Labouring in vain?

We now know who the candidates are for the Labour leadership election; we are left with 4 candidates in Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn after the latter squeezed past the threshold of 35 nominations from fellow MPs, and Mary Creagh dropped out of the race last Friday. The Daily Telegraph asked last week whether the new leader of the party ‘will be a Kinnock or a Blair’. It reflects the anxiety within Labour, even at this early stage, over its chances in the 2020 general election; it now finds itself with its fewest seats in the House of Commons since 1987 – Kinnock’s first election – and a mammoth task in winning back even half of its seats lost to the SNP in Scotland. For Labour to win in five years’ time, it will need to win seats in England that the party has never won before, even in its landslide victory in 1997.

The three main contenders for the leadership of the party (assuming that Corbyn has little chance of winning) have wasted little time in attempting to turn the page on the Miliband era. Liz Kendall is the clear reformist candidate in the race, suggesting that the party needs to embrace business and focusing on areas such as defence which are outside of the party’s comfort zone. Yvette Cooper has also called for a more pro-business approach, explicitly criticising Miliband’s divisive approach towards ‘predators’ and ‘producers’. While Andy Burnham arguably represents the most continuity from the post-2010 period – he reportedly told the Parliamentary Labour Party that they must not abandon the last five years and praised Ed Miliband for winning back ‘traditional Labour voters’ – he too has recognised that the party needs to restore its economic credibility and reset its relationship with the business community.

The question is whether any of these candidates can, in five short years, transform the party’s reputation in the eyes of the country to deliver a Labour government in May 2020. It is a daunting task, but not entirely without precedent; it is not difficult to find quotes from opposing politicians, journalists and academics who doubted, after a fourth consecutive defeat in 1992, that Labour could ever win again. Yet we know what happened after the election of Tony Blair as the party’s leader in 1994.

Despite this, it is easy to underestimate the scale of the challenge that had faced Kinnock as leader of the party over the best part of a decade. He had inherited an unelectable party that was deeply divided and under siege from militants; he bequeathed to John Smith, and him to Blair, a party that had at least begun to look as though it could be capable of governing. Both Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair have noted in their memoirs that Kinnock effectively laid the foundations of the New Labour project; the role of the Labour leader to be elected in September may prove, in time, to be a similar one.

Labour faces an uphill battle to make the necessary gains to secure victory in 2020. The signs are, even from those on the soft left of the party, that the next five years will see the party focusing on constructing a healthier relationship with the business community and making a concerted attempt to rebuild its economic reputation. It remains to be seen whether the new leader can revive the party’s fortunes before the next general election, or Labour has to wait longer to find its next Tony Blair.

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