Labour is having a breakdown

Independent on Sunday, 21 June 2015

David Cameron’s likely successors must be thrilled by the lacklustre shortlist

If the Labour Party were an NHS patient, it would be on the waiting list for counselling. The symptoms are there for all to see: anxiety, irritability and self-doubt, punctuated by bursts of absurd optimism. Any competent therapist would diagnose depression and advise strongly against taking big decisions over the next few months. Don’t change jobs or move house, in other words, and don’t even think about looking for a new partner.

Political parties are hopeless at psychology, of course, and Labour is doing the exact opposite. At a moment when morale among supporters is at rock bottom, it has rushed into a completely unnecessary leadership contest which is already proving painful to watch. Whatever their qualities as individuals, I can’t picture a ballot paper featuring Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Jeremy Corbyn without the words “none of the above” coming to mind. I certainly don’t think for a moment I’m looking at the next prime minister but one.

The Tories manage these things better, on the whole, and David Cameron’s likely successors must be thrilled by Labour’s lacklustre shortlist. Can anyone seriously imagine any of the four candidates on offer beating George Osborne or Boris Johnson? The deputy leadership line-up is marginally more interesting, but that’s not saying much.

Why is Labour even doing this now, with the next general election five years in the future? One of the advantages of fixed parliaments is that a snap election is highly unlikely, giving parties the luxury of time to assess potential leaders. In 2005, when Michael Howard lost the election, he agreed to stay on as Tory leader for six months; in that time he brought several newcomers into the shadow Cabinet, allowing Cameron to emerge as the front-runner. I don’t like his politics, but he’s just begun his second term as prime minister.

What Labour is doing, by contrast, is having little flurries of excitement over things that don’t matter. As the deadline for nominations approached last week, speculation began to bubble about whether Corbyn would get sufficient support from Labour MPs to ensure his place on the shortlist. He got 35 nominations in the nick of time, even though he’ll only have a chance of winning if thousands of mischievous Tories decide to pay three quid and register as “supporters” to vote for him. Labour goes in for this kind of gesture politics, as though getting someone from each wing of the party on the ballot paper is all that’s required for a meaningful contest.

It’s telling that two candidates, Mary Creagh and Chuka Umunna, had already withdrawn, with the latter citing his dismay at the degree of press intrusion which followed his declaration. After the onslaught suffered by Ed Miliband, I couldn’t help wondering where Umunna had been for the past few months. Labour’s defeat was shattering, but it was also preceded by the most ferocious attacks on a Labour leader since Neil Kinnock in 1992. Many people in the party seem to have a blind spot about this, as though vicious personal abuse from the right-wing press is just one of life’s little hazards.

This is nonsense, for two reasons. First, I don’t think anyone should underestimate the impact of waking up every morning to cruel jibes, including mockery of your appearance, and having to put on a brave face in front of your children. It’s a reminder that whoever becomes the next leader will need an almost inhuman degree of emotional resilience, and so will their friends and family. Since Miliband’s defeat, I’ve been shocked to hear some of the press’s nastier remarks repeated within the party, contributing to an atmosphere which has more to do with recriminations than good judgement.

At the same time, I don’t think any of us should be relaxed about a misuse of power by some sections of the press which threatens to undermine democracy. Each time I hear someone talking nostalgically about Tony Blair, I can’t help recalling that he courted editors and proprietors who later turned out to have presided over a near-total collapse of ethics in popular journalism. Miliband doesn’t get enough credit for challenging this behaviour, which earned him the undying hatred of newspapers with millions of readers. Some of his mistakes during the election campaign, including the farcical “EdStone”, seemed to me a consequence of trying to circumvent them with stunts that were badly conceived or which misfired.

After such a mauling, I can understand Miliband’s impulse to walk away from it all on the morning after the election. But his resignation last month didn’t mean there had to be an immediate leadership contest; his deputy, Harriet Harman, has been acting Labour leader before and she is perfectly capable of doing the job for the next few months.

There isn’t even agreement yet about why the party failed so badly in Scotland and its target seats outside London, and there isn’t likely to be until activists, defeated MPs and disappointed voters have all had time to recover. Low self-esteem and fear of the future are not a winning combination, and they certainly don’t assist decision-making.

On second thoughts, what Labour actually resembles is someone who’s just emerged from a failed relationship and can’t wait to start dating again. Staging a leadership contest right now is like trying to find love online, with a tendency to grab the first presentable bloke who turns up with flowers and a box of Milk Tray. I’m sure he’s a nice enough chap, but I don’t want the party to wake up in September and find itself married to Andy Burnham.

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