Labour’s long bitter battle for soul of party – Andrew Vine

Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow brexit Secretary, and backbencher Jess Phillips are among the candidates for the Labour leadership.
Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow brexit Secretary, and backbencher Jess Phillips are among the candidates for the Labour leadership.
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THE deep sense of gloom amongst Labour Party members that I know isn’t just the hangover from losing the election and knowing the Government has an impregnable majority.

It’s also about the impending struggle for the soul of the party, which they believe is going to be long, bitter and could ultimately do much to damage Labour’s chances of returning to power in the foreseeable future.

Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, is a leading contender for the Labour leadership.

Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, is a leading contender for the Labour leadership.

Members of three constituency parties in Yorkshire are telling me of the feuding that has already started over the next leader, with battle lines drawn up between the hard left and moderates.

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The moderates despair that their comrades appear to have learned nothing from Labour’s drubbing in heartlands where it once seemed unthinkable that the Conservatives could win.

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Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long Bailey is said to be Jeremy Corbyn's preferred successor as Labour leader.

Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long Bailey is said to be Jeremy Corbyn's preferred successor as Labour leader.

The message coming from these sensible, centre-left party members who believe passionately in Labour as a force for good is that the party’s worst election result since the 1930s is being written off as some sort of aberration, entirely due to the country’s divisions over Brexit.

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This is a narrative that has been pushed by Jeremy Corbyn and his closest associates since the results started coming in on election night.

But the moderates in West Yorkshire seats – even where Labour clung on with reduced majorities – know this isn’t so. The problem they have is in convincing their fellow party members of that. One told me: “This is shaping up to be the early 1980s all over again, with the left doing its damnedest to keep control of the party.”

The centrists have no faith in the party’s review of the reasons why the election was lost so badly, believing it will be skewed towards the point of view expressed by Mr Corbyn and his closest allies.

Their insistence that Labour’s manifesto was broadly popular is a source of frustration and even anger.

The Yorkshire activists know that Labour simply lost touch with its heartlands not only over Brexit, but about immigration, a perceived lack of patriotism and also deep public concern about anti-semitism.

They also know that if Labour’s next leader continues to follow the path set by Mr Corbyn and fails to make a clean break with an ideological stance rejected by voters at two consecutive elections, it has no hope of winning back seats in Yorkshire and the rest of the North.

And the field of candidates to succeed Mr Corbyn isn’t doing much to ease these concerns.

His preferred successor, Rebecca Long-Bailey – even though she is a northern MP – is not inspiring any confidence whatsoever in the members who have been talking to me. She is a standard-bearer for everything they believe has gone wrong with the party.

Nor does the current front-runner, Sir Keir Starmer, arouse much enthusiasm amongst experienced campaigners who know they face a long, hard slog to reconnect with voters in Yorkshire, let alone win back seats.

They don’t see much prospect of making headway if the party is led by a London-based knight of the realm who, as a prominent pro-Remain supporter, was one of the most vociferous campaigners for a second referendum on Brexit.

As a former Director of Public Prosecutions, he is evidently a man of formidable intellect. But party members in the North can see quite clearly what appears to have eluded him – he stands for everything hitherto loyal Labour supporters turned against.

From a Yorkshire perspective, Sir Keir and his fellow leadership contender, Emily Thornberry, epitomise a metropolitan outlook that is out of step with voters in seats like Wakefield, Keighley, Don Valley and Dewsbury.

Nothing in their political record suggests they have any real connection to these traditional heartlands. Yes, they are effective Parliamentarians who put ministers on the spot, but that simply isn’t enough to win back support.

The worry amongst moderates is that the people vying to be the next Labour leader don’t know how to reconnect with the former heartlands.

Jess Phillips, who entered the race at the weekend, is at least talking sense about why Labour lost, but Yorkshire party members doubt she will gather enough support to win.

Equally concerning for them is that the leadership contest is already looking like an exercise in navel-gazing. This isn’t just about Labour. If the party is ever to gain power again, it must win over Conservative voters.

Quite a few of the members I know are veterans who fought on during the long wilderness years until Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997.

They fear a repeat of that, because the party is showing too little sign of learning the lessons from defeat.

And before this leadership contest has hardly begun, it is only making them gloomier about the future.