Politics is still the art of persuasion, and this contest has shown little of that

13th August, 2015 8:33 am

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As ballots finally drop (probably) in the Labour Leadership contest, there will be a number of factors that we will all – to a greater or lesser degree – take into account when making our decision. Electability is one factor, but equally, how much will the candidates put forward a platform I believe in is another perfectly valid way to decide how to vote.

We have heard much wailing and gnashing of teeth since it has become clear that Jeremy Corbyn is now favourite to win the Labour leadership. Almost all of it has been around his electability and very little of it has persuaded a stubborn electorate. Sometimes it feels that those repeating these arguments are doing so not because they believe they can and will change minds and votes, but because they want to be well positioned to say “I told you so” should their  fears come to pass. It is a sort of inverse virtue signalling.

Corbyn was brought into the debate to widen it. That was the premise for many of those MPs who nominated him despite having no intention of voting for him. It does not often feel that this has been the case. The debate in fact has been largely narrowed to one over the heart vs head. And with some notable and valuable exceptions it has remained that. Corbyn’s policy positions are not challenged and other candidate’s virtues beyond their own electability (often asserted and rarely proved) are put on the backburner. We are told time and again that Party members are behaving madly and childishly and that Jeremy is unelectable. Jeremy remains far, far ahead.

Stop Corbyn is a movement that seems to have run out of ideas. Generally, what drives them is that sense of needing an electable leader. And I get that, I truly do. It will play a big factor in my decision making process. But these arguments have found fallow ground in the Party. They are not working. Given that, if the right really do want Anyone But Corbyn (their ABC strategy), they need to do what they used to do better – understand how to win elections.

The right of the Party need to learn again how to persuade and how to debate. A friend – one voting for Liz Kendall – said to me the other day that he was considering putting Jeremy as his second choice precisely because of the sense of “arrogant entitlement” from the right of the Party. The belief that they are the “election winning arm” of the Party and therefore have little need and less desire to reach out and work with others.

I sit on neither the left nor the right of the Party. I am most frequently described as soft left. Frankly we’re the lot in the middle that pretty much everyone hates and blames. To some extent that’s reasonable as it was our candidate who lost the last election. We need to examine how we allowed that to happen and be as self-critical as we are criticised.

I have found this whole leadership process wearying. None of the candidates are – for me – the whole package. I want a leader with Liz’s approach to power, with Yvette’s media readiness, with Andy’s campaigning verve and with an ability to take some of Jeremy’s position mainstream. I am not on a team. I will have to weigh the different virtues of the candidates and vote accordingly. But so far, instead of people wooing me for my vote I simple have people shouting at each other across a void of understanding.

If Labour members can’t persuade each other, how can we persuade a country that so recently roundly rejected us? If we can’t understand when arguments aren’t gaining traction and move on, we are doomed to simply shout again at the electorate in the vain hope that it was only the volume and delivery of the message that failed.

This has been a bad tempered and unedifying contest at times. And the Party is not showing itself to be ready, willing or able to come together once it is all done, return to the collective endeavours we all believe in and work for a Labour government under whoever is elected leader. We have trebled our membership. That’s an incredible opportunity for all of us – from all parts of the Party – to work together to rebuild a mass political movement. Now all we need to do is learn how to talk to each other and learn how to listen.

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