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Wednesday
Jul222015

Labour Leadership Contest: Two Tribes

To my mind the discussion the Labour party is having over it’s leadership is really a fight between two different electoral strategies.

On one side you have the Triangulation advocates. Their position is that the electorate has moved to the right and the only way you can win the next election is by grabbing some of the territory of the Tories thereby enticing some of the electorate to vote Labour. For example they might pledge to get tougher on immigration, something that’s traditionally a stronghold of the right. Triangulation was a major strategy in Tony Blair’s victories (imported from Bill Clinton) and so is, unsurprisingly, seen as the only way forward according to many Blairites.

On the other side you have the Get-Out-The-Vote advocates. Their position is that that the key to victory is amongst the people who don’t vote but would traditionally be Labour voters: the working poor, the young, those struggling to find employment. And it is certainly true that turnout amongst these groups is very low. They argue that previous use of the triangulation strategy has turned off these voters as they see both main parties as being too similar, too right wing, so now they’d rather stay at home than visit the ballot box.

In the leadership election it is clear that Corbyn falls into the latter camp while the other three have taken the former approach to, arguably, slightly different degrees.

The truth of course is that we cannot possibly guess which of these approaches is the correct one. Both sides can point to different things that support their case: The GOTVs point to the SNP’s enormous success in Scotland by occupying the ground to the left of Labour, the Triangulationists point to the rise of UKIP in England. We can only guess.

My personal view is that the GOTV strategy is the right road to take, and therefore Corbyn is the candidate to choose. Before you think I am merely a relic of a bygone age (which I am, but nevertheless) allow me to explain.

One problem with the Triangulation strategy is that, while it was enormously successful for Tony Blair, we don’t live in those times anymore. Blair’s opposition was John Major, then William Hague, then Ian Duncan-Smith and then Michael Howard. It’s hard to imagine a more feeble and moribund array of nonentities than that. Triangulation only worked because Labour were easily able to grab ground from a weak opposition that had lost it’s confidence. The Tories today, by contrast, have no such problem. David Cameron is standing down in a couple of years and there are at least three candidates that will be perfectly credible: George Osbourne, Boris Johnson and Theresa May. Osbourne has managed to pull off a bit of Triangulation of his own by grabbing the initiative on the Living Wage, and it looks like he’s playing a canny game to secure his position. Boris Johnson, as any Londoner can tell you, is a sick joke of a candidate who lacks gravitas and comes with baggage - but he has been bewilderingly popular with many so, who knows. Theresa May is, to my mind, the most dangerous candidate; while Osbourne and Johnson dogmatically assume the rightness of all they do with debate being beneath them, May seems to be a convincer and could probably grab a lot of ground from the centre left.

Compare these three Tory possibilities to the four candidates standing for the Labour leadership and there really is no competition. The Labour candidates are all quite unconvincing - even Corbyn, who I plan to support, is hardly electoral gold. More importantly, the idea that any of the three Labour candidates who favour triangulation are somehow going to grab ground from Osbourne, Johnson or May is risible.

So then we’re left with GOTV - is this credible? Maybe. What is particularly interesting is the research into what the polling companies got wrong in the run-up to the election (article here). They’ve looked at the data and it seems the problem wasn’t shy Tories, but lazy Labourites: many people who said they were going to vote Labour in the election seemingly didn’t bother to come out and vote on the day. It looks like this was decisive. But other than that there is little doubt amongst those studying the voter turnout that the young and the working poor were the least likely to vote. I think that ignoring this part of the electorate is suicide for the Labour party. For Labour MPs to complain that this part of the electorate is unreachable is much like the stand-up comedian who performs to a room of stony faces and blames the audience. The comedian’s job is to make the audience laugh, the Labour MPs job is get the people they represent to vote for them - if they can’t then the comedian should accept he is in the wrong job, and the MP should accept that he’s in the wrong party.

Finally I want to touch upon another important point in this debate that is so often ignored. The next election is not until 2020. The Triangulationists are taking the view that they should wave through great swathes of Tory policy because they believe this is what the public wants. For the moment let’s leave aside discussions of how one can assume this from the general election result. These people want us to believe that they can wave through tax changes that will leave the poorer in society worse off, but it is a price worth paying because come 2020 they will win the election and set all of this right. Next year we might see them waving through policy that shrinks the NHS, but don’t worry, it is a price worth paying because come 2020 they will win the election and set all of this right. The next year we might see them voting through policy that gives greater tax breaks to property owners, but don’t worry, it is a price worth paying because come 2020 they will win the election and set all of this right. The problem is by 2020 more people will be in poverty than ever before - and by then it will be too late to help them.

Politics is about more than just elections, and the idea that the Labour party putting up effective opposition is less important than winning the next election is a position that could only be taken by someone who thinks sitting it out for five years is OK. Lots of people don’t have that luxury. Lots of those people should be voting Labour. But they won’t if the Labour party tells the working poor to take their lumps from the Tories and wait until 2020 when the likes of Andy Burnham can ride in on his white horse to save the day. There may not be much left to save by then.

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