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Principle or power?

The Labour Party leadership contest has thrown up some challenging questions. Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy has attracted thousands of new members who seem likely to give him victory on 12th September.

The first question is how he will hold the party together? At least nine Shadow Ministers have said they will not serve in his front bench team. One estimate is that no more than thirty of the 232 Labour MPs support him and there has been talk of a “Resistance” movement. Former leaders Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have urged the party not to vote for him, as have David Blunkett and David Miliband. This is not unprecedented. All our parties are coalitions. John Major was so frustrated by his Europhobic right wing that he resigned and sought re-election to restore his authority as leader but Corbyn would face a much larger group of disaffected backbenchers. He was a serial rebel himself, voting 238 times against the party Whip in the last Parliament.

Corbyn’s socialism is traditionally what Labour stood for so why do so many MPs not support him

He is unashamedly a socialist. He favours higher income tax for the wealthy and increasing Corporation tax. He has flirted with restoring Clause Four in the party’s constitution and the renationalisation of the railways and other public services. He also advocates leaving NATO, scrapping our nuclear arsenal and moving closer to Russia. He has expressed admiration for Putin’s foreign policy and opposes a fair trade agreement with the USA. He is coy about our EU membership but wants to see the social chapter strengthened, especially in relation to employment rights. Corbyn’s socialism is traditionally what Labour stood for so why do so many MPs not support him. The voters rejected socialism in 1979 and the party was out of office for eighteen years until Blair led it to the political centre ground. Corbyn’s opponents fear that a lurch to the left will make the party unelectable again for another decade. So what matters most to the party: principle or potential power?

That prompts two other questions. First, are the voters still hostile to socialism? Social media comment complains that the parties are too similar and leave little room for choice. George Osborne’s adoption of the Labour policy of a compulsory living wage was an example of this. Equally his aim to make a budget surplus normal and capping benefit at £23,000 per household has some support on the Labour benches. So is some measure of continuity in government policy desirable or are voters comfortable with the possibility of major changes after elections.

The second question is whether those who consider principle more important than electability are comfortable with the possibility of repeated electoral defeats and a continuing Conservative government with non-socialist policies? A large majority of Labour MPs are not. Is the popular preference for principle really evidence of naiveté? The voters will decide that in 2020. In the meantime will a divided Opposition effectively hold the government to account? Our democratic system needs a strong Opposition as well as a sustainable government. From that perspective, the Labour party needs our prayers for wisdom regardless of our own political sympathies.

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