Andrew Crines

The Labour Leadership election started, for the most part, as a sedate affair. It was so sedate that it attracted little attention from anyone outside of the Westminster bubble. Even party members and supporters were not really engaged with it. Since then, however it has become something of an existential battle for the soul of the Labour Party. Put simply, what kind of party do we want Labour to be? Is it one which seeks the electoral support of the centre ground so it can implement ‘progressive’ politics, or does it want to be one which engages in protest and argument with the hope of changing the mind of the Tory government of the day? Corbyn’s response to this debate over the meaning of power is to contend, as he did in Liverpool on 1 August, that ‘we’re all in power. We just don’t realise it. We have the power to speak, to influence, to demonstrate, to demand’. This is the power of protest, and it certainly can’t be denied that it has been historically effective in framing the political context.

Corbyn’s appeal comes in his offer to reconnect the disconnected left winger to the political process. Indeed, given some within the support-base of the Labour Party feel aggrieved by, what they see as decades spent on the outside, it is not surprising that he has been able to speak to the voiceless in a way which Burnham, Cooper, and Kendall have been unable to do. This raises the obvious question over how. Put simply, Corbyn is articulating a fundamental interpretation of the raison d’etre for the Labour movement. He speaks of core values, he attacks ‘the elites’ in Westminster, and he promises an alternative where the voices of the real people can and will be heard. Indeed, Burnham, Cooper, and Kendall offer a policy platform informed by their values, whilst Corbyn offers an articulation of value-driven protest. It is extremely reassuring to the membership as it gives them a ‘powerful’ role in the political process.

This, however is one of the core problems with Corbyn’s campaign. Because it is driven by values (which many MPs within the Party would argue they share), it comes across as very insular. It doesn’t look outwards to the country who don’t share those values in a way which could convince the electorate to lend Labour its vote. This is an argument which is doing the rounds at the moment, so I won’t spend too much time on it, however after losing the election so badly in May, Labour simply cannot afford to now distance itself further from the electorate. Why did Labour lose? Because it did not convince the electorate it was a united government in waiting. Confirming that perspective will ensure Labour remains out of power.

The issue of power is, of course, a matter of some interpretation. As discussed earlier, Corbyn argues the movement is in power at the moment, and from a certain point of view this is understandable. Indeed, I felt the power myself in Liverpool in a room packed with over 2,000 people – a room designed for only 800. This demonstrates that the powerful momentum behind Corbyn is no myth, and it is one which needs to be taken seriously. However, the bottom line is, to introduce policies designed to promote social justice, defend workers’ rights, a real living wage, and to protect those in social security, Labour needs to be in government. To be in government, it needs to win Westminster seats. To do that, it needs to convince the electorate to support Labour candidates. Those candidates will need to explain to the voter what Labour can do for them and society. Should Labour be successful in doing this, then it will have a good chance of securing the required number of MPs to remove the Tories from government. Labour will not be able to do this if it ignores the wishes of the electorate in order to spend the next term discussing itself. When the time comes to vote, the electorate will then largely ignore it in return. Electorally, marches and protests alone do not win the vital votes Labour needs for the leader to become Prime Minister.

The 2,000 people who came to hear Corbyn speak cannot be ignored. But equally, the electorate cannot be ignored either. This will be a difficult balancing act for Labour, and it will be up to the new Labour leader to find a solution which unites the party and considers the view of the centrist voter important. Otherwise, the election night in 2020 will prove to be another which supporters will come to remember for all the wrong reasons.

Andrew S Crines is Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool. He tweets @AndrewCrines.