First published on the Times Redbox
The chances of Jeremy Corbyn seizing the Labour leadership have consumed the debate this week. Corbyn will not become leader of the Labour party. Instead, what is currently being missed is the impact that he is having on the race: dragging Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper to a position that could win them this selection, but not the 2020 election.
During the general election just gone those of us out campaigning on the doorstep were told by voters that they wanted to support Labour but did not trust us to provide proper leadership – by putting the country first – or demonstrate economic competence. That decided the election. The public gave a reluctant but decisive result just two months ago.
Few believe there was any love for the Tories. There was, however, a clear – net two million-strong – view that Labour was not ready. Much of that view was forged in the way in which Ed Miliband gained the leadership: opposing his “centrist” opponent, working in league with hard-left unions, and then introducing himself to the country as a rejection of New Labour.
While party supporters recoiled from the “Red Ed” headlines, the public recoiled from Labour. Over the following years they looked for signs that Labour’s distancing itself from the electorate was not true. Few came. Instead came the “predators and producers” speech, the mansion tax, the bankers’ bonus tax, the 50p tax rate.
Each may have been popular in the focus groups where they were tested to death, but together they amount to an impossible political positioning for a centre-left party not trusted on the deficit and “tax and spend”. Such is the inadequacy of being led by focus groups rather than by clear strategic principles.
Now Burnham and Cooper are setting themselves up for a similar fall. Their respective proximity to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown during the 1990s and early 2000s must mean that have forgotten more about winning elections than anyone in Corbyn’s camp will ever learn. Equally, with front-row seats in the Ed Miliband project over the last five years, they have seen up close how wrong it can all go.
At least with Corbyn you know what you get. The same is true of Liz Kendall. Corbyn and Kendall distinguish themselves by each holding clear values that they wish to put into practice in the country at large. In stark contrast, Burnham and Cooper flipflop on welfare and dump on Harriet Harman’s attempt to bequeath the new leader a party worthy of a hearing. This smacks of the “one-stepping” Hopi Sen has talked about. But from Jeremy Corbyn they must not just step, but run. Failure to distance themselves from the veteran leftwinger risks a political positioning from which they, and Labour in 2020, will not recover.
The reality is this: while Labour party members shout about the party not being “austerity-lite” or “Tory-lite”, it is public will not tolerate the party being Corbyn-lite. Burnham and Cooper must reflect on this. They must draw a line to their left flanks – not to win the selection, but to prevent their losing the election.
George Osborne’s summer budget set out the roadmap to a Conservative victory in 2020. Labour must unpick this, not simply oppose it. We must fight them with our heads, not our hearts.
Burnham and Cooper’s early opposition to cuts and vague commitments to reverse other measures does not bode well with an electorate that has just rejected Labour because it did not trust us with their money. Worse still, they risk amassing a “tax bombshell” poster on their own based on this selection, and long before the 2020 election.
Talk of Corbyn’s victory might have bought the race to life but if Burnham and Cooper do not start a step-change towards the centre, their respective bids for No 10 might be dead before they have even started.