You can often tell whether someone is backing Owen Smith or Jeremy Corbyn by whether they say that the Shadow Cabinet is half empty or half full. As the Labour leadership battle whimpers on, it’s clear that season two of ‘Who Wants to be Labour Leader?’ provides a real choice for Labour voters based on the two contestants policy platforms: either principles with no substance; or substance with no principles.
Over the last year Labour have often seemed like an 80s revival act, and never more so than in this leadership battle – reacting to the election of a female Prime Minister by having a Michael Foot lookalike contest. This year’s edition of ‘Who Wants to be Labour Leader?’ has been like any good TV show: the ratings have gone up and the cost of voting for your favourite candidate has increased exponentially. So desperate has the Labour NEC been for people to opt for Corbyn-lite over Corbyn, that they have performed a quite remarkable public about-face – from the self-proclaimed ‘Party of the People’ to now actively working against their wishes. One can only presume that if the Labour NEC has its way the 2020 slogan will be: ‘The Party for the People who agree with us’.
In all seriousness, it is a sign that a split in the Labour Party is almost inevitable (and probably a good thing for Corbynites) when the National Executive have been so public with their opposition to their own party leader. The divergence between Jeremy Corbyn – a man who has fought to empower young Labour Party members and ensure that everyone’s voice is heard (particularly if they’ve emailed him just before PMQs) – and the National Executive – who seem to think that an 833% increase in the cost of voting is an acceptable policy – is overwhelming.
With the Party establishment lined up against a leader who is proving far more resilient than they had imagined, the Labour NEC seem to be beginning to come to the conclusion that democracy isn’t really their thing. Indeed, Labour MPs are discovering what happens when an immovable object meets an easily resistible force. What neither the NEC nor the MPs seem to realise, is that Corbyn is shockingly and overwhelmingly more popular than they are with the Labour Party membership, and while they continue to work to overthrow their leader at the cost of providing opposition to the government, the word ‘deselection’ will continue to be whispered by the Corbynites.
Let’s have a look at this year’s contestants. Angela Eagle launched her campaign early on, but unfortunately no one noticed and she dropped out, having gained only experience and the branding for a luxury fragrance. The two remaining competitors have had markedly different campaigns thus far: while Owen Smith has managed the remarkable feat of being labelled both a Blairite and a Marxist in the same campaign; Jeremy Corbyn has been propelling Labour to victory in parish council elections up and down the country.
Smith, or ‘the lesser of two evils’ as he’s known by many of his supporters, has received the backing of over 100 Members of Parliament, and a similar number of grassroots members. With a manifesto attacking the concept of equality of opportunity, and pledging higher corporation tax, more controls and oversight on retail businesses, and a ban on ALL zero hours contracts (not just the exploitative ones, but also the ones that allow small businesses to recruit casual staff on a flexible contract that suits both employer and employee), Smith has successfully mastered the art of copying and pasting left-wing policies in a bid to appeal to Corbynites. While his policies certainly offer substance, it is difficult to believe Corbyn-lite is acting out of a sense of principle, considering that he once agreed with all of Tony Blair’s policies.
If Smith offers us all substance and no principle, then Jeremy Corbyn certainly offers the opposite. Mr Corbyn’s platform sets out ten credible principles, with the occasional suggested policy behind them. Unsurprisingly, Corbyn and Corbyn-lite both agree on the blanket ban of the zero hours contract, but surprisingly Corbyn’s manifesto contains fewer plans to place restrictions on small businesses and (excessive levels of nationalisation aside) is actually slightly more centrist than Owen Smith’s policy platform – albeit still not particularly centrist.
It wouldn’t be a review of any season of ‘Who Wants to be Labour Leader?’ without having a look at some of the ironies of the Momentum campaign. In season one they offered us the delicious irony of backing a Chippenham-born, private and grammar school educated candidate who has lived in Islington for over 40 years, while calling the other candidates privileged and out-of-touch, and this season they have excelled themselves once again. They have chosen to continually label a man whose policy platform would make Tony Blair pale as Blairite and paint him as a career politician – perhaps not noticing that Corbyn was 24 when he first contested an election, while Smith was 36. Accusations of disloyalty from Momentum are also amusing, with Jeremy Corbyn having been involved in plots to overthrow pretty much every Labour leader since he entered Parliament.
While it is often difficult to work out which candidate is the rock and which is the hard place, it is clear that the Labour Party have a no-win situation here. Whether they elect Corbyn or Corbyn-lite, the Labour NEC have pushed the definition of democracy further than at any other time in recent memory. A split seems inevitable, so at this point this is essentially a contest for the rights to the Labour Party brand and whether it is the Corbynites or the Corbyn-lites who have to break away.
Whatever happens, season two has certainly been exciting so far, and we can only look forward to the renewal of ‘Who Wants to be Labour Leader?’ for series three this time next year!