposition for the next eight weeks, most of which are in Parliamentary recess. Here are the various options for what Labour does, both in those eight weeks, and once it gets its new leader.

- Adopt all Tory policies because that’s what the electorate want.

No-one is advocating this in the leadership contest: for instance, all four candidates oppose the 1 per cent public sector pay freeze. But this is the accusation being levelled from some quarters. What they fear is that Labour isn’t really being Labour any more. But in any case, it’s a bit difficult to know what Tory policies are right now, given George Osborne is in the middle of a left-wing land grab which includes raising the statutory minimum wage and so on.

- Don’t do anything on any policy until a new leader is elected.

This was what Labour did in 2010 until Ed Miliband was elected - and even once he became leader, it is what the party largely did while it was carrying out its monstrous policy review that it then canned. But it didn’t really work because it meant that the Tories rushed through a chunk of legislation that it turned out Labour wanted to oppose without any scrutiny or any proper response from Labour at the time.

The arguments in favour of doing this are that firstly the party doesn’t have to make any U-turns on interim policies once it has its permanent leader, and secondly that an intervention from Labour at the moment has very little news value unless it is accompanied by a row between Labour types about the best plan of action.

- Take positions on policies, but don’t oppose everything.

This is the approach Harriet Harman has gone for, but it hasn’t worked for a number of reasons. The first is that not all the leadership candidates agree, and in some cases none of the leadership candidates agree, with the stance the leader is taking. The Labour rule about public loyalty and private fury will apply from 12 September onwards, but only, I suspect, if Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper wins.

For the time being, it is open season for any MP to say what they think, not just about policies but about the way the party is being run, and a ‘responsible opposition’ approach where the leader is picking battles means there are plenty of opportunities for disagreement. The argument in favour of this approach, of course, is that it doesn’t make Labour look as though it is barely functioning as a proper Opposition while it sits in a corner with its fingers in its ears, sulking and shouting ‘NO!’. But given the overwhelming impression from the party is of people fighting with each other and shouting ‘NO’, it’s difficult to argue that it is showing the public it is a ‘responsible opposition’ anyway.

- Oppose everything.

This at least has the virtue of protecting the party’s leader from ever being called ‘Tory’ by some elements in Labour. But it also, as explained above, isn’t a particularly politically mature way of behaving. It also means that no-one knows what you think are the ‘worst’ policies, or indeed whether you’ve thought about those policies are bad. Furthermore, if the electorate support the policies and you oppose all of them, rather than trying to explain politely why a couple of them really are bad, then don’t expect voters to listen to you.

- Stick with the left-wing platform that Ed Miliband stood on in 2015 but with a more charismatic leader.

This assumes that there was nothing wrong with the policies Labour offered. Perhaps many of them were very good consumer offers: the energy price freeze, for instance, did poll very well. But the ‘platform’ did also include a complete failure to address Labour’s lack of economic credibility, and as pollsters (not a fashionable bunch right now) did rightly point out before the election, no party had won being behind on leadership and the economy before.

- Go further left than Miliband’s 2015 offer.

The Corbyn option, which has about as much evidence backing up its efficacy as homeopathy. Still, homeopathy can make people feel better, and if that’s what the Labour party feels it needs right now, then maybe that’s what it will vote for, even if the impact on how many seats Labour wins is at best negligible and at worst downright harmful. This does answer the 'what do we do about Scotland?' question, even if it isn't the right answer.

- Move rightwards to the centre.

This is the offer from Liz Kendall, who is pitching herself as the ‘change’ candidate but who seems to be trailing in 4th place. The argument in favour of this is that the centre is where Tony Blair won elections, and unless Labour gets a move on and sits in that place, the Tories will occupy it with all the benefits of being in government, leaving Labour saying baffling things like ‘this National Living Wage isn’t a real living wage: we need a True Living Wage’. It is not the same as becoming the Tory party: the first principles that Kendall espouses still concern the state, not the market, but it does involve accepting things like ‘what matters is what works’ and articulating the big cuts Labour would make to bring the deficit down. So far, the noise in the campaign suggests that Labour isn’t all that keen for this, and that many feel that this sort of direction would be an abandonment of principles.

- Offer voters a left-wing Ukip.

Labour does need to work out how to deal with the fact that Ukip did much better fighting the party than it expected. Adopting an anti-EU stance that promises to restrict immigration, cut benefits, cut international development spending and spend lots of money on other things that Ukip voters like might work, assuming that they voted on policies, rather than because they were angry at being ignored by politicians for too long.

- Lose with style.

Some might argue that one or two of the three options set out above involve losing with style, rather like someone publishing a magazine that they want to read but that it turns out few other people are interested in. This means you don’t need to worry about what the polls say, or about what the press say, but you can just go for whatever policies you feel are Pure Labour. And if you lose, it’s because the electorate isn’t ready for your party, or they’ve been hoodwinked by an evil rightwing press. If only Labour would keep making the case for Pure Labour and debunking the lies of the evil rightwing press, then at some point, perhaps not in 2025, or even 2030, the electorate will finally have been persuaded.

The problems with this are obvious but still worth rehearsing given the way the debate is moving in the party. The first is that you need evidence that the electorate is slowly moving in your party’s direction and just needs a bit more persuading over a couple more elections. The 2015 election did see Labour gain 1.5 per cent in vote share, and the Tories just 0.8 per cent. So perhaps that is evidence that the electorate is creeping in your direction, but not in a way that benefits your party under first past the post. As for the evil lies of the right wing press, well, either Labour has to work out a way of increasing the circulation of those left-wing papers that might support its position (though it’s not as though all of them were particularly helpful to Labour in the run-up to this election, either), or accept that more people in Britain choose to read newspapers that tend to take a centre-right or right-wing view of things and work out a way of engaging with those newspaper readers, rather than suggesting that they’re all morons who are easily duped by a group of people who consistently come bottom in surveys about who the public trust.

The point about all of these options is that none of them are wholeheartedly fun. That’s not really how politics works, and that’s why Labour’s heading into the summer feeling rather downhearted.