Today’s candidates for leader of the Labour party mirror the party’s high degree of factionalization, writes Lilia Giugni. The contest reflects how profoundly the party is still shaped by New Labour’s legacy.
‘The Labour Party is in emotional trauma’ former Home Secretary David Blunkett recently admitted and ‘it is bound to be after the loss in May and the bewilderment about where to go from here’.
Months after the general election, and with weeks to go to the leadership contest, the party can barely downplay its internal divisions. One of the leadership contenders, veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, unabashedly rejected the government welfare bill, despite the interim leader Harriet Harman’s suggestion that the Labour MP should abstain rather than vote against. Liz Kendall, generally depicted as the most moderate of the four candidates, supported Harman’s move. The other two challengers, former Health Secretary Andy Burnham and former Secretary for Work and Pensions Yvette Cooper, toed the party line but emphasised their opposition to the welfare cuts.
One wonders whether throwing itself into a bitter leadership race was indeed Labour’s best option. Historically a diverse and plural organization, under Ed Miliband the party has hosted classic social democrats, hard-core New Labourites and Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour initiatives as well as a minority of radical leftists. Purposely or not, little has been done to provide the post-2010 Labour with a coherent and effective discourse.
Today’s leadership candidates mirror the party’s high degree of factionalization, reproducing dynamics that are too repetitive to attract public enthusiasm. It is quite telling that not only the press but the challengers themselves still tend to characterise the campaign in New versus Old Labour terms. The years have softened the contrasts between the Blairite and Brownite clans, and after a humiliating electoral defeat, some defend the New Labour era as the most transformative and successful in the party’s recent history. Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair intervened to compare Labour’s current dilemmas to the modernisers’ struggle in the 1980s and 1990s and issued a warning that a traditional left-wing message won’t bring the party back to office. Other protagonists of those years such as John Prescott, reminded the public of the Blair government’s pitfalls and praised alternative platforms like Jeremy Corbyn’s.
As for the front-runners, Corbyn is indeed alternatively depicted as the left-wing antidote to the Blairite nostalgia and as the idealist outsider who can afford to chance his arm. Liz Kendall, despite her efforts to present herself as ‘her own candidate’, is running a campaign that some opponents have defined as ‘Taliban New Labour’.
Andy Burnham, currently favoured by the bookmakers, may confuse those who try to label him according to his relationship with party past. A rising star during the Blair years, he has become the darling of the grassroots and the North and has recently praised Miliband’s manifesto as the best that Labour has put forward during recent elections. Yet, he can count many former Blairites among his rather disparate supporters.
So can Yvette Cooper, often associated with the Brownite side of New Labour. By choosing not to stoke the fire between the party’s right and left and showing competence as well as political judgement, she is trying to dissociate herself from her husband’s unpopularity and appear as a unifying candidate. Obviously, continuity with Ed Miliband is also an issue. However, the pluralist ethos of the Miliband years seems to offer little background against which the candidates could define themselves ideologically.
The future Labour leader won’t have an easy task. They will have to frame a discourse able to win back SNP seats in radical Scottish constituencies while reassuring middle-class voters in the South, yet still manage to convey coherence. This will require an accurate analysis of the electoral defeat and the country’s shifting political landscape, an ability to build a solid coalition of interests and keep the party together, and, last but not least, very effective rhetorical strategies.
In this currently divided party, leadership candidates seem to hold rather different accounts of Labour’s current crisis and each of them is supported by a fraction of the party and the electorate. At the same time, by playing with the memories of party members and voters and emphasising novelty while claiming continuity with successful predecessors, the four challengers are making use of well-established rhetorical devices.
However, as argued elsewhere, it is undeniable that every leadership hopeful is building their discourse in a contest still profoundly shaped by New Labour’s legacy, which remains the benchmark against which to define what’s new and what’s obsolete, what’s feasible and what’s utopic. It is this legacy and the divisions that it still creates that the next leader will have to deal with, regardless of their outlook on the Blair years.
Lilia Giugni is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, POLIS Department. She is working on a thesis on the transformations of European left-wing parties, which emphasizes the role played by ideologies and ideational change. Her main research interests lie in European, Italian, British and American politics and she has been publishing on ‘Contemporary Italian Politics’, ‘The Routledge Handook of Contemporary Italy’ and ‘Renewal’. You can find her on Twitter and academia.edu.
(Featured image credit: Chatham House CC BY 2.0)