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Editorial: What's at stake in Labour's leadership election?

LABOUR has now announced a timetable for its leadership election.

Before delving into the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates — not all have even declared — it’s worth looking at what is at stake.

Former deputy leader Tom Watson warns against any “continuity” with Jeremy Corbyn and the manifestos that “lost us two elections.”

His credibility would be stronger if Labour’s manifesto had caused December’s disastrous result. The claim that Labour’s public spending commitments were attempts to bribe the electorate, which it saw through, has been put forward by former prime minister Tony Blair and others.

But it is difficult to argue that voters who consistently express their support for renationalising rail, water and energy, for greater investment in the NHS and schools, were then turned off by these prospects at the ballot box. As Labour activist Chelley Ryan argues in today’s paper, if the promises were seen as bribes it was only in the context of Labour having reneged on pledges to respect the EU referendum result. Only this can explain why policies which led to Labour’s biggest vote increase in 70 years in 2017 did the party no such favours two years later.

Watson is in fact deeply implicated in the two most common reasons voters gave for switching away from Labour. He fought a prominent campaign for Labour to become an officially Remain party — despite representing a constituency that voted to Leave the EU. He then jumped ship before having to face the wrath of its voters himself.

After Brexit the most common explanation given for defeat is Corbyn’s lack of popularity. Watson, the ringleader of multiple parliamentary revolts against Corbyn and a thoroughly disloyal deputy who tried to derail every Labour policy announcement by timing simultaneous attacks on the leadership, must bear some responsibility for that too.

The shifts away from the manifesto we are seeing from several candidates has a twin purpose. One is to distract attention from the role that Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry and outside the shadow cabinet Clive Lewis and Jess Phillips played in campaigning for Remain, when association with Remain was undoubtedly more significant than the manifesto in the loss of 54 seats to the Conservatives. 

The other is the powerful drag towards the parliamentary party’s centre of gravity, which was never socialist. Most Labour MPs were never committed to the Corbyn project. A return to support for market economics would be popular — inside Parliament.

But not necessarily outside Parliament. The collapse of the “centre ground” suggests that only anti-Establishment politics can win in the current climate. 

Beyond that, socialists should recall what made Corbyn necessary in the first place. The climate catastrophe is upon us. Poverty is worsening. Our public services are crumbling, millions pay through the nose for shelter, heating and transport and yet millions of jobs are more precarious and badly paid than ever.

The only answer to these problems is socialism. Keeping Labour committed to extending public ownership and redistributing wealth is therefore important. 

At the same time, no candidate yet declared can match Corbyn’s decades of dedication to extraparliamentary campaigning for peace and socialism, the experience that steeled him in the face of savage attacks from the press and colleagues and equipped him to resist far better than most the numerous attempts to blunt his radicalism. Grassroots organisation and activism played too little a role even under Corbyn, but will need a more prominent role now. We will be able to rely on the leadership’s instincts less.

The pull to the right did not come solely from MPs either. As the CWU’s Dave Ward and other trade union leaders have argued, a more militant trade union movement needs to start fighting and winning for workers irrespective of who is in Parliament. With the Tories installed securely in office, organising in the workplace has to be the stepping stone to a socialist advance that is deeper-rooted and more resilient than 2017’s.

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