It ain’t over yet. With 18 days to go, most commentators seem to think the Labour leadership election is a slam dunk for Jeremy Corbyn.
In fact, all the campaigns are going flat out both to try to get a differential turnout of their supporters and to sway the remaining undecided voters.
There are considerable numbers of both. Approximately 10% of the electorate haven’t even received their ballots yet as the party is sending them out in batches. Canvassing by the campaigns suggests only 1/3 of those who have received them have voted yet. Whilst Corbyn is clearly still the favourite, the fightback by Yvette Cooper that was initiated just before the ballots started going out seems to have tightened the race. Whether it came too late remains to be seen. Both Cooper and Burnham are also still capable of getting voters who might otherwise go for Corbyn as well as trying to attract support and transfers from each other and Kendall. What looks to the media like a polarised race that was all about registering your core support – which Corbyn clearly excelled at – is more nuanced for many individual voters, who are struggling with the dilemma of their hearts saying Corbyn on policy but their heads saying one of the others on electability and party unity. The campaigns are saying that Corbyn has a big lead among registered supporters – though there are geographical pockets where the other campaigns recruited heavily – but that the race is far more competitive among full party members (including the large numbers who joined after the May election defeat but before Corbyn got on the ballot) and affiliated supporters (even those from unions like Unite which have pushed Corbyn’s candidature). The differential geography of the nomination process is showing through in the voting, with Burnham believed to be running 4th in London, the region with the most votes, but continuing to poll well in his home North West region, the second biggest.
People’s confidence in the ballot requires that the party does exactly what it did in 2010 and publishes a full breakdown of the results by section, CLP and affiliate.
Whoever wins, this has been such a polarising election for activists that a large percentage of the party is going to feel devastated.
We will all need to accept the result – presuming that there is not evidence of foul play to an extent that it exceeded the margin of victory in which case the courts may be asked to rule in exactly the way they would if there was foul play in a General Election.
But we need to define now, before we know the result, what acceptance of it means.
It does mean not walking away from Labour if you don’t like the new leader. It isn’t morally appropriate to participate in a democratic process if you don’t intend to stay in the party whatever the outcome. Membership, or indeed registering as a supporter, of Labour, cannot be conditional on getting the outcome you want, and my understanding is the party has rejected some registered supporters on the basis of proof that they would walk away if their preferred candidate does not win. Politically, breakaways by people who don’t like the temporary direction Labour is taking always end in tears or obscurity, whether that is the SDP breaking away to the right, or the ILP or Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party to the left.
It does mean continuing to work for Labour election victories regardless of who wins. When you knock on doors and deliver leaflets you are not just helping the national party you are helping to elect MPs and councillors who probably don’t deserve to be the victims of a national change of direction. The test of whether you are a Labour activist worthy of the name is not whether you work your socks off for a leader or a candidate you love, but whether you do the same for one you hate. As someone on the right of the party, I have happily canvassed for my previous local MP Diane Abbott, and for Ken Livingstone as Mayor, and I would expect them to do the same for me, just as we expected people from the left of the party to keep campaigning for Labour when Blair was leader. If others choose to not show that solidarity reciprocally, it reflects on them not you.
It does mean being comradely towards the other people in your local party, even if provoked. The vitriol of the online debate – made easier because people are insulting strangers from behind the safety of a keypad – must not be allowed to poison the atmosphere of local branches and CLPs, which have to be safe spaces where everyone can enjoy being a party member and debate, socialise and campaign together whatever their views on the direction the party should take. It will be tough but we need to try to recreate the camaraderie of the election campaign of just a few months ago. That isn’t about not having a robust debate, it’s about how you conduct that debate and whether you can still go leafleting with or to the pub with the person who feels the opposite about Corbyn to you.
It does mean giving the new leader the chance to prove themselves in some real elections. If we have to get rid of them because they are not a winner before 2020 it will need to be on the basis of evidence of underperformance, not just gut instinct.
Accepting the result doesn’t however mean that Labour is like some banana republic, with ‘one person, one vote, one time’. A Corbyn victory doesn’t mean it’s game over for moderates any more than Blair winning meant there could never be a more leftwing version of Labour.
Whoever is leader does not get to determine every policy, every candidate or every direction the party takes by personal diktat. Leading means convincing others to follow, and sometimes accepting that party unity means you have to compromise to keep the rest of the party on board. There is a reason why power in the Labour Party is diffused through a range of different elected offices and bodies, not just the Leader but the Deputy Leader, the NEC, the National Policy Forum, the Annual Conference, the Shadow Cabinet and the PLP. It reflects the fact that we are a movement representing a coalition of different strands of socialist thinking, and different institutions, from CLPs to affiliated trade unions to parliamentarians. Each of these bodies has an appropriate role to play in shaping party policy and rules and a duty to exercise that role according to its own best judgement, not subcontract its decision-making to the leader. So a robust debate about policy and electoral strategy will continue because that’s how a democratic political party works.
Accepting the result doesn’t mean that people who disagree with the leader have to fall in line or get out. Individual members right up to the level of MPs have to balance collective responsibility to defend decisions and policies that have been democratically arrived at with taking a stand on issues where their personal moral and political judgement is that there is a red line and a question of fundamental principle that they have to defend. Jeremy Corbyn had an interpretation of this balance as a backbencher that erred towards individual principle rather than collective responsibility, as he rebelled against the Labour whip more times than any other MP. If he wins I am therefore sure he will understand that there will be a number of MPs who on moral principle wish to defend certain current policy positions – such as support for NATO and Trident renewal – both through the policy making processes of the party and if necessary in the division lobbies of the Commons. I am sure he will also accept that it would be just as inimical to try to deselect someone for political reasons because they feel morally they have to rebel on such a question as it would be to deselect someone for having rebelled against a Blair government position they morally disagreed with.
Accepting the result also doesn’t mean we have to allow the captain to carry on steering us towards an electoral iceberg if there is evidence during successive rounds of elections that the strategy they have set is flawed or they personally don’t strike a chord with voters.
As Hugh Gaitskell said, “there are some of us here who will fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love”. He didn’t say “there are some of us here who will fight until 12 September and then walk away, give up or just rollover”.
Whoever wins, the battle for Labour’s soul will continue to be waged. This leadership election is the start of that battle not the end of it. Whether we can wage it in a less destructive and personalised way than in the 1980s will determine whether Labour recovers faster than it did then. The evidence of the last few months is not encouraging