So disastrous and unexpected was Labour’s outright defeat on 7 May that many of its supporters with a vote in the contest to succeed Ed Miliband were prepared simply to opt for the candidate with the best chance of winning in 2020, regardless of the political wing of the party that he or she hailed from.
Labour’s landslide win in 1997 was seen by many in the party as the decisive rejection of Toryism, and even after Gordon Brown’s defeat in 2010 many comforted themselves with the thought that despite the coalition’s austerity programme the electorate did not trust David Cameron’s party to govern alone and that the UK was no longer the Tory country it appeared to be in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Now, the election of the first majority Tory government in nearly 20 years has shaken Labour supporters to the core and left them desperate not to relive the party’s 18 years out of power from 1979 to 1997.
Tony Blair was able to make a successful pitch to a similarly demoralised audience back in 1994 when, after John Smith’s sudden death, he convinced a defeat-weary Labour membership that despite its scepticism about his “apparent non-Labour” approach he could take the party back to power after four successive defeats.
Labour’s members and those who have paid £3 to become registered supporters receive their voting papers when the ballot formally opens next week, and it’s possible that a candidate with Blair’s communication skills and obvious ability to see off the Tories would have been well received.
Despite Blair’s tarnished reputation with his backing for the discredited Iraq war in 2003 and his close relationship with the George W Bush administrations, the Labour faithful may have opted for someone of his ilk particularly if it was felt the policy agenda would be more like Blair’s first term in power featuring issues such as the minimum wage and devolution, rather than his last two stints in power when an early radicalism appeared to drift towards neoliberalism.
The story of the leadership election in recent weeks has been dominated by Jeremy Corbyn’s dramatic surge in opinion polls that suggest he could pull off one of the biggest political surprises in the party’s history.
All too predictably, senior figures in the party such as shadow chancellor Chris Leslie and former party leader Neil Kinnock have attempted to scare party backers by warning that backing Corbyn would be a sure path back to 1980s-style defeats.
For Labour supporters, keeping an open mind in the leadership contest remains the right approach as the ballot papers drop through their letterboxes in the days that follow, as picking the right candidate could determine whether or not the UK is in for a long period of Tory rule.
There was a compelling case in the early stages of the campaign for left-leaning members of the party to not necessarily vote for the candidate most in touch with their own views but to instead think who would play best in “Middle Britain” where Labour needs to win Tory-held seats to form a government again.
However the candidate who made the pitch of being able to “reach parts of the electorate others could not” – principally Liz Kendall – has simply not made a good enough case that she could win in 2020, despite faring well in TV debates against her more established rivals Andy Burnham and Yvette Copper.The shadow care minister does not radiate the confidence and desire for change that was so characteristic of Blair’s pitch more than 20 years ago, when he convinced the Labour faithful that he could deliver them from the wilderness.
As for Burnham, despite having a “folksy” type quality the shadow health secretary has also failed to make it obvious he could win the next election and has largely relied on gaining momentum just by virtue of being the favourite.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has fared well in the second half of the campaign, with a subtle but effective pitch of being the least offensive of the contenders.
The election of a female Labour leader is also overdue, and Cooper could well wrong-foot Cameron and George Osborne, who often act like representatives of a posh school boys club in the Commons.
But again, Cooper like Burnham and Kendall has probably not done quite enough to make a case to Labour supporters that she can take the party back to power.
Labour members will know they have to be mindful of gender balance when it comes to electing the party’s deputy leader and while frontrunner Tom Watson is a fine campaigner in this contest, having an all-male leadership would be unacceptable for a modern party that championed all-women shortlists for candidate selections long before anyone else.
Stella Creasy, the MP for Walthamstow in London – one of the few areas where Labour won well on 7 May – is highly rated for work in campaigning against excessive interest rates imposed by parts of the payday loans sector and deserves to be considered as a possible for the deputy post.
However, it’s Corbyn who has brought alive the contest and is responsible for arguably the biggest rank and file mobilisation of social justice campaigners within Labour since the late Tony Benn stood for the party’s deputy leadership in 1981.
Like Benn, it may well be that the forces ranged against Corbyn are just too much and that he too will narrowly fail to win, as the late former cabinet minister did when he was defeated by less then 1 per cent – or “an eyebrow” as some put it at the time – by Denis Healey.
But the pitch Corbyn has made to many of those disaffected by mainstream politics, a break with the pro-austerity consensus as well as a challenge to the prevailing order, deserves consideration from Labour’s members casting their votes before the deadline on 10 September.
If Corbyn can demonstrate that a redistributive agenda and a shift away from a situation where most wealth is held by a small minority would drive up the living standards of most Britons, his leadership would not be the electoral disaster so many commentators predict and could confound all expectations with an against-the-odds leadership election victory – and a general election win.