What is the Labour Party? That is the knotty, genuinely existential question that delegates in Liverpool are forced to ponder this weekend. For many Blairites (though not Blair himself) the answer is straightforward. Labour is a machine that exists to win elections in order that the Conservative Party does not. If that sounds arid and frankly uninspiring to you then you have something in common with the overwhelming majority of Labour members. The Blairite vision – victory at any price, surrender to (or, more generously, compromise with) the electorate, the customer is always right – is not without its own moral logic. If you believe, as many tribal Labour supporters do, that Toryism is defined by unremitting and deliberate cruelty then it is your job and your duty to prevent its ascendency. If that means adopting bits and bobs of your enemies’ platform – Trident, immigration control, ruthless predatory capitalism – then so be it. Particularly if that allows you to smuggle in some genuinely progressive policies – the minimum wage, gay rights, Sure Start. Blairites see politics in much the same way as Stalin did – every means can be justified by an end and the Tories, like the Kulaks, must be crushed by whatever method is available. This is a tradition with a long and proud history in Labour. The Party was, after all, founded to represent workers and the Trade Unions ‘in Parliament’ – an original purpose that does seem to imply that getting elected is something of a priority.
The Corbynistas, of course, reject this worldview entirely. For them Labour is not a means to an end. It is the city on the hill. It must live its values come rain, shine or crushing defeat. Yes, you may be able to beat the Tories by adopting 75% of their agenda. And yes, 75 awful policies being inflicted upon British workers is better than 100 awful policies being inflicted upon them. But at the end of the day, you’ve still done 75 awful things. And how is the electorate ever going to know that there is an alternative – that socialism stands ready to correct their ills, their aches and their humiliations – unless you show them? It’s all very well lecturing the Corbynite core about Blair’s ‘historic three victories’ but they have a genuinely compelling counter-argument. Blair shed 5 million voters over the course of his premiership. His partner in New Labour and in Government led the party to catastrophic defeat. In the immediate aftermath Scotland was lost to a party that dressed in socialist clothes and millions in England have switched to UKIP, the Greens or have stopped voting altogether. And yes, some nice things happened. But so did a recession, so did the Iraq war, so did zero hours contracts and million pound bonuses. It’s no good seeing Labour merely as a machine for winning elections because that limits the potential of power and – eventually – you lose anyway.
Of course, there are a myriad positions that lie somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. And in normal circumstances it is someone – a Miliband, a Kinnock – who dwells in the spaces in between that is called upon to lead Labour. Corbyn is, in that regard, every bit as much an aberration as Blair once was. It is the lessons of history that Labour ‘moderates’ thought they were applying when they hit upon their candidate to displace Jeremy. Once upon a time, a great Welsh warrior from the soggy, softest edges of Labour’s centre had saved it from the clutches of socialism. And so once more they turned to the valleys and called upon Wales to sacrifice a beloved son for the good of the movement – and up popped Owen Smith.
To say that Smith’s candidacy has been a disaster is actually to underestimate the extent to which he and his campaign have damaged the crusade against Corbyn. Where Kinnock spoke in gravely tones of the thousand generations of hardship and oppression that had preceded his rise to greatness, Smith gave interviews boasting of the ‘thousand lads’ he had ‘beaten off’ in order to secure his wife’s affections. Smith – bafflingly – used hustings as opportunities to tell Labour members about the size of his penis and defended his attacks on Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May, which were widely derided as sexist, by saying it was just ‘banter’. Why such a cringe-worthy campaign? In part because of his deliberate lack of policy differentiation. Owen couldn’t tell people often enough how much he agreed with Corbyn, how much he respected ‘Jeremy’, how pleased he was that the Labour Party had been dragged leftward etc etc. The policy and political vacuum he created around himself left only personality as a battleground – this was a mistake. As a pitch for a change of leadership, after less than twelve months, ‘I bloody love him but I think I’m better because I’m well-endowed and my wife’s fit’ is not particularly compelling.
It was in expectation of what a car crash the ‘coup’ would turn out to be that senior Labour moderates cautioned both Angela Eagle and Smith against challenging Jeremy Corbyn. At the time, the leadership was in deep trouble. They had failed to maintain the momentum of their victory, had neglected to seize control of the party machinery, were looking defensive and harassed and were bleeding support. Vice News was invited to trail Corbyn on the basis that they were a sympathetic, ‘yoof’ channel that would present him fairly. They did so and – in the process – produced a documentary that laid bare his inadequacies and those of his team. His own events officer – in a tearful, straight to camera soliloquy – begged the Parliamentary Labour Party to ‘please, just let Jeremy fail on his own terms’. They should have listened.
Instead, by mounting their leadership challenges, Eagle and Smith injected new life into the crumbling Corbyn machine. Suddenly there was a motivating purpose. Members had something to do, something to fight against and – crucially – final proof that there was indeed a conspiracy to undo their democratic will. Senior figures who remember the last war with Militants – Tom Watson, Lord Kinnock and others – had warned that this would happen. It is instructive that whilst they have offered their support to Smith, many of these power-players have also chosen to use the Summer to go on holiday, recharge their batteries and prepare for the next battle rather than exhaust themselves in day-to-day street fighting. Corbyn was as good as guaranteed victory from the day the NEC agreed to let him on the ballot.
So what next? Many speak of the danger of a split, but this is premature. Labour’s opposition to Corbyn are united in their dislike for him and his politics but lack a unifying ideological theme beyond that. They are a less-than-merry band of Blairites, old rightists, soft lefitsts and those who are simply exhausted and appalled by the incompetence of the party in its present form. This is not a coherent platform on which one might build a new force in British politics. If a split does happen, it will be because the Leadership push their luck too far in a genuinely outrageous way. An attempt to unseat Tom Watson as Deputy Leader (possibly by running Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner, although she has expressed understandable reluctance at the idea of such a suicide mission) may be the straw that breaks the PLP’s back. So too would any unilateral and significant shift on foreign policy – for example, to pledge withdrawal from NATO as Corbyn privately favours. But if the leadership is canny, they can keep the party in limbo. Some form of election to the Shadow Cabinet – such as via (ironically) an electoral college of the membership and the PLP – may also help to achieve a carapace of unity.
And what of that still rumbling, existential argument about what Labour is? It will go on, with the Corbynite ‘social movement’ vision of a vanguard party undeniably in the ascendance. It is difficult to see the Blairite mantra of ‘whatever it takes’ inspiring the Labour membership to endorse it for a very long time to come. Ironically, though, it is clear now what is needed. Not an Owen Smith, peddling Corbyn’s policies in a shinier suit, but a Tony Blair for the 21st Century. Because Tony Blair was not a Blairite – or, at least, he was not what the Blairites have become. He did have a vision, a social democratic vision, for how the Labour Party and the country should be. And – whatever one thinks of his achievements and failures in office – Tony Blair really did believe in that vision once upon a time and he made others believe too. The specifics of what he sold in the 90s is no more relevant to modern Britain than is Corbyn’s 70s nostalgia but if Labour is to have a hope of healing, and of success, then it needs some of the idealism that once (hard as it may be to remember) animated both the party and the electorate. It is utterly unclear who – if anyone – might be able to offer what is required. But if such a leader can emerge then many a moderate, and even a few of the more wobbly Corbynistas, can be counted on to fall in behind them and join the long, slow march back to the British centre ground and to Government once more..