The thing that irritates me about the Labour Leadership campaign is the Manichean approach adopted by everyone. We hear talk of schisms and splits and the “soul of the party” as if Corbyn is presenting such a different vision for the party that the Venn Diagramme of values and polices has no overlap between him and the other candidates.
This cannot, in reality, be true. But what troubles me about the overall tone of the debate is that it has made me doubt whether the losing faction, whichever it may be, will work with the person who wins.
The observation that Labour is a political party, and not a pressure group, has been doing the rounds in the past few weeks: deployed as a reason to vote for a pragmatic, power-seeking centrist rather than an unelectable purist like Jeremy Corbyn. I agree with the distinction, and I hope Mr Corbyn does too. If he wins the leadership election in September, I pray that supporters of Burnham, Cooper and Kendall remember the soundbite and try to live up to it. This means working with Corbyn and making him electable. And for his part, I hope Jeremy meets them halfway.
And of course it’s still very possible that Corbyn will not win. He apparently has more supporters than the other candidates but the STV system means that supporters of the others could together deny him victory (a feature, not a bug, of that electoral system). If that happens, there will be a large group of disappointed activists suddenly demobilised, like Iraqi soldiers after the fall of Saddam. Will they disperse into the country, ready to campaign against Labour at the earliest opportunity? Or can they be put to work? If the latter (and I think it should be so) then the winning candidate will need to make some compromises in favour of the Corbynites.
This is no bad thing. Political parties are coalitions and not everyone agrees on everything, but a successful party must gather together to present themselves to the electorate.
A concoction of Corbynism in some areas and (for want of a better word) Blairism in others would not necessarily be a disaster. As David Cameron has shown, you can win office with a cobbled together offering that lacks ideological coherence, if you can present yourself well and project economic competence. And actually, a platform that is slightly ideologically incoherent is probably for the best, because very few people actually have a consistent political world-view. A platform that (say) includes the re-nationalisation of the railways, but also (say) a nakedly capitalist carbon trading scheme, could win votes. Most voters don’t think ideologically about policies and instead go with what seems to make sense on that issue. So Labour could have their cake and eat it. The party just needs to be grown up enough to realise that compromise is coming, whatever the result.