Dishing out the Blairite gruel
At last a Labour leftwinger throws his hat in the ring. Eddie Ford comments on the Labour leadership contest
With the nomination process for Labour leader formally beginning on June 9, at least we know that one left candidate will be trying to get on the ballot paper.
Jeremy Corbyn announced on June 3 that he would be standing on a “clear anti-austerity programme”. John McDonnell, who many hoped would put his own name forward, said that Corbyn was the “left candidate” and that everyone should lobby their Labour MP to try and ensure he gets the 35 nominations needed.
Of course, whether or not Corbyn succeeds in raising the requisite number of signatures, Andy Burnham remains the clear favourite. The Everton-supporting MP for Leigh is currently getting 5/6 odds at William Hill - with Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper trailing behind on 2/1 and 7/2 respectively, and Mary Creagh stuck on 50/1. Burnham was also the first contender to officially get on the ballot paper after securing the required nominations, while Kendall has also passed the 35 mark. At the time of writing, Cooper is on 31, and Creagh only six.1 They have until June 15 to amass the nominations they need and the winner will be announced on September 12 at a special conference.
Burnham’s parliamentary support, very broadly speaking, has so far come from the centre and the ‘soft’ left (ie, Michael Meacher and Angela Rayner). It had been very noticeable that figures associated with the ‘hard’ left like John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Corbyn himself had been keeping quiet - who knows why it took so long for this latest candidacy to be announced. No doubt they could not bear the thought of voting for one of the previously declared candidates. And who could blame them? On May 31 Burnham complained that the top of the party does not “look and sound enough” like the rest of Britain, but he was “best placed” to re-establish an “emotional connection” with voters. What he meant by that could be gleaned from another remark - Labour had to “address the concerns” of those who voted for the Tories and UK Independence Party.
He is clearly a talented - or slippery - politician, depending on how you look at it. When health minister he presided over the crazy ‘buy now, pay later’ PFI deals that enriched private companies and, according to one recent estimate, left the tax-payer with a £222 billion debt.2 At the time, needless to say, he was a loyal Blairite. But since becoming shadow minister he subtly repositioned himself as pro-NHS, pro-union, pro-public spending (well, a little bit anyway) - or, as this paper recently suggested, at first he appeared in some respects the ‘continuity’ candidate to replace Ed Miliband. Two weeks ago he told the Andrew Marr show that that he was “proud” of Labour’s links to the trade unions and that he had been speaking to Len McCluskey of Unite - though, of course, he was also talking to business leaders. However, Burnham has recently been much more keen on displaying his pro-business sympathies - after all, union support now seemed guaranteed.
It remains to be seen whether Corbyn’s announcement will change anything in that regard. McCluskey insists he has no preferred candidate and that Labour-affiliated trade unions will organise a hustings where all the candidates can make their case.
Burnham, of course, has no interest in being portrayed as the “union candidate”, let alone ‘red Andy’ - though you can virtually guarantee that the Daily Mail and other anti-Labour rags will call him that anyway. Determined to act the responsible Labour leader, in a speech to the City firm, Ernst & Young, he “moved decisively to bury his leftwing reputation” - to quote the Huffington Post (May 29). Hence he described entrepreneurs and the self-employed as “everyday heroes” - the people with the “creative spark to think of a new idea and the get-up-and-go to make it work”, who so often have to “fight against the odds to succeed, but put in the hours, the sweat and the hard graft to do it”. These sort of people, claimed Burnham, “will be as much our heroes as the nurse or the teacher”. No more stuff about “predator” companies “just interested in the fast buck”, as Ed Miliband once put it.
We also discover that “aspiration is not the preserve of those who shop at John Lewis”, but is a “universal” desire “felt by Asda and Aldi shoppers too” - most commentators taking this as a swipe at Tristram Hunt for saying Labour needed to reach out to John Lewis shoppers who “go on holiday and get a new extension”.3 Burnham went on to tell his business audience that the “single biggest priority” for the next Labour government would be to “draft a workable plan” for growth, infrastructure, business investment and job creation.
On welfare, he was out to dispel Labour’s image of being on the side of the “workshy” - of “giving people who don’t want to help themselves an easy ride”. For Burnham, that must change before “we can win again” - you will not get an “easy ride” under a government led by him. Work hard and earn your keep. No, Labour must “once again truly be the party of work”, a party that does not believe in “levelling down”, “denigrating success” or the “politics of envy”. A party that is relaxed, intensely or otherwise, about people making pots of money.
For instance, said Burnham, the “mansion tax” had been the “wrong judgement call”. He did not “back away from the principle” altogether, but “presentationally it had problems”: ie, seemed anti-success. We want people with mansions as well as Aldi shoppers to vote Labour. He has strongly indicated that he would support further welfare cuts, including government plans for an annual £23,000 cap on benefits, so long as it has “adequate safeguards”. Sentiments enthusiastically endorsed by the deputy leadership contender, Caroline Flint, who thinks the party must start attacking “benefit cheats” as much as bankers and believes Labour should be comfortable giving a “kick up the backside” to those who “choose” to live on benefits.
Burnham, of course, is making a naked bid for Ukip ground with his call for an early EU referendum next year - purely out of concern for British businesses, naturally, which have been complaining of continued uncertainty. He is promising a “distinctive” Labour ‘yes’, presumably unlike the Scottish referendum, where Labour campaigned with the Tories in Better Together for a thoroughly non-distinctive ‘no’ vote.4 Furthermore, he is trying to out-manoeuvre David Cameron on Europe. Burnham will support the prime minister if he secures a “good deal”, but would hold him to account if he tried to wave a piece of paper from Brussels that amounted to very little - when what Burnham wants is “legislative change in terms of abuse of the rules of free movement by agencies and the effect on people with jobs here”. He has called for a minimum two-year ban on EU citizens claiming any benefits. Very bad news if you are a migrant working and living in London and paying sky-high rents - what do you do? Probably have to live in a shed or billet kindly supplied by your boss.
As a result of Burnham’s recent re-repositioning, this time to the right, there are apparently mutterings of discontent within Unite. Figures close to McCluskey are purportedly saying that they might “reconsider” their backing for Andy Burnham. There are even rumours that McCluskey is contemplating disaffiliation from Labour (Unite’s combined UK and Irish membership stands at around 1.5 million) and founding a new “party of labour”, with Left Unity’s Kate Hudson and Andrew Burgin getting executive seats. To this effect, the Morning Star ran a small article quoting Robert Griffiths, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain, who told this to the organisation’s executive committee: “On the future direction of the Labour Party, Mr Griffiths urged the trade unions to ‘fulfil their historic responsibility’ to reclaim it as a party that represents working class interests. If there is no significant sign of progress by next year’s Labour Party conference at the latest, he added, steps should be taken to ‘re-establish a mass party of labour’” (May 18).5 Now, it is possible that Griffiths has ‘inside’ knowledge about McCluskey’s thinking on this matter, especially when you consider that Unite’s chief of staff is one Andrew Murray - a prominent CPB member.
However, at the end of the day, the money is on brother McCluskey backing Burnham - if Corbyn fails to get enough nominations that will be a certainty. Of course, there is no union block vote any more, but there are reliable reports that Unite is recruiting a thousand members a day to the Labour Party, which you could regard as a ‘block vote’ by other means. Having said that, even if this rate continues until the August 12 deadline,6 they will have recruited only 60,000 members - roughly a third of the union members who voted in 2010. About 220,000 party members are currently entitled to vote, but this number will be topped up by registered supporters who pay £3 before the deadline, plus any of the approximately 2.5 million union members who agree to register free of charge. In 2010, 2.7 million ballot papers were distributed to Labour’s affiliated members, but turnout was a mere 9% (or about 250,000). Of course, the low figure did not matter then, since the unions were guaranteed a third of the vote in the electoral college, something that is now a thing of the past.
Another critical factor, obviously enough, is whether the leadership of the three main unions (Unite, GMB and Unison) all back the same candidate, as they did five years ago with Ed Miliband. Between them they represented three quarters of the total union vote, and Miliband won 45% of their first-preference votes - meaning overall that 196,750 first preferences were cast by union members in the unions that nominated or recommended a candidate, and 82,938 went for Ed. Very interestingly though, if the votes cast in that contest are recalculated using the new ‘one-person, one-vote’ system, Ed Miliband would still have defeated his brother David on the final ballot by 175,400 to 147,100.7
Communists urge Labour members and supporters to back Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to get on the ballot paper and, if he succeeds, to offer him critical support. None of the other leadership candidates are supportable - they are all rightwingers to one degree or another. Kendall, accepts the premise (or myth) that the last Labour administration “spent too much”, backs “successful” free schools, opposes defence cuts and the mansion tax, thinks Labour should stop advocating high taxation “just to make a point”, supports a welfare cap - and on and on it wretchedly goes. Creagh, who once blamed Thomas the tank engine for the lack of female train drivers, dishes out the same Blairite gruel - telling the BBC that she thought Labour had “failed to speak to people about how they could win the global race” and lamented how Miliband’s talk of “producers and predators” in the economy had “alienated” the “business community”.
As for Cooper, she started the campaign with a stridently rightwing tone - condemning Miliband’s “anti-business” and “anti-growth” approach, supporting a cut in corporation tax, praising company directors and investment bankers as “wealth creators”, etc. However, she now appears to be rowing back slightly from her previous Brownite orthodoxy - concerned that the stampede to the right has perhaps gone a bit too far. Isn’t the Labour Party supposed to be different from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats? Cooper criticised some of her colleagues for “swallowing the Tory manifesto” - this was widely seen as an attack on Kendall in particular. She also warned about using language that “stigmatises” benefit claimants - clearly a reference to Burnham’s Ernst & Young comments about the “workshy” wanting an “easy ride”.
Whilst Burnham has re-repositioned himself to the right, Cooper now seems to be re-repositioning herself fractionally to the left - possibly making a pitch to some of Burnham’s potential ‘leftwing’ supporters by making it clear that she would keep Labour’s policy of bringing back a 50p top rate of income tax. Given the leadership electoral system, there is an outside possibility that she might emerge as the ‘compromise’ candidate able to attract support from all sections of the party. So long as she comes second in the ballot, which looks quite likely, she can then hope that the votes of the third-placed candidate transfer to her - pipping Burnham to the post. Not that this remotely makes Cooper a leftwinger, it goes without saying - she is a sinner who has not repented.
If Corbyn fails to get the 35 nominations he needs, we will have to continue listening to alternative rightwingers debating points of Blairite nuance and waffling interminably on about ‘aspiration’. Which is rather ironic in some ways, when you remember that the main explanation for Labour’s defeat is quite simple - Scotland. Were ‘aspirational’ working class voters in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee offended by talk of a mansion tax or a freeze in energy prices? Were they shocked by the idea of a 50p top rate of income tax? You must be kidding. People in part voted for the Scottish National Party because it was standing to the left of Labour on the question of austerity.
It will be a tragedy if Labour members are left without a leftwing choice. At least Corbyn, for all his failings, represents the working class pole of the bourgeois workers’ party.
6. To join as a member, affiliated supporter or registered supporter and hence be able to vote in the leadership elections.
7. The Guardian May 26.