Published on IWA's comment site on 21 July 2016
So, the Labour Party is in crisis - plots, rebellions, protests: the whole nine yards.
As a recovering political journalist I feel pretty jaded about the whole thing. Fundamentally, the Labour Party is pretty solid and has been through all this before - several times.
But. And there is a big But. Maybe this time it’s different. I’m not overly bothered by the division between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith - it is the meat and drink of politics, but what does greatly trouble me is the growing divergence between those inside the party and the people we were founded to represent.
Successful political parties reflect the communities they are drawn from. That became very clear to me when I first joined the Labour Party in the mid-90s. In parts of the constituency where the local branch was a good cross-section of the local community we did well; in parts where it wasn’t, we did not.
I’ve spent much of the last 12 months knocking on doors; not just of the doors of people we think we’ll get a reasonable welcome from, but on every door. And the experience has been a salutary one: a worrying number of people who you might expect to look to the Labour Party for an answer to their problems have switched off politics altogether, and too many of those who still have some faith in the political process now look to UKIP.
There are signs of a profound disconnect between our party and ‘our people’ (as we’ve paternalistically called them for too long). We saw the result of that in the EU referendum: 90% of the Labour Party members voted to Remain; But 64% of voters categorised as working class (C2s), and those out of work (DEs), voted to Leave the EU.
This is what should be troubling and pre-occupying us: the chasm between the leaders and the led. And instead of addressing it we’re exacerbating it.
Every political party faces the tension between furthering their own set of core values and responding to public opinion. And that’s where Leadership comes in, to balance these tensions, and persuade people to follow a course of action which honours the values of the party and chimes with the priorities of the electorate.
The modern Labour Party is failing to do that. That was true before Jeremy Corbyn became leader, and it has intensified since. There are complex reasons for this, but they have far-reaching consequences for us as a political movement. But where is the searching debate challenging ourselves to respond to this profound disconnect with our voters? Instead we seem to want to fall back onto certainties. We are increasingly talking to ourselves, while the voters look on in bewilderment.
This is typified by the debate over the leadership. Labour’s problems go way beyond Jeremy Corbyn, but without the right leadership we’ll never be in a position to address them.
In modern politics unless you have a leader who is seen as having the potential to be a credible alternative Prime Minister you are dead in the water.
Though I didn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn, I totally understood his appeal. His opponents were so bland, and symbolised how as a party we had lost our way.
I shared a platform with Jeremy in Burry Port earlier this year and praised the fact that he has re-energised the party, but noted that to bring about change we have to win. Sadly (and I take no pleasure from this) Jeremy Corbyn’s personal poll ratings are disastorous.
He is a polarising figure. He may be popular amongst Labour Party members (56% support him) but the general public appear unmoved by his leadership qualities.
Whilst the polls show that he is seen as more honest than most politicians, when people are asked if Jeremy Corbyn has what it takes to become Prime Minister 68% disagree. He is even less popular than Ed Miliband and Michael Foot were as Labour leaders (and by quite a margin).
These facts cannot be dismissed. And they matter.
Just 76% of people who voted Labour in 2015 say they’d do so again if there was a fresh General Election with Jeremy Corbyn as leader.
His supporters say this is simply a reflection of the fact that Labour MPs haven’t given him a chance, and have been undermining him. Whilst it is true that some MPs refused to serve under him, the majority have respected his mandate and have tried to help him succeed. But an alarming number of them have drawn the conclusion that it won’t work.
Lilian Greenwood is a typical example. By no means a Blairite, she told her local party, more in sorrow than in anger, “I wanted to make it work and I promise you, I tried to make it work. In the 9 months I spent in the Shadow Cabinet I never briefed against Jeremy...But through my own personal, direct experience I know that Jeremy operates in a way that means progress...is impossible. He is not a team player let alone a team leader”.
Similarly my colleague Nia Griffith - who has never said a single negative thing about Jeremy Corbyn to me, even in private - felt it was impossible to carry on in his Shadow Cabinet after getting nowhere in trying to persuade him to come up with a plan to keep the party together.
Even Mr Corbyn’s own economic adviser, Richard Murphy, has described what he saw within the inner sanctum as ‘shambolic’; “there was no policy direction, no messaging, no coordination, no nothing” he said. “ All that I have got so far from the Labour left is a message of what it is opposed to. That’s something. But it’s a long way from being enough” he wrote.
These can’t all be dismissed. These are all people who have tried to work with Jeremy, and even they’ve thrown their hands up in despair.
We are letting the Tories off the hook. The last time a Conservative Government was still ahead 12-18 months after an election was in 1984 during the miners strike. And the Tory fresh start under Theresa May is boosting them further still.
The voters, and his close colleagues, have drawn the same conclusion - for all his merits, and his sincerity, Jeremy Corbyn can’t beat the Tories.
And yet, the more he is attacked, the more his supporters feel vindicated in backing him. People are still joining Labour in their droves to show they believe in him.
There is a gulf between the Labour Party and the people it was created to represent; a gulf between new enthusiastic members and the people who have traditionally supported us; and a gulf between the Leader and the rest of the party in Parliament.
This is a grave moment in the history of the Labour Party. Our new Government is the most right-wing in living memory and they are going to be creating a new settlement for our country outside the EU in the face of an imploding opposition.
We can recover. But to help the people we were created to help we need more than posturing and slogans. The first step is to elect a Leader who can regain our credibility in the eyes of the public, can unite the party in Parliament and can start to put together an ambitious policy vision for healing our society.
I know Owen Smith, he is one of the brightest talents of his generation. He combines a genuine passion to change society, and a rich understanding of our party’s history and mission, with a political sophistication to make the most of our opponents weaknesses.
I don’t agree with him on everything, but I genuinely believe he represents our best chance to reconnect, and re-think our purpose.
Lee Waters is the Welsh Labour & Cooperative AM for Llanelli