“My party has just hurled itself off a cliff,” one generally down-to-earth Labour MP reportedly wailed following Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Opposition. The sentiment that Labour is in for a decade or more of wandering the wilderness from which it may never escape is not uncommon amongst its parliamentary representatives. After all, their new candidate for Prime Minister only just secured the number of MPs’ signatures required to run in the leadership contest and nearly half of those were from members who offered it merely in order to broaden the debate. Some of the rising stars of the Miliband shadow cabinet have withdrawn to the backbenches voluntarily, so sure are they are electoral collapse in 2020 and the elusiveness of power thereafter.
Reactions of despair of dismay are to be expected when one wing of a big tent party enjoys a meteoric rise at the expense of its polar opposite. However, so public a display of bleak pessimism has of course been calculated to undermine the new Labour leadership from the very start. MPs are already openly challenging Corbyn on his selection for Shadow Chancellor, tweeting in abundance about his apparent oversight of shadow ministerial roles for women and calling for a strong communications team to handle his alleged ineptness with the media.
And they are doing this right at moment when they know the media is most interested in what is happening within the Parliamentary Labour Party, and when the Conservatives and other parties are keeping their eye most closely for weak spots amongst the ranks.
Some may call this an appalling start for Corbyn, but it is even more emphatically an appalling start for Labour. Yesterday morning, Labour MPs should have strode out, if shell-shocked and unwilling, to present a unified front and began the work of an opposition serious about winning a mandate in 2020 by taking the Tories to task. With elections more dependent on narrative than ever, the campaign starts now with laying the foundations of a coherent vision that can be developed and strengthened right up until the country next goes to the polls. However, whilst the Conservatives have already embarked on new preparations for battle and enshrined ‘security’ as the watchword of the moment, Labour MPs have instead descended into quibbling and in-fighting.
If Labour moderates and centrists are worried that a Corbyn opposition reduces their chance of victory in 2020, then they are going a curious way about rectifying this supposed deficit. Despite convictions to the contrary, voters may well turn out to vote for Corbyn. There is absolutely no predicting what may happen or how the new leadership and its politics will ultimately resonate with the electorate. All the opinion polls and focus groups conducted now in 2015 have every chance of being rendered redundant over the next five years. What is closer to certain, however, is that voters are unlikely to turn out and vote for a party which is unable to keep its own house in order and is wracked with pessimism about its own ability to govern. Were Corbyn to resign or be ousted from the leadership before 2020, then the core Labour vote in England and Wales that rose up and believed that ‘Jez we could’ will never forgive whoever takes the crown. Labour would face an annihilation beyond that of 1983 or 2015 with the double-desertion of party faithful and the all-important swing vote. As bitter a pill as it may be to swallow, especially for those who joined the ranks and politically matured during the heady days of Blairism, this is Labour now. This is party that must battle the Tories and seek office, and woe betide it and its members if it fails to stand up to the task.
Many centrists- Chuka Ummuna, Emma and Jonathan Reynolds, Stephen Twigg- protested that Labour had to “move beyond its comfort zone” in order to win the keys to Number 10 and execute policies to achieve “equality and freedom”. Simon Danczuk bluntly asserted that the Labour Party “exists to win elections”. As a result, all these MPs swung behind Liz Kendall. Now, with the tables turned, they would perhaps do well to heed their own recommendation and explicitly back the team who may not share the exact same politics as they do but currently embody the party they claim to love and the chance of realising the goals to which they claim to aspire. Otherwise, far from it being Corbyn who robbed Labour of the 2020 election, it will perversely be those who all along have demanded that Labour remember not just purity, but power.