Labour's last leader hopefuls are all too cowardly to confront this one truth

Tom Harris

Keir Starmer, for one, knows he can't be honest with his own members... yet

So, which of the candidates for the Labour leadership would you prefer? The one who wants to get rid of the Royal Family, the one who wants to create a “People’s BBC”, or the one who thinks parliament shouldn’t even be allowed to vote for foreign military intervention?

It’s quite a choice. And the question on every party member’s mind, as ballot papers finally begin to arrive from the end of this week, is: to what extent will the winner’s actual policies and beliefs differ from what they’ve said during this contest?

For let us be honest: just like Neil Kinnock in 1983 and Tony Blair in 1994, the new leader’s most important skill will be demonstrated in how well they can steer their recalcitrant party towards some form of electability while keeping the volume of the cries of “sell-out!” and “traitor!” as low as possible. 

The problem for all three of the candidates on the final ballot paper – Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy – is that the journey is a longer one than had to be attempted by any of their predecessors. And in Long-Bailey’s case, she doesn’t see the need to embark on such a journey at all: in four years’ time, the policies and principles that were comprehensively rejected in 2019 will be irresistible to that same electorate, she seems to believe. We wait with bated breath to hear the justification for that view.

The Salford and Eccles MP has eschewed the Labour Party’s traditional role of defending the BBC when it comes under attack from the Conservative Party and has instead added to the case for radical reform by promoting her own idea, the “People’s BBC”, which would presumably mean schedules and casting decided by plebiscite, so what could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, Ms Long-Bailey’s chief rival and favourite to win the crown, Keir Starmer, has been treading as carefully as you would expect of a man who believes the contest is his to lose. His ten pledges include a commitment to “Promote peace and human rights”, which will anger all those undecided voters who hate peace and human rights. 

Most of the rest of his ten pledges are about taking a brave stand in defence of motherhood… sorry, I mean parenthood and apple pie, although there are a couple of discouraging hostages to fortune that will seriously reduce his room for manoeuvre in the years ahead. 

A seemingly cast-iron commitment to scrapping tuition fees will go down well with the largely middle class and well off party members whose kids will benefit from such a policy, but it rather illustrates Labour’s problem of disconnection from the working class communities that turned against it in December. It’s kids from poorer backgrounds who need universities to be able to afford places for them, and without the ability to charge fees, that won’t happen (see the Scottish experience).

And the other unwise commitment is to maintain Jeremy Corbyn’s obsession with public ownership of the railways and various other industries. 

These are perfectly sensible platforms to adopt if the vote by party members is the most important election you’ll ever have to take part in. But the party keeps reminding itself that this is just the preface to an actual general election a few years down the line. And that is Starmer’s insoluble problem. 

The kind of policies that Labour will need to adopt in order to win office in 2024 are not the kind of policies that Labour Party members are in the mood to embrace. They were promised red-blooded socialism back in 2015 – why should they give up on their dream just because the British electorate is too stupid to understand what’s good for them? And yet, all the anecdotal evidence suggests that even those who voted for Corbyn for leader in 2015 and 2016 are anxious (and realistic) enough to understand that refusing to compromise is a dead-end strategy for a party that aspires to be in government.

But the horror of December 12 still lies heavy on the People’s Party; now is not the time to talk realism or to ask them to face facts. Mr Starmer perhaps realises that there will come a time, after he’s been leader a couple of years, perhaps, when he can risk being honest with his members. From his perspective, what would be the point of speaking truth to powerlessness if the result was his failing to become leader? Even Tony Blair claimed, while he was running for leader in 1994, that he had no wish to get rid of Clause IV of the party’s constitution…

Which brings us to the Channel 4 televised debate last night, where the candidates were invited to nominate the party’s greatest leader of the last 50 years. Stretching that time scale just a bit, Long-Bailey chose to nominate the founder of Nato and originator of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, Clem Attlee. Nandy, living up to her well-deserved reputation for being able to think on her feet, nominated Barbara Castle as “the best Labour prime minister we never had”.

Mr Starmer could have chosen Jeremy Corbyn, or even Michael Foot (whose electoral record was far better than Corbyn’s). But instead he chose Harold Wilson, the only Labour leader not called Tony to win a general election since Attlee left office.

Of course, Mr Starmer could not have nominated Blair. Because today’s Labour Party members don’t see him as a man who won three decisive victories in a row, who trebled NHS funding, led the international fight against the slaughter of civilians in Kosovo, founded SureStart, and introduced the minimum wage, civil partnerships and the Human Rights Act: they see a man who fought an unpopular war.

And right there is the greatest weak point in this contest: not only are the candidates claiming to be enthralled by a type of politics that was roundly rejected by the people just a few weeks ago, but they are all being upstaged and defined by a man who resigned the party leadership 13 years ago. 

It’s not that the Labour Party hasn’t come to terms with their general election defeat; it still hasn’t come to terms with its own record in government.