So why have a Conservative leadership contest at all? Why not just hold a coronation for Theresa May, to re-establish stability and rebuild a government capable of governing?
This was the question (more or less) that Andrew Marr put to Andrea Leadsom on Sunday, and it sounded like a reasonable, Solomon-esque challenge; if you really love the party, you’ll let the other woman have it rather than cut it in half. Well, she replied (again, I paraphrase), that would not be in the interests of democracy.
This should wake us up, since the assumption underpinning this exchange is that there is no need for a general election. The Conservatives should not go back to the country; their critical dilemma is whether to create order immediately, or order following a short burst of “democratic” debate. In fact, whoever the new leader is, and however he or she is chosen, there would be nothing remotely democratic about this government’s continuation.
The fact that we’d have a prime minister who only members of the Conservative party had voted for would be the least of it. David Cameron was elected on a promise of running a budgetary surplus by 2020, having spent all the years since 2008 catastrophising the public finances and misrepresenting the nature of debt to make this seem like a rational and desirable outcome.
Never mind that it was a disingenuous goal, to mask the fundamental reconstitution of the relationship between the state and the citizen. It’s what people voted for and it has now been dismissed by George Osborne with a casual, demob-happy “hey ho, we gotta be realistic”.
Not to worry, the Tories might respond: we’ve had a referendum, and now have a new mandate, even larger than our old one. We proceed with the people’s blessing to increase spending on the NHS by £350m a week, maintain funding to universities, scientific research and deprived regions, and reduce immigration while staying in the single market, or leave the single market while maintaining living standards.
Not only is none of that possible, none of the leadership contenders is even pretending to stand by it. So the idea is that we carry on for another four years, under a prime minister nobody has voted for, working to a manifesto that has been largely obviated by events, in recessionary conditions the government itself created, with a programme nobody can describe. No politician who put their country before themselves would ever entertain such a proposition.
If the call for a snap election is simple, it brings the obvious attendant question that is much more complicated: how do you win it? Against a Conservative party prepared to jettison anything for a victory they don’t even know what to do with, how do their opponents – whose divisions look even more profound and who won’t even disregard wounds from three decades since – stand a chance?
The Labour party must look at its dichotomies squarely and accept that most of them are false. It is simply not true that Jeremy Corbyn has been a disaster, swept to power by a hardcore of Trots who hijacked the party on a technicality. He fought that leadership election against three politicians who had forgotten how to make the core arguments of social democracy; who couldn’t remember what was so wrong with austerity, or why an arbitrary cap on benefits might be unjust; who couldn’t even remember to say “social security” instead of “welfare”.
He fought against people who had forgotten or never knew how to rebut the idiotic charge that the previous Labour government had crashed the economy with its generosity, and therefore the handout days were over. He fought by returning to first principles, in the language of hope. And that’s how he won. For all its chaos right now, he has done great service to the party, at immeasurable cost to himself.
It is also not true that he is the only person leftwing enough for the grassroots. Or to say that only he can span the gulf between the party members’ values and those of the parliamentary Labour party. And it is absurd to characterise Corbyn as the single rose among a thorny multitude of Liz Kendalls, which is the only possible light in which his tenacity makes sense.
It is not true that he is a lone voice against the Blairites, especially in the week of Chilcot when the spectre of Iraq takes on a fresh solidity. Corbyn may have voted against Iraq, but half the sitting Labour MPs weren’t even elected in 2003. There are new minds and new ideas in the party which are being erased from the narrative at the very moment Labour needs them most.
Whatever happens this week, whether Corbyn stands down or whether a fresh leadership election is sparked, party members need to ask themselves what the fundamental differences are that they’re tearing themselves to pieces over. Do they really disagree over public services; over privatising the NHS; over the importance of a social safety net; over the role of taxation; over appropriate regulation in markets; over energy and climate change? And even if there is a chasm, would they rather hurl themselves into it than bridge it? Over Trident – seriously?
Even if we end up with two Labour parties, they must still work together if they are to work with anybody else – the Greens, the Lib Dems, the SNP and even defecting Tories.
Brexit and its fallout have had the galvanising effect of reminding us what we care about, what we want from politics, what we want from nationhood. It turns out not to be that complicated: we want freedom of movement, not least because we’re Europe’s largest exporter of people, and a culture that is not simply tolerant of difference but exhilarated by it.
We want a political discourse that is reasonable, sober and accountable, able to stand by its own promises. We want international cooperation, in recognition of the fact that most problems are global; and a future in which the young have more opportunities, more fertile territory to explore. We want to halt the senselessness of a decision based on lies.
While these principles are easy to unite behind, they are hard to take to victory without doing politics in a new way: forging alliances, creating a new system of funding, selecting candidates differently.
Union leader Len McCluskey, also on Andrew Marr, called Corbyn a “man of steel”. Never mind that this is patently untrue – Corbyn would be the last person to describe himself this way – this kind of hysterical masculinism is what has wrought so much destruction. We have descended into a politics that mistakes nastiness for strength (Gove, memorably in the Sunday Times, claimed his behaviour towards Johnson would lead Putin to take him seriously) and mistakes rigidity for principle.
You cannot meet stupidity head on without becoming stupid; we need to meet this adversarialism with a new form of political fellowship – fluid, agile, and dynamic.
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