I have quite admired Harriet Harman in the past, insofar as, as a woman on the left of British politics, she’s had to put up with a lot of shit thrown her way and she’s coped with it with a certain amount of grace and occasional flashes of humour. However, I fear that when the history of this period of Labour politics is written her reputation is going to be tainted by her final, brief, but disastrous period as interim Labour leader.
When(if?) Jeremy Corbyn wins, he had better have a bunch of flowers ready for her, because Harman (and whoever has been advising her) has done more than anyone (certainly more than Corbyn himself) to ensure his victory.
First there was the decision to set out the ridiculously long election timetable. Faced with what looked like a runaway victory for Andy Burnham and, I presume, feeling that a long campaign might give their preferred candidate (Kendall) a chance to haul him in – the leadership opted for the political equivalent of Napoleon’s march on Moscow. Long, cold, painful and utterly deadly. In doing so they doomed us to four months of unchallenged Conservative control of the agenda and utterly failed to account for how momentum in an election campaign might switch to someone other than their chosen one. It was a disastrous decision in both its conception and its results.
Second, they set the cut-off date for new members and supporting members right at the end of the campaign – just before ballot papers were sent out. There was no need to do this – indeed it seems to me that allowing the electorate to be changed while the election campaign was taking place was fundamentally misconceived. It was always going to lead to outside interests (we’ve seen Tories and Greens and every one of the 57 varieties of the far left) seeking to influence the election. This system, put in place by Miliband, was well-meaning but it was obviously always open to gaming by those who were not genuine supporters of the Party and it has been a disaster. Whatever you think about some of the people who have joined (I’ll get to that in a moment) the fact that so much of the coverage of this election has been focussed on supporters of other parties trying to join and being denied the vote in the election has been a huge embarrassment that has left the Party looking ridiculous.
Third, we now also discover that, despite having received legal advice that the systems they were putting in place were flawed, the interim leadership was unable to introduce more stringent controls to ensure due diligence on those joining to vote. So we’re left in a situation where our own canvassing return shows that at least one in ten of the 350,000 people who have joined the party since the election have always strongly opposed Labour in the past.
Yet, even though it was always stupid to have the Party locked into an internal struggle for months and months and months, Harman’s biggest helping-hand to the Corbyn campaign wasn’t the organisation of the election itself – it was her political interventions.
As the campaign opened Harman made some poorly thought through speeches that tried to promote a shift to the right in Labour’s agenda and followed this with the unnecessary and inept mishandling of the Welfare Bill. All she achieved was to stir up anger and resentment and thus she poured petrol on the (until then) barely flickering flames of the Corbyn campaign. Momentum is everything in politics and there is no doubt that in the opening weeks of the campaign, Harman handed momentum to those on the left and Corbyn gave them a focus.
And so the Labour leadership has placed us in the position where it looks certain that Jeremy Corbyn will be elected leader: a man who, even many of his most vocal supporters concede, is unelectable. A distressing number of these supporters seem to believe this is a positive attribute. The Labour Party looks likely to be out of power for at least another 10 years (and possibly more since another disastrous result in 2020 would make victory in 2025 highly unlikely). A large number of people supporting Corbyn seem strangely unmoved by this – regarding electoral defeat as a price worth paying for ideological purity. In some cases they go further, justifying the pursuit of defeat as a chance to break Labour altogether and create their dream leftist party that will, miraculously, surge to power in a way that Left Unity, TUSC, the Socialist Party and (what seems like) a billion previous far-left enterprises have failed. In the meantime, those being punished by this Conservative government will have no prospect of relief, no hope of anyone being able to do anything practical to help them.
Little of this has been achieved by Corbyn’s campaign, which – apart from a half-thought-through idea about “people’s quantitative easing” – doesn’t have a single new thing to say about how a left wing party can prepare for the challenges of the middle of the 21st Century but which instinctively turns for comfort to solutions created a hundred years ago. Despite the enthusiasm of many of his supporters – who have imposed on Corbyn’s blankish slate a series of imaginary possibilities that bear no relation to what he actually offers or what is realistically achievable – Corbyn’s campaign has been disappointingly retro. Almost all of the success of Corbyn’s campaign rests firmly at the feet of the inept way the leadership have organised this election with a side-order of blame for the largely hopeless campaigns run by those opposing him.
For the first time in my life, I think, I can legitimately wonder if I’ll live to see another Labour government.