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The Next Labour Leader Must Unite the Broad Church

30/07/2015 09:37 BST | Updated 29/07/2016 10:59 BST

Most Labour MPs wanted a dry, predictable debate. They were comfortable with Andy Burnham on the moderate left, Liz Kendall on the moderate right and Yvette Cooper hovering somewhere in between. The differences in their policies were minor and thus the debate would have essentially been a personality contest - devoid of theory and entirely superficial. Burnham, therefore, was the clear favourite, as he is easily the most likeable and indeed electable of the candidates. It was all going so well. MPs were comfortable and members were bored. Enter Corbyn.

The debate changed. The comfort ceased. A divide emerged between left and right. This divide has played a large role throughout Labour's history, from Bevan and Gaitskell in the 50s to Benn and Healey in the 80s. The divide in itself is not a problem - Labour has always welcomed their broad church - but the aftermath around leadership elections often creates disharmony. Labour always struggle to unite behind their eventual leader.

The left and the right of the Labour Party have both created problems in the past. During Michael Foot's reign, the 'gang of four' - Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams - split to create the Social Democratic Party because Labour were too left-wing. During Neil Kinnock's reign, Militant Tendency - a radical Trotskyite faction within Labour - were denounced and, for the most part, expelled from the party for causing trouble. Harold Wilson's broad church has crumbled before and, unless Labour restores a sense of unity, the church will inexorably crumble again.

Critics are asserting that, if Corbyn wins, the right could break from the Labour Party. I imagine this hypothesis is based on empty threats from disgruntled MPs. A split seems unnecessary. Corbyn may have been Tony Benn's favourite MP - a somewhat shocking claim considering poor Hilary - but Corbyn is no Bennite. Unlike Benn, Corbyn has the potential to unite the Labour Party. His policies, perhaps in contrast to his rhetoric, are not radical: 50% tax rate for the richest, small-scale renationalisation and a vague commitment to anti-austerity. If the right are willing to compromise, they can accept these policies. My only worry is Corbyn's ostensible obstinacy, as he too will need to compromise.

If Kendall wins, the left will inevitably continue in their unfair portrayal of 'Tory Liz'. Many will leave the party and join the Greens, socialist alternatives, or, for those outside England, Plaid Cymru and the SNP. Kendall, however, also has the ability to unite the party. She too will need to compromise. She will have to promote progressive policies that appeal to the left, such as a further increase in the minimum wage. I fear Kendall could fail in this task. Like Corbyn, Kendall might be too stubborn to compromise.

Cooper and Burnham are the obvious candidates to unite the broad church. Unfortunately, they have been uninspiring throughout the debate. Cooper has been articulate, but lacking in content. After emerging as the left-wing alternative, Burnham has failed to offer any real alternatives. Kendall summed up Cooper and Burnham's failure when she said: 'There are two people offering a clear alternative for the future of the Labour party and that's me and Jeremy Corbyn.'

The right of the Labour Party are claiming Corbyn is too radical to win an election. The left claim that Kendall's failure to offer a coherent alternative to the Tories make her unelectable. Both of these arguments are, in my opinion, wrong. Corbyn, Kendall, Cooper and Burnham have the potential to lead the Labour Party to a general election victory. Labour will only achieve this objective if they are strong and united in opposition.

The leader is not solely responsible for the election result. A weak, divided Labour Party, as history reminds us, is unelectable. A strong, united party, behind leaders of the left and the right alike, can win elections. It is members of the party, not the leader, that could condemn Labour to political oblivion. It is also members of the party, not the leader, that could win the next general election. Labour's leader, therefore, must unite the broad church. Blairites, Corbynites, Torylites, Bennites and every other member of the church need to come together under a common banner. And, of course, the leader will have to make compromises that appeal to the entire congregation.