Labour Vision made an admirable decision at its launch to stay clear of the personality debates and internal faction fighting which have blighted the party over the past couple of years. Instead, the site has focused on the big themes and concrete policy initiatives that will lead to a much-needed revival in the left’s political fortunes.
Things have already moved on. At last, there’s a consensus emerging across all wings of the Labour Party that there will be a change in leadership. The question is really just over the timing. My hunch is that Corbyn might bid a fond farewell during this year’s conference season, perhaps after a battle to pass the infamous McDonnell amendment which makes a left-wing succession easier. But this is idle speculation. Only time will tell.
The easy option is to go for a modern, clean-shaven and sanitised version of the current leader. This approach is built on a mistaken assumption – that Corbyn’s general political strategy and ideology is broadly correct, but that he simply lacks the competence and charisma to engage with the electorate. Find someone a bit younger and more telegenic, the argument goes, and we’ll be able to sell the populist anti-austerity message. Just shoot the messenger.
There may be some mainstream Labour MPs who are no fans of this leftist rhetoric, but who decide to play along for a quiet life. After the debacle of the Smith challenge to Corbyn in 2016, they figure that it will be impossible to shift Labour’s political centre of gravity in the short term. So perhaps a stepping stone will be a leader of the left who has more appeal than the incumbent.
I have no doubt that a new leader – whoever they are – can comfortably add a few points to Labour’s poll ratings. Anyone vaguely competent and in touch with the 21st century will start to make Theresa May feel uneasy.
But is it enough?
Although I’ve been a vocal critic of Corbyn as a leader, there are much bigger issues at play.
Trotsky famously described war as being the ‘locomotive of history’. Well, Brexit has been our own Pendolino – a blinding light careering down the track from north to south, exposing the division between alienated and dispossessed working-class communities in Labour’s traditional heartland and the more affluent, urban activist class. In the 1940s, 1960s and 1990s, these two disparate groups came together to deliver Labour electoral victories. Now, the gulf between them seems unbridgeable.
Could a change of leader achieve some kind of rapprochement? Or at least patch together some kind of new alliance between Darlington and Dalston?
My strong feeling is that a competent leader is only part of the answer. It’s one of the vital boxes that needs to be ticked, but is not in itself sufficient.
This change of leadership has to come with reassurance on economic competence. While I have never been much of a policy wonk and don’t pretend to obsess over the detail of manifesto pledges, the public needs to feel that its future leaders will keep the finances afloat. This means a rejection of the kneejerk ‘anti-austerity’ message that has been so dominant in populist circles in recent years.
The change of leadership also needs to come with reassurance on immigration. There is a desperate need for compromise on this issue. Like many London-based Remainers, I have always seen immigration in a positive light. My mother came to the UK from Ireland in the 1950s. My paternal grandmother was a Jewish émigré from South Africa during the First World War.
But while London absorbs, embraces and thrives on immigration, there are many parts of the UK where social and cultural upheaval has left communities with a sense of profound unease. We all know the issue wafted throughout the referendum campaign like a toxic cloud. Perhaps May’s Brexit negotiations will actually take the pressure off Labour here, as any new immigration settlement will almost certainly come out of whatever deal is struck.
Last, but not least, the change in leadership must come with reassurance on defence and security. In a desperately uncertain world, people want a clear commitment to NATO, the British armed forces and the continuing security measures needed to counter ISIS. Lack of trust over security hasn’t been an issue between the parties in a British general election since 1987, but has threatened to become one again under the current leadership.
One final thought.
These are the changes necessary for Labour to be in contention. They are hygiene factors and offer no guarantee of victory. Social democracy, public ownership and egalitarianism are ideas that are deeply challenged by the globalised economy. That means there are no easy fixes, as any new leader will very quickly find out.