TV debate is no match for Sinatra and Kennedy’s Camelot, but it’s a start for troubled party says Andrew Whitaker
Frank Sinatra famously sang a version of his hit single He’s Got High Hopes in support of John F Kennedy during the Democratic presidential candidate’s successful bid for the White House back in 1960.
In what was probably one of the most snappy political campaign songs ever, the late crooner’s association with JFK added to the politician’s image of one that represented a desire for change in a mood similar to that Tony Blair managed to home in on to an extent after his election as Labour leader in 1994 with the Cool Britannia movement.
Tonight, as Labour’s four candidates to succeed Ed Miliband go head-to-head in a televised debate in the aftermath of the wreckage that was May’s general election for the party, there are many of its supporters who would happily take a pre-Iraq war and mid-1990s Tony Blair if it meant there was a chance of ousting the Tories in 2020.
There is very little sign of “high hopes” as things stand among Labour members and such is the lack of enthusiasm for the four leadership candidates – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Jeremy Corbyn – that senior figures in the party are openly calling for the winner of the contest to face a vote of no confidence if three years down the line the leader looks like they could lose in 2020.
There’s no glossing over the scale and shock of Labour’s defeat on 7 May as many have said in the weeks that have followed the election and doubtless will say again, but the holding of tonight’s leadership debate does perhaps offers a glimmer of hope.
Labour’s three leadership hopefuls face each other at a TV studio in Nuneaton – a key marginal Midlands swing seats the party needed to win if it was to have any chance of forming a government last month, but failed to do so.
Rather than simply making their case in front of a handpicked pro-Labour audience, Mr Burnham, Ms Cooper, Ms Kendall and Mr Corbyn are appearing before a cross-section of people picked by the BBC, many of who rejected the party on 7 May,
Labour is doing the same at two other televised hustings by holding the set-piece events in Stevenage and Swindon – again two key marginal seats the party failed to take on 7 May, but which it needs to take from the Tories if it is to win in 2020.
Of course Labour’s detractors will dismiss such moves as cheap gimmicks, but it’s worth pointing out that, at the very minimum, the party is at least not simply talking to itself and is attempting to engage with those who rejected it on 7 May.
It’s difficult to think of the last time Labour made similar overtures to the section of the electorate that voted against it.
Certainly after the 2010 election there were no moves on that scale by the party and even in 1992, after Neil Kinnock presided over Labour’s fourth successive defeat, the leadership contest between John Smith and Bryan Gould was not conducted in quite the same way.
Of course simply turning up for a leadership debate at a particular town where voters backed the Tories, will not automatically deliver a win for Labour in those areas in five years time.
It’s a very minimal and basic thing to do and clearly does not encompass everything Labour needs to do to get itself back in the game, but it is something and suggests at the very least the party is not simply navel-gazing.
For the candidates, though, the stakes could not be higher. Shadow health secretary Mr Burnham looks to be the clear frontrunner with an overwhelming lead among Labour MPs.
With the leadership ballot conducted under a one person one vote system, Mr Burnham and the other established big name in the contest, Ms Cooper, will know that a strong TV showing will be a huge boost for them. It’s shadow care minister Liz Kendall who probably has most to gain though having emerged as a dark horse candidate as well as the great hope of the more Blairite wing of the party.
Ms Kendall’s policy prescription appears to be right out of the New Labour drawer, with a pitch that the party has to return to the centre ground if it is ever to have chance of winning again and that such an approach would deliver victories in key marginal constituencies currently held by the Tories.
Defeats of the sort Labour suffered on 7 May are a chastening experience for supporters of a party that thought and hoped they would never have to live through such an experience again and can make left-leaning members inclined to swallow a policy agenda they are uncomfortable with if they can be convinced it will help oust the Tories. Tony Blair’s remaking of Labour during his three years as opposition leader, with the jettisoning of all kinds of cherished “old Labour” policy stances, was a classic example of such a phenomenon.
That probably accounts for the positive reaction Ms Kendall has attracted in parts of the party, despite being little known outside Westminster.
But to get away with some of the positions Blair forced Labour to adopt, a politician needs awesome communication skills and it’s not yet clear whether Ms Kendall does or does not have such attributes.
A highly accomplished performance by Ms Kendall could catapult her into the lead due largely to the one member one vote nature of the contest, which means the most popular and TV friendly candidate stands a good chance of winning.
As for the left-wing candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, a politician who has devoted several decades in parliament to speaking up for social justice, to have a platform for his principled and justified opposition to making the less well off bear the brunt of austerity gives a voice to those who are so often silenced.
It cannot be not ruled out that a Corbyn-led Labour Party could fare well if the UK had a voting system of proportional representation where each vote counts equally and where a case for a different way of doing things could be made nationwide.
But given the nature of the UK’s first past the post electoral system and the fact that voters in a limited number of marginal constituencies often decide the outcome of an election, Labour members have little option but to go for whoever they believe is best placed to take seats from the Tories in 2020 if the party is to avoid further defeats.