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British Labour parties as it elects its new leader, but when will the hangover begin?

As the British summer fades away and the days get shorter the UK Labour Party is celebrating the election of its fresh new leader – an entirely democratic process that took the best part of five months.
Under normal circumstances the election of a new opposition leader would pass largely unnoticed in Australia, but much like the 2015 trials for the San Francisco 49ers, it took on a new significance due to the surprise emergence of an unlikely but ultimately successful contender.

Jeremy Corbyn, the fourth choice candidate of the British Labour Party’s hard left, the ‘’dark horse’’ or ‘’rank outsider’’, swept aside the aspirations of three other moderate candidates and won the ballot with close to 60 percent of the vote across three voting categories – full members, affiliated members and £3 supporters.

Such a clear result in a political party leadership contest is always a good thing, yet there are sections of the Labour Party, including many elected Members, shaking their heads in dismay.

So who is Jeremy Corbyn? One newspaper described him as ‘a rumpled 66-year-old with a set of socialist ideas many thought had faded with the Cold War’. That’s a fairly mild description of some of his most predictable left wing policies, which include printing money to fund new infrastructure, the withdrawal from NATO, the renationalisation of the railways, the end of the nuclear weapons program, higher taxing of the rich, the end of austerity and an official apology for the invasion of Iraq.

His opponents for the leadership, as well as former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair say his politics are ‘Alice in Wonderland’, a disaster and that he’s living in a ‘parallel reality’. 

Among his many supporters, however, he is regarded as a conviction politician and a breath of fresh air. He is admired for his honesty and that he lives according to his principles. Many who left the Party during the Blair years are returning, along with tens of thousands of young voters, flocking to his rallies and his message in a celebration of idealism. It’s been like the summer of love for Corbyn and the Left in Britain.

So how did this all happen?

Unlike its Australian counterpart which has only recently introduced rules to allow members to have a say in electing the leader, the British Labour Party have been electing their leaders since 1983, with voting split three ways between the MPs (including European Parliament MPs), all party members and members of affiliated trade unions and socialist societies. 

So when Ed Milliband stepped down as Leader after his thumping election defeat in May this year, the somewhat drawn out process of finding his replacement began. The withdrawal of several expected Candidates meant the contest was anything but predictable right from the start and, like the summer Ashes series, turned out to be much more entertaining for the British public than anyone could have predicted.  

To add some extra unpredictability, the previous voting system was replaced by a true one member, one vote (OMOV) system, following criticism of the way Ed Milliband defeated his pro-Blair brother David Milliband.

It was said the ballot was ultimately decided by the unions whose members all received a vote even if they weren’t a Labour Party member, giving them a disproportionate and unfair influence over the outcome. 

The OMOV voting system gives single voting rights to all fully paid-up members, registered supporters and affiliated supporters who joined before 12 August. Under the new rules, anyone could pay £3 to become a ‘registered supporter’.

This was the most controversial feature of the election because not only did supporters of the Greens and hard left in the UK join to support Corbyn, but also, it is said, supporters of the Conservatives who wanted Corbyn elected because they believe he’ll be so disastrous for Labour. Corbyn won more than 80 percent of the £3 supporters.

Of more concern is that the role of elected MPs in the selection of the leader is now reduced solely to the nomination process. This means the people who are most familiar with the performance and competence of the potential leader don’t actually have a real influence in the process.

To stand, candidates needed to be nominated by at least 15% of the Parliamentary Labour Party, currently 35 MPs. The irony is that Jeremy Corbyn originally couldn’t even raise the necessary 35 signatures, but was helped out by some well-meaning MPs who thought the full political spectrum of the Party should be represented – something they may now clearly regret.  

The three other candidates Andy Burnham (Shadow Health Secretary), Yvette Cooper (Shadow Home Secretary) and Liz Kendall (Shadow Minister for Care and Older People) while not exactly household names were, on paper, all solid candidates for the position. 

But they were soundly thrashed by Corbyn. The closest candidate, Burnham, received 19 per cent, followed by Cooper with 17 per cent and Kendall could only manage 4.5 per cent. 

Kendall apparently blew herself out of the race early by being too unashamedly a Blairite – something that seems to be at the heart of the issue in this leadership contest. 

Tony Blair was the British Labour Party’s longest serving Prime Minister and most electorally successful leader, winning three consecutive elections, two of which were landslides.  Blair brought the party back from the political wilderness, wrestling power away from the radical left wing and trade unions. He created the New Labour brand and transformed Labour into a Party which represented the centre of politics with a modern, ideas-driven social not socialist agenda.

Despite the many achievements and reforms of the Blair government years, including the introduction of a national minimum wage, there was a large section of the Labour Party who never accepted the move to the centre and the pragmatism that went with it. Blair relied more upon public support than Party support, which eventually caught up with him, especially after the invasion of Iraq, for which he is reviled by sections of the Party. Once he stood down as leader to make way for Gordon Brown, the Party largely disowned the Blair years.

You would think the disastrous result of the May elections under Ed Milliband would act as a warning to the Party, but it seems to have had the opposite effect. The Party’s swing back to the left is now official.
Former leaders Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Neil Kinnock and many other current MPs and political strategists say Corbyn is unelectable. They believe he will lead the Party back into the wilderness or worse, total political annihilation. His policies are thought to be completely unacceptable to the broader public. Others predict (and hope) he won’t survive long enough to ever face election.

Corbyn may be popular outside the Parliament, but he will have some issues inside. In his 32 years on the backbench he hasn’t been known for his loyalty to his colleagues. It is reported in the media he has opposed his own Party on 500 different occasions. There are some MPs he hasn’t spoken to for years. There are many MPs who have declared they will not serve in his shadow ministry.

On stating her position with regards to serving in a Corbyn Shadow Ministry, Candidate Liz Kendall said:

“It would be disastrous for the Party and disastrous for the country and we would be out of power for a generation. I don’t want to be a party of protest and I would not be able to stop myself from making that case”. 

After the summer of love, it seems there could be some tough times head for British Labour, and the only winner apart from Corbyn will be David Cameron. For him, the party may only just be starting.