Jeremy Corbyn, Liz Kendall and the Monopolisation of ‘Electability’

For someone who is supposedly so good at winning elections, Liz Kendall is not doing a great job at winning the leadership contest. What looked like a dynamic campaign in the early stages of the election has devolved into a petty and aggressive name-calling machine. On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn, whose late announcement to candidature seemed like an unwilling and half-arsed attempt to get a ‘left’ candidate on the ballot, has been propelled into winning electoral territory.

At this point in time I have to clarify a few points. Throughout this piece I will use labels such as ‘Blairite’, ‘Bennite’, ‘left’ and ‘right’. In no way do I mean any of these titles in a disrespectful way; merely that I’m describing the ideological differences in the Labour Party. I would much rather a Party where phrases such as ‘loony left’ or ‘red Tories’ were not defunct and where various factions would get a off their respective high horses and start cooperating for the good of the Party and the people we are supposed to represent.

Jeremy Corbyn’s success has obviously scared and unnerved a good deal of people, especially those of the Blairite right. At the risk of repeating a tired mantra, he does pose, and has always posed a big threat to the ‘Party Establishment’: an ill-defined term that is used to describe everyone from Peter Mandelson to ordinary Party staffers. If you’ve been spending your summer endlessly trawling through Twitter like I have, you may have noticed a rather large backlash against the member for Islington North and his supporters. Many of those decrying Corbyn’s candidacy seem to have a little red box with the word ‘Liz’ in the bottom right-hand corner of their avatar. Many of them are MPs or ex MPs, another good chunk of them are political journalists or other senior Labour figures. Almost all use the word ‘unelectable’, most talk about ‘tough decisions’ and a malicious few use the phrase ‘loony left’ or ‘mad trots’.

When Labour MPs start insulting the members that got them elected with stigmatising slurs purely because they differ in choice of leader, it’s clear something has gone very wrong. If an MP insulted one of their constituents like that so publicly, they would have to resign before the day was out. This backlash from the PLP and the Party ‘establishment’ betrays a deep and long felt distrust of the membership. When senior figures claim that Corbyn would ‘destroy the Party’, there is always the implicit message that people who vote for Corbyn hate being in government, and consequently hate poor/young/elderly/disabled/BAME people because they want to condemn us to endless opposition. The arrogance with which MPs tell us that we’re wrong, that we’re too cowardly to make ‘tough choices’ and vote for their preferred candidate, perfectly explains why the membership is not flocking to their anointed one. Of course people like Jonathan Reynolds and Tom Harris have all the answers. Of course they will deliver us from our childish and selfish ideas and lead us to where we deserve to be led. Only they know what being ‘electable’ is like.

This is my main point of contention. It seems to have been set in stone that Liz Kendall is the most ‘modernising’ and ‘electable’ of candidates. Considering she is wed to an ideology that had its heyday before I was born I would strongly contest the first attribute. On the second point, the Kendallite spin is clear: the only thing standing in the way of Kendall and her childhood dream of being Prime Minister are the ignorant and self-absorbed members. For some reason it’s natural that Kendall is ‘electable’, despite her not having had a senior role in any successful major national campaign. Why has Liz Kendall been assigned the trait ‘electable’ to her? What has she done to deserve it? Let us not forget that, in the early stages of the contest, polls showed that her name recognition was in single digits. I don’t want to spend the first few years of important opposition telling the public who the hell it is that we want as Prime Minister in 2020. No one unknown ever won an election, and Liz Kendall, despite profile after profile in various (less than Labour-friendly) papers, is a virtual unknown outside of politics. Even I, who have been a Labour member for as long as legally possible, did not know who she was and what she stood for until she announced she was running for leader.

And yet the political journalists continue the mantra that the ‘centre ground’ is the place to be to win elections and this is why Kendall is the best choice. But they fail to notice the massive shifts in opinion after the financial crash that inevitably shifted the centre ground. They talk about winning back Tory voters yet fail to realise we only lost 6 seats to the Tories and that most of their gains came from Lib-Dem seats and most of our loses came from Scottish seats. When Kendall talks of winning back the ‘centre ground’, meaning the centre ground of 1997. When her campaign talks of Corbyn being the Party’s ‘comfort zone’, they fail to realise that she is merely the other extreme of ideological and political laziness. Failing to modernise Blairism or New Labour to reflect the changes that have happened since 2008 has been a massive mistake for Kendall. She has done nothing to address her image as a ‘Tory’. Every time her campaign encounters grass roots hostility it further backs itself into a corner. The attacks on members being slowly less and less subtle, the rhetoric more and more patronising. Simply put, even if she isn’t as right wing as many people believe, she has lost all good will with members that they aren’t willing to listen to her arguments any more. She talks about avoiding being a ‘party of protest’ and ‘unnecessary opposition’ to the government. What she fails to see is that, if she wants to be Prime Minister, she’ll have to be a good Leader of the Opposition which, surprise, involves opposing the government.

Let’s be clear, none of the candidates will win an outright majority in 2020. None of them have the mix of charisma, leadership and vision that makes a good Leader of the Opposition and then a good Prime Minister. My only consolation, seeing the impending doom on the horizon, is that the 2020 leadership election is going to be a lot better and lot more interesting.