It’s down to tactics now, as the Labour leadership struggle rumbles on. Angela Eagle is, we hear, poised to strike. Personally, I’d advise that Ms Eagle and Mr Smith make a statement to say that they absolutely will not move against Jeremy Corbyn until the Chilcot report is published; and that they absolutely will move against him 48 hours after any statement he makes to the House of Commons.
Labour can never heal until a consensus is reached on Iraq. Given that many people think that the strike against Mr Corbyn is a Chilcot spoiler, it seems right to lance that particular conspiracy theory by giving the current Labour leader the chance to respond to the report and also a decent few news cycles afterwards. By making it clear that their action is delayed, they will be able to show that any move against Corbyn is not done out of any idea of revenge.
But to an extent, all this tactical plotting misses the point. Changing the leadership of the Labour party is not in itself an answer to the immense challenges the party now finds itself in. I wrote back in September that the right of the party had deservedly lost as it had become out of touch with its core; and that the left of the party needed to acknowledge that Labour must appeal to former Tory voters as well as former Green voters. Both those sentiments are true today.
I have not met Angela Eagle or Owen Smith. But I do know that neither – nor the current incumbent – is placed to lead Labour to success unless they are able to find answers to some pretty fundamental questions.
Let’s get the easy one out of the way. Is Labour a serious political movement, or is it a protest movement? This is the question that is currently engulfing the party. The party needs to decide whether MPs are representatives of their constituents or delegates of their CLP.
Second: what is Labour’s position on the EU? Labour campaigned, in the main, for Remain, and most Labour voters voted that way too. Will Labour seek a new settlement with Europe? Should there be a second referendum, and on what basis? What is Labour’s view on the border with the Republic of Ireland? What cause can Labour MEPs make with their colleagues in the Socialist grouping of the European Parliament? John McDonnell has given some sketchy clues as to Labour’s approach but much more needs to be done, and quickly.
Third: what is Labour’s position on the emergency budget? Make no mistake: there will be one, though it might not be called that. With George Osborne proposing further cuts in corporation tax, this could have been a fertile place for the Opposition – if it were trusted on the economy. Simple anti-austerity calls won’t cut it, but a distinctive approach, simply explained, could help Labour sweep up.
Fourth, what is Labour’s economic plan for the areas ‘left behind’? Here is a chance to think creatively. What support would Labour want to give strategic industries which is currently forbidden by EU rules? What support would Labour want to give strategic industries over and above that currently provided? What part can the unions play? Now is the time to rethink regional policy and also the effectiveness of the EU funding applied in counties such as Cornwall. Just to talk about ‘shovel-ready’ schemes won’t cut it. Labour need to decide whether they are ready to do something new.
And finally, what is Labour’s response on identity? Labour has become a coalition of the metropolitan middle class, BME voters and the white working class. Unfortunately, this coalition no longer sits easily together. There has been plenty of open handwringing over the extent to which the so-called educated look down on what they see as the unsophistication of the working class, and vice versa. Tristram Hunt and others have been exploring the idea of ‘Englishness’. I am not sure whether a more coherent English identity is really the answer – I think it’s more nuanced that that and cuts across communities, generations and industries – but without tackling this question head on Labour will have done to them in England what has happened already in Scotland and what seems to be happening in Wales.
That is not to say that answering these questions coherently will lead to success. But they are a necessary prerequisite for doing the Opposition’s job properly. I’m interested to see how the party will tackle them in the weeks and months to come.