That’s a bit embarrassing. There you are, the personnel are appointed and your team is ready to go. And then the Labour leader spoils it by defying expectations, winning extra seats, throwing the Tories into their most wretched state for 20 years and surges ahead with poll leads last seen since before the Iraq War. What can you do? If you are Chuka Umunna, you can stir the pot to remind the world (and yourself) that you’re still a player. Or you can proceed as if nothing happened and turn your campaign-that-never-was into a profile raising exercise. Entirely consistent with the long game the old Brownite right are playing, this is where Yvette Cooper is going: a Fabian speech here, a Pride photo opp there, and no doubt a good clutch of fringes in Brighton this September.
About that Fabian speech, this got trailed in the week as Yvette’s “alternative vision”. Of what and in relation to whom wasn’t entirely clear. Our party as a distinctive alternative to the Tories? Well, we already have that and folks are warming considerably to the new (small n) Labour. As something different to the policy agenda and vision Jeremy Corbyn is proposing? Or a different politics? Whatever that means.
In the end, the speech was, well, underwhelming. There was the usual plea for nicer politics which, while well meaning, was hampered by the assumption underpinning it: that the abuse and violent language which see flitting across social media is a matter of bad manners and rude people. If only. We are where we are because politics is in flux and there are a lot of interests at stake. For example, let’s remind ourselves of the hysterical and childish behaviour of certain Labour MPs since Jeremy assumed the leadership. I can understand why they felt threatened by a leader who doesn’t share their views, has a record of wanting to see the party democratised and the PLP’s privileges curbed, and turned the party into the largest in Western Europe on the basis of left wing politics. They turned to the weapons they had to hand – the platform afforded by public office, helpful friends in the media who would relay their attacks – to defend their position. Not excusable and, in some cases, downright scabby. But understandable. Naturally, such an empathetic understanding is absent from Yvette’s Bill and Ted approach to political discourse. No thoughts on why people might state their politics in crude and abusive tones. No attempt to recognise they might have grievances, real or imagined, that have to be addressed. It was as apolitical as they come and would barely have made a ripple in the Sally Army’s Young Soldier.
What else was in there? She identified three things Labour needs to do:
• First the task of holding the new voters we inspired, whilst reaching out beyond them to others we lost – and staying a broad based party to do it
• Second to chart a course for a progressive Brexit – the most important challenge facing our country over the next two years that will scar us for years to come if we let the Tories get it wrong
• Third to overcome the new and growing divide in Britain between city and town
Looking at each in turn, the first is so obvious that its inclusion, unless you have something interesting to say on it, is just filler. Indeed, Yvette said nothing and offered nothing that may help accomplish this. We instead get some guff on standing together as a party and how wonderful it is when we do things collectively. On Brexit, she floated the view that we should try for a cross-party commission so the Tories don’t screw it up and get ourselves a good deal. I don’t personally think a de facto national coalition on Brexit is something worthwhile for the party nor the interests it represents. Because yes, getting in bed to deliver a Brexit that’s going to impoverish our people will do wonders in keeping our electoral coalition (point one, remember) together. Being independent of the process but working with certain Tories who are not totally kamikaze to extract concessions from the government re: negotiating lines seems the most sensible course for Labour at this juncture. And lastly, Labour’s got to get towns – the route to a majority goes on a circuitous journey through them. Yes, it is true, we do. If only Labour had a programme that was about rebuilding public services and using the state to stimulate industry so towns would benefit.
Yvette’s speech was less a vision and more a case of stating the obvious. Nevertheless, just as I thanked Chuka t’other day for reminding us about the merry band of irreconcilables latching onto Brexit, Yvette too has rendered a useful service. She has reminded us that her section of the party have no ideas, no clue, and no plan to respond to the situation we find ourselves in. A technocratic fix for Brexit that could sink the party? No thanks. A lecture on the importance of party unity? A missive best addressed to the people she sits with on the backbenches. And the belated remembrance of towns is a studied misreading, if not wilful ignorance, of the kind of policy package Labour is offering. Yes Yvette’s was a flacid and empty speech littered with banalities and self-evident points. If she really is the brightest mind of the PLP right, if this is the best they can do then they’re in a far worse state than anyone suspected.