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The Electability Question at the Heart of Labour's Civil War

The party is tearing itself apart in its bid to make people vote for it.

by Oscar Rickett
13 July 2016, 2:20pm

Jeremy Corbyn hanging out with Michael Crick (Picture by: Dominic Lipinski / PA Wire)

There's a massive row in the Labour Party right now and supposedly it's all to do with who is or isn't "electable". Even on the morning of the Chilcot report, you got the feeling that parts of the media and Parliamentary Labour Party thought the real villain right now is Jeremy Corbyn for probably not being electable. Tony Blair took the country to war on false pretences, but the man just didn't know how to lose an election.

He won them – or so the story goes – by occupying the centre ground of British politics. Blair was all about giving everyone a chance but he also looked like a smooth professional, not like a communist who was going to boot you out of your semi-detached in the suburbs. He made the party electable again.

Then David Cameron came along with his huskies and his hoodies, set about banishing the memory of Michael "Are you thinking what we're thinking / Shall we murder this child together" Howard, and – to cut a long story short – kicked Labour out of power. Voters have since deserted Labour for Ukip, for the SNP and for the Greens. On the right of the party, an almost pathological obsession with the inability of sandal-wearing leftie loon Corbyn to win the country back has taken root.

The left derides this as managerial, careerist and out of touch. Momentum's Jon Lansman tweeted that he wanted "Labour to win power to democratise it. Focusing on 'winning' alone hoards power, ignores real needs and ultimately leads to defeat". Whether this was a dreamy, puritanical denial of the realities of electoral politics, or an argument against pursuing power for its own sake, there is only so much a political party can do if it is not in government.

One part of the party has sacrificed policy and principle on the altar of electability. Another part of the party – Corbyn's part – has reacted to this by almost denying that there is such a thing. That is at the root of the party's civil war.

On Tuesday – the day after Angela Eagle's tragi-comic leadership launch – Labour's executive ruled that Jeremy Corbyn must be on the leadership ballot. His opponents had hoped that their electable candidate – or some new contender yet to appear – wouldn't have to beat the unelectable Corbyn in an election for the party leadership. Again, the irony was rich: We were hoping to bring about the blocking of a candidate using a secret vote. Why are people so contemptuous of elite institutions?!?

Now, a contest beckons and the arrival of Owen Smith as a challenger doesn't change the fact that Corbyn seems unlikely to lose. That's partly because he has become a messiah figure for some of his party's membership and partly because, in spite of his problems as a candidate, he has a clear set of principles. Angela Eagle has no new policies, no compelling political vision and no observable personal charisma. Interviewed by Andrew Neil over the weekend, Eagle was asked three times what the major policies differences between her and Corbyn were. Her response was to bleat some biographical information about her parents and, once again, to talk about Corbyn's electability, and how he hadn't managed to get across a "strategy for winning".

The implication was that Eagle, by contrast, is electable. In asserting that, she sounded like one of those candidates on The Apprentice that tells Alan Sugar that, "the thing is, I'm a really great salesperson", just after they've failed to sell anything. Saying you are electable doesn't make you electable. Instead of outlining her vision for the country and letting the country work out whether they would vote for her, Angela Eagle told those watching that they should trust her when she said she was the kind of person who could bring her party together to win an election.

Anyone who has watched the VICE News film about Corbyn knows there are serious questions to be asked about his competence as a politician in the traditional sense and the sharpness of the operation around him. He needs to be able to land more blows on the Tories and he needs to be able to enthuse people outside his bubble. But he has a set of actual ideas and beliefs and he is trying to get those ideas across. Angela Eagle and her allies can barely get the public to remember their names, let alone buy into the idea of any of them leading the country.

In the current political climate, we should all be aware that, like Socrates, the only thing we know is that we know nothing. We should also be aware that this is a time in which anti-establishment politicians are picking up unprecedented levels of support across the globe.

But there is also a brutal new reality for all of Labour to now consider. Post-Brexit, economic reality has forced the Tories to abandon austerity.

They even look to be adopting some of John McDonnell's economic policies. Their new leader, Theresa May, is a state-educated vicar's daughter from Middle England, not a Bullingdon Club posho who went to Eton. They are, in short, looking pretty electable. As the Labour Party tears itself apart in its quest to be just that, it looks like it's open season for the Tories.

@oscarrickettnow

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