WHATEVER happens in the Labour leadership contest, whoever wins, Jeremy Corbyn should collect all of the newspapers from the weekend just gone. He should save them, frame them, and produce the file when in the future he is asked about these heady days in which he proved capable of provoking a level of hysteria in the nation’s media and, for that matter, in some of his Labour Party colleagues too. For winning a healthy collection of constituency nominations and heading some private polling we haven’t really seen the detail of, he has in return been portrayed as some sort of hard left Rasputin, unstoppable and ready to take over and ruin everything. HE MUST BE STOPPED, scream the opponents, as if need of Batman. Some of the cuttings may look quite wild when history looks back.
Yet if you asked the political journalists devoting acres of print to the Corbynite summer, or even the Labour activists gearing the Anybody But Corbyn response, whether they actually think the Islington North MP will prevail in this curious contest, none of them will give you a straight yes. Because they don’t. In the main, they do not have the conviction of their headlines and their tweets, largely because Corbyn, however well he is running now, would almost certainly need to knock out all of his opponents in a scarcely-believable first round victory.
He may achieve a hulking mass of votes, but when it comes to preferences, as unpredictable as they can be, he is unlikely to scratch much extra support; for you either buy into what Corbyn is offering, or you don’t. He is the least wishy-washy of the quartet, a first choice or no choice. Some will dart from Andy Burnham to Corbyn, but essentially the numbers are hard, especially if, as the early scoring suggests, Liz Kendall is the first to leave the contest. Her preferences are not going to Corbyn, more likely they will land with Yvette Cooper.
So when the packed hall at the Camden Centre yesterday listened to the contenders answering very broad topics – the specifics of something like HS2 were left for another day – you could feel Burnham and Cooper plotting a careful line, while others got their shirts bloody. There was nothing really dynamic or new in what they said, but they were full of slowly-slowly steadiness, and they just let Corbyn and Kendall, sitting on the other side of the stage, get on with the left-right feud.
A picture of old and new Labour rubbed up too close, they duly obliged to the extent you wondered more than once how on earth they could ever have enlisted in the same political party? Each clearly thinks the other is quite ridiculous.
As brave as the Kendall camp may be to broadcast the anti-Corbyn brigade view louder than others, there is a risk, on occasions like this, of her looking like she would not even bother to try and unify this ever-broadening churches should she take the reins. “I love Jeremy,” she told the audience, which was about as far as it got, before she slapped him down with a promise never to allow him to work in her future cabinets. It was a perfectly honest vow, and a pick me up to those who feel Labour is in desperate need for some Blairite ruthlessness, but the undiplomatic, straight no can work both ways in a party in need of a collective post-Miliband response. It’s likely Burnham and Cooper wouldn’t have Corbyn in there for too long, if at all, either, but they found a softer way to frame their differences. Should there be a bulk Corbyn vote, the left will demand with greater legitimacy to have some form of input in which way the party heads. Too many times in Labour’s history, national and local, have the victors of close call selections and elections made the immediate blunder of freezing out the narrowly-defeated.
Corbyn continued, drawing silent cheers from an audience ordered not to fritter away precious time with their applause for his call to nationalise everything and oppose austerity. It was all much more civil than the sharp typing Labour activists indulge with online. Kendall continued with her view that Corbyn’s socialist utopia was an unelectable fantasy. All the while, Burnham and Cooper kept their bats straight, untroubled by the format of the hustings. If you listened carefully, a couple of testers were skilfully glossed over by all of the candidates, but there was no opportunity for audience comebacks or a challenge for a dodged question. Maybe there will be a tougher agenda when the candidates reconvene at the JW3 Centre tonight.
What you could take from the session at Camden Centre was the fact that as much you tell Labour Party members that they are bored by their own leadership contest, they don’t seem to be. Weary maybe, but not bored. The hall was packed. There may be a lack of energy among activists to push hard for a candidate from Miliband’s old team, but this is coming after the long hours of the general election campaign and before that a parliamentary selection in Holborn and St Pancras contest. Members are also being deluged by mail from those who want to be London Mayor. It’s relentless.
In Camden, the spread is interesting. Those in the top spots of the local group have in the past denied the existence of its own left-right split, dismissing the old Haywardite and Tulipista dynamic as not having much traction beyond the gossipier articles on these pages and the New Journal, and being fuelled more by friendships and personalities, than raging political divisions. Theo Blackwell, the finance chief, is proudly Blairite, nonetheless, and stood at the back with his Liz Kendall sticker on his chest. He represented her at CLP hustings in Watford, her home town, last week.
Sarah Hayward, the council leader, meanwhile has also aligned herself with the Blairite candidate in Kendall too, writing about her support for her in the New Statesman, alongside other council leaders.
The group, however, is scattered. Those who flocked around Sir Keir Starmer instead of Sarah during the Holborn and St Pancras selection contest are more readily backing his choice, Burnham, now. Then there are a handful of councillors – Lorna Russell, Richard Cotton – who are willing to put their name to Corbyn, a campaign which of course would not even have made the ticket had he not been nominated by MPs like Hampstead and Kilburn’s Tulip Siddiq. She was clear that her support was simply to get him into the debate and not an endorsement for the leadership. And here he is now, making every last use of that generous leg-up.