Regicide, fratricide and now suicide? The Labour Party has not handled the succession of its leaders well in recent times and with the victory of Jeremy Corbyn this may be something of an understatement. At the moment it looks as if Labour will be led by a Dad’s army of scruffy old white men living out the revolutionary fantasies of their youth.
After a political career characterised by bitter resentment against Blair, and much plotting by his acolytes, Gordon Brown finally attained the role he always believed was rightfully his. In the next leadership succession – characterised by some as the ‘battle of the brothers’ – Brownite Ed Miliband killed off the prime ministerial ambitions of his Blairite older brother with wide-eyed ruthlessness. And Miliband’s period as leader proved to be even more ill-fated than that of his mentor.
Setting these leadership disasters in a business context, it is likely that most companies, having chosen in quick succession two CEOs who failed to deliver, would take some time to reassess strategy and direction, before rapidly appointing another.
Unfortunately political parties rarely act with such pragmatism. Although Harriet Harman, as deputy leader, was a safe pair of hands to run the party in the interim, there was an unnecessary rush to appoint a new leader just at the point when morale was at its lowest after a shattering defeat. Rational debate and thoughtful analysis of the party’s purpose was abandoned in favour of an ill-timed, badly planned leadership election. Furthermore, succession planning is not easy when faced with a system where anyone with £3 can have a vote.
The phoenix-like emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as the third post-Blair leader of the Labour Party was a shock to all including the man himself. As a longstanding dissident who voted against the policies of his party with almost monotonous regularity, he was only ever on the ballot paper ‘to widen the debate’ as one of those who proposed him as leader but didn’t vote for him in the election, said. Far from widening the debate he simplified it with his message of ‘end austerity now’, which resonated with the mostly young, newly registered, three quid supporters. Disenchanted by politics as usual, these young voters rejected moderation in favour of the most unlikely of leadership candidates.
It was an extraordinary victory for a man who had never held office before, never led anything and had spent 30 years on the backbenches as a confirmed maverick. However as the euphoria of his supporters dies down, it is apparent that Corbyn finds himself between a rock and a hard place. His leadership has exposed and exacerbated party divisions more than ever before. The paper thin veneer of unity in the party, post-Blair, has been shattered. His lack of support among his fellow Labour MPs means he has not been able to put together a convincing shadow cabinet.
His choice of shadow chancellor, in particular is bizarre and seems to be based more on promoting an old comrade than his economic competence. While you may find a number of UK business leaders willing to support McDonnell in his wish to exit the EU, you’d be hard-pressed to discover many able to stand shoulder to shoulder with him in his stated aim of ‘fermenting [sic] the overthrow of capitalism’.
The Conservatives will certainly not waste any time in exposing this weakness. Corbyn’s reputation among his supporters as a principled rebel will inevitably be sullied by the necessary compromises of office. His thin-skinned temperament will not easily withstand the vicissitudes of leader of the opposition.
Two messy defeats and three apparently unelectable leaders have left the Labour Party without confidence or energy. The youthful enthusiasm that swept Corbyn to victory as Labour leader is likely to be short-lived as such voters are notoriously fickle, and in any event even if it is sustained it will not translate into General Election victory. There are 44 million registered voters and Labour must rediscover a direction and purpose that appeals to a lot more than the 250,000 that voted for Corbyn.
He may seem an unlikely hero but Labour would be wise to deconstruct the reasons for his victory if it ever wants power again. Austerity is a widely discredited economic policy, which has suppressed real growth and has caused widespread hardship. The positive alternative of investment in people, public services and local infrastructure must be clearly articulated. No more plasticised politicians who all sound the same.
The Corbyn victory should not be interpreted as a sudden swerve to the left by Labour voters. It’s much more about the failure of leadership and the loss of its moral and intellectual compass, but I certainly do not want to go back to the 70s and 80s to find it.
Baroness Kingsmill is a Labour peer and non-executive director of various British, European and US boards. Follow her on Twitter: @denisekingsmill