Is Labour seeking to elect a leader or a prime minister?

Two months into the Labour leadership race and what might have been an election to unify the party seems instead to have forged new fault lines of internal division. The inclusion of Jeremy Corbyn was welcomed by many to broaden the debate, but his unexpected success has stirred tensions and factionalism not seen since the 1980s.

Apart from sharp criticism from Labour grandees – notably Alan Johnson this week accusing of Corbyn of lacking loyalty and discipline – most of the debate within the party has not been a confrontation of ideology but of practicality: is he an electable, realistic candidate for prime minster?

But what’s it all really for?

So what precisely is the purpose of the election? Is it to pick a politician with the middle-ground appeal and media savvy to win in 2020? Is it a search for the soul of the party? Or is it the start of an inevitable process – after the Blair-Brown era – of longer reflection on why Labour has lost two consecutive elections, how it should meet the challenges from UKIP, the SNP/Plaid Cymru and Greens, who does it need to speak to, and how can it regain its position as an electorally dominant force in national politics?

Many insist a Corbyn victory would mean certain defeat at the next general election, arguing he is too left wing and won’t appeal to voters beyond a narrow base. Yet, while some argue Labour’s defeat was because Ed Miliband was too left wing, others point to the success of the strongly anti-austerity SNP as the model that Labour should adopt. And, while Miliband stuck to the fiscally conservative policy mapped by Ed Balls, that seems not to be enough for those who say Labour has to prove how economically responsible it is.

Cart before the horse?

That there are so many competing narratives is perhaps because very few in the party have taken much time to analyse the situation without pre-conceptions. How can Labour decide who should lead it without carrying out a rigorous, evidence-based, analysis of what went wrong and identify the best prescription for its return to health?

Even the polls have been subject to selective quoting by party organisers and contending leadership campaigns. But that is in part because a single poll can often point in more than one direction – or appear to do so - depending on the questions asked.

Only this week, a YouGov poll commissioned for the official review being led by Jon Cruddas MP showed strong support for both making cutting the deficit ‘the top priority’ (56% to 16%) and being ‘more likely to  vote for’ a party that redistributes wealth from rich to poor (43% to 22%).

Some responded to this by saying financial responsibility ‘clearly’ comes before economic radicalism but these are not mutually exclusive. Many believe that deficit reduction can go hand in hand with redistribution of wealth.

As a consultancy, we would never recommend that a client takes action based on such shaky evidence, but in politics matters are understandably driven as much by passion and instinct as they are by science.

Grassroots campaigner or professional leader?

There is a tendency to say that Labour can choose to be either an idealistic pressure group or a party of government. Three of the four leadership candidates offer themselves foremost as credible, ready-made prime ministers. However the scale of the problem that Labour faces, squeezed in its northern  England heartlands by UKIP and in Scotland by the SNP, lends credence to the argument the party does not yet need a prime minister but, instead, somebody capable of inspiring a movement.

The Telegraph’s Allister Heath has written that Conservatives should not be mocking a Corbyn-led Labour but actively trying to discourage it. Thatcher famously remarked that her greatest achievement was Tony Blair. If Corbyn has long term success, it would send shockwaves through UK politics and shift its centre of gravity.

Labour’s establishment, which has been nervous of Corbyn’s effectiveness, seems to believe that the future of Labour as a party of government relies on securing the middle-ground, appealing to switch voters and demonstrating credibility with economically liberal policymaking. But, while this ‘third way’ coupling of free-market economics with social justice defined New Labour, almost twenty years on and in a post-recession austerity world, that option may no longer be realistic.  

The challenges facing Labour are indeed complex. What is certain is that to be successful electorally again it needs greater consensus around what has gone wrong and how to fix it - whoever the new leader turns out to be on 12 September.


 Freshwater’s public affairs team offers a political and media monitoring service which collates the latest transport and infrastructure updates and sends them to your inbox every weekday – register now for a free three-week trial.


Contact us

0800 111

Impact Report 2017

Impact report 2017