Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Labour Leadership Election

Robin Pettitt discusses the Labour leadership competition.

When a party is defeated it is naturally forced to consider why it was rejected by the voters. This can lead to some serious soul searching which can send the party down new paths in search for victory.


When a party leader steps down a party will obviously have to decide who should replace them. In choosing a new leader (democratically or otherwise) the party will have to decide whether to go with someone much like the outgoing leader, or with a leader suggesting a new direction.

When a party loses both an election and a leader at the same time it faces a time where new directions may truly be taken. This is the situation that the Labour Party finds itself in after its damp squib of a result in the May General Election and Ed Miliband’s subsequent departure as party leader. The party is now in the midst of a leadership election campaign which is also doubling up as a vehicle for some serious soul searching.

The four candidates on the leadership election ballot paper show the full range of the party’s potential responses to defeat. Liz Kendall and Jeremy Corbyn represent the two extremes of the party. Liz Kendall wasted no time speaking out against what she saw as the failings of the Ed Miliband leadership. Kendall represents what one might call the Neo-New Labour wing of the party who views everything that happened after Tony Blair’s departure as a deviation from election winning common centrist sense. Corbyn on the other hand is part of the small and shrinking old style socialist left of the party. Corbyn and many of his supporters would be most comfortable with the party’s position as it was in the lead up to the 1983 election.

Whilst Kendall has significantly more support than Corbyn, neither are likely to get anywhere near the leadership. That means that the real contest is between Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper. Andy Burnham is perceived as being the centre-left candidate in opposition to Kendall’s centre-right stance. His line is based on prosperity for everybody (which all candidates speak to so some degree), but without Kendall’s heavy focus on wealth creation and supply side solutions. It is probably fair to say that Burnham is the one to beat and seems to be the candidate who is placed closest to the middle of Labour’s bell curve.

Yvette Cooper seems to be presenting herself as the experienced ‘unity candidate’ – a leader who will not move to the left or the right, but who will seek to unite the party behind a message of, well, unity (details-to-follow-but-it-will-be-great). Labour will use a preferential voting system to elect the next leader which means that MPs, party members and affiliated union members will be asked to rank-order the candidates. This means that the second preferences of Kendall and Corbyn will likely determine the contest. The key question then is which of the two candidates can attract the most second preferences. It is possible that Cooper’s unity message will work to her advantage here.

However, in choosing any candidate for leader the party is faced with some severe challenges. The first challenge is that the reasons for Labour’s defeat are extremely complex. In other words, the party has to choose one of several answers to a question that is not at all clear. The candidates are obviously trying to push their particular version of what went wrong (which leads to them being the solution). However, these candidate driven answers to Labour’s problems are based on the personal ideological (in the broadest and, some might argue, most diluted sense of that term) positions of the candidates, rather than any firm evidence.

What is clear though is that Labour’s problems are severe. They were crushed by the SNP in Scotland. SNP offered Scottish voters a product which was both more left-wing and more specifically Scottish than Labour. Labour lost in England to a Conservative Party which was both more right-wing and more specifically English than Labour. And they lost support to UKIP which seemed to speak to a large section of voters which have felt ignored by the main parties’ relentless focus on swing voters in marginal constituencies. 

In other words, Labour was too right-wing for Scotland, too left-wing in large parts of England and too focussed on marginal seats in a political system which requires such focus to win. Trying to be Scottish and left-wing enough in Scotland; English and right-wing enough in large parts of England; and offer something to voters in Labour heartlands that they could previously take for granted, whilst also reaching out to swing voters is the challenge that faces the new leader. It seems clear that neither Corbyn nor Kendal have the requisite breadth of appeal necessary, and are thus out of the running. The open question then is which of Burnham and Cooper can bring together a leadership winning coalition. Whether either of them have the skill to face Labour’s serious challenges will only be answered at the ballot box in 2020.

Robin Pettitt is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Kingston University.

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