Jeremy Corbyn's departure should mean an end to intolerance and factionalism in the Labour Party
Corbyn failed this basic test by showing no respect for Labour’s social democratic tradition and, instead, organising his acolytes to prioritise the deselection of dedicated, mainstream Labour MPs, writes Lord Mandelson | PA Images
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had no time for the kind of politics practised by Corbyn, his sort of intolerance and factionalism was something they never pursued.
The striking thing about the final days of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is the mood amongst Labour party members: even many of those who have worshipped at the altar of his idealistic beliefs and ‘authenticity’ share the quiet sense of release felt in different sections of the party who hope we can now turn the corner from what has been an awful decade for Labour.
Of course Corbyn loyalists will blame his detractors for his defeat. But it is above all the leader’s duty to keep the party united and Corbyn failed this basic test by showing no respect for Labour’s social democratic tradition and, instead, organising his acolytes to prioritise the deselection of dedicated, mainstream Labour MPs. Although Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had no time for the kind of politics practised by Corbyn, his sort of intolerance and factionalism was something they never pursued. This should be the template for the future.
Corbyn’s valedictory interview to the BBC spoke volumes of his lack of self-awareness including his insistence that he “won the argument” in the face of Labour’s worst election defeat in 85 years. He is even letting it be known that, like Ed Miliband, he expects to win a place in the next leader’s shadow cabinet so as to create continuity with his achievements.
The next leader can make up his (or her) own mind about that. My only advice to Corbyn’s successor is to start showing some humility towards the public and help the party come to terms, honestly, with why we have kept losing so badly.
Of course, in 2019, Brexit played its part including Corbyn’s lack of argument and skills of persuasion to win over people who were just desperate to put Brexit behind them. But more deeply, Labour’s defeat stemmed from Corbyn’s naivety about politics and inability to grasp what motivates both lifelong Labour and swing voters alike. They have strong values but are not ideologues. They look for policies to improve their lives not endless virtue signalling that makes political activists feel good. They are not nationalists – they don’t hate other countries – but they do want their leaders to love and take pride in their own country. Above all they want to vote for competent political leaders who have efficacy – people with clear, credible goals and practical and affordable means to achieve them.
To be fair to Corbyn, Labour’s loss of purpose and direction started during the five years before he became leader (indeed it contributed to his own election) but, as every opinion poll confirmed, Corbyn and his frontbench team took this lack of efficacy to new heights.
His campaign staff were run ragged by a Tory machine whose strategy was based on a correct reading of a large winning block of the electorate whose patriotism and small ‘c’ conservatism was actually combined with a desire for a more interventionist and higher spending state which should have played to Labour’s strength. But these voters were looking for protection, compassion and opportunity not full-throated socialism and state control. Corbyn’s tin ear and rigid beliefs took him way off the public’s wavelength, delivering on a plate an undeserved victory to Boris Johnson and opening the door to a thoroughly damaging Brexit which the economic effects of coronavirus will make many times worse.
In the post-covid world, politics is going to be different, of that there is no doubt, and Corbyn’s successor will need to understand and interpret this for the party. We must offer hope for a better future based on our beliefs of community and collective strength. There will be fewer takers for a weakened state and public services on the cheap and a much more outspoken demand for modernised and innovative public services, starting with the NHS. The welfare system will need to be re-thought so as to address the needs of vulnerable individuals, employed and self-employed, and less well off families in society who, yet again, will bear the brunt of this medical emergency.
In view of the current economic shut-down and the devastation this will inflict on business, the task of economic re-construction will be immense, particularly in hardest hit regions of the country. Neither Labour’s programme of post war nationalisation nor the ‘industrial activism’ I sponsored in 2008-10 will be appropriate or sufficient to meet this challenge. The extent of new thinking required, including how the government effectively assists innovative start up businesses utilising data and artificial intelligence, will be vast.
The fact that Labour, during the last ten years, has appeared so ill-equipped to face such challenges tells you all you need to know about the party’s defeats in 2015, 17 and 19. As a result, we have an electoral mountain to climb and everyone in the party, whatever position we have taken in the past, has an over-riding duty to help the new leader do whatever it takes to complete this journey. It is going to be a Long March, it should start with the new leader’s election this Saturday, and all of us who care about a decent and prosperous future for our country should join it.
Lord Mandelson is a Labour member of the House of Lords.