THE BLOG

Leave Labour Alone to Grieve

24/07/2015 17:51 BST | Updated 24/07/2016 10:59 BST

As you may have noticed, the commentariat has had a bad attack of the cobble-wobbles over the past few days: the idea that Jeremy Corbyn, a - gasp! - left-winger, might be regarded by party members as a credible potential leader has left the pundits reaching in panic for their smelling salts.

But ask your average Labour party member why they joined in the first place, and I imagine they'll tell you they want to make the UK a better place. So, I'm sure, do Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall - it's just that somehow Jeremy Corbyn, the - gasp! - left-winger, seems to be rather better at articulating what so many party members believe.

Here's what I think Labour party members want: a party that speaks up for those who have least and need most; that develops policies to distribute the nation's wealth more fairly; and that believes everyone deserves an equal chance to make the most of what life offers.

And here's the central dilemma: for reasons that many party activists struggle to comprehend, not enough voters seem to agree with them (a) that these are laudable objectives, or (b) that voting for the Labour party is the best way to achieve them.

There's an uncomfortable, but unavoidable, truth in all democracies: however high-minded your goals, you won't get a chance even to try to reach them unless you win an election. So all those people you want to help will remain unhelped - until and unless you can persuade enough people to vote for you.

After two successive election failures, Labour is now in deep mourning. That's why it's going through the five classic stages of grief: first, denial (remember that exit poll? It was obviously nonsense, right? Totally unbelievable...).

Second, anger (how could voters be so stupid? Why can't they see what they've done?). That's where party members are now. Rage, rage ... at Ed Miliband, Tony Blair, Harriet Harman, Liz Kendall, anyone you care to name. Oh yes, not forgetting Jeremy Corbyn, who for some senior MPs seems to represent all four horsemen of the apocalypse rolled into one.

Third will come bargaining. How about we start again? Will you vote for us if we turn sharp right (L Kendall)? Sharp left (J Corbyn)? Elect a leader who speaks with a Liverpudlian accent (A Burnham) or is a "working mum" (Y Cooper)?

Then, it's depression: oh God, look what's become of us, we're finished, no one loves us, we'll never win again. And only then, finally, comes acceptance: OK, we lost. We'll never forget the pain, but we've learned to live with it and now it's time to move on.

And that's when it'll be time to elect a new leader. Unfortunately, the timetable says different, so the new leader will be elected less than mid-way through the grieving process. It's like asking someone who's just been bereaved to choose a new partner within a week of the funeral.

According to some detailed focus group work done by two former Labour party campaign organisers, the main reasons why voters who had previously supported Labour turned away in May included doubts about Ed Miliband as a leader, doubts about the party's economic credibility, and a belief that Labour had nothing to offer for the "average family". They were also deeply unimpressed by the party's policies on immigration and welfare reform.

So the researchers have drawn up a list of questions that they suggest these lost Labour voters deserve to have answered by the party leadership candidates. What is Labour's purpose now? Why should we listen to you when we didn't listen to Ed Miliband? How will you re-build Labour's economic credibility, and what is your plan to help create jobs and wealth without taking the country further into debt? How will you reform the welfare state? And how will you help the country and our communities flourish within an increasingly globalised world that has growing migration of people?

Their report says that in last May's election, Labour lost 6% of the voters who had backed them in 2010 (they also gained about 5% from the Lib Dems). Of the voters who deserted them, about one-third went to the SNP in Scotland; one-third went to the Conservatives, and the rest went to the Greens and Ukip. In addition, according to some early work done by the polling organisations to discover why they ended up with egg on their faces, nearly three million previously Labour voters didn't turn out to vote on 7 May.

So the task for Labour party members as they choose their next leader is simply this: vote for someone who shares your ideals, but who can also appeal to all those former Labour voters who turned their backs on the party in May.

If you think that person is Jeremy Corbyn, fine, vote for him. And if he wins, and if in two years' time, Labour is still languishing miserably in the polls, dump him and try again. That's what the Tories did when they chose Iain Duncan Smith as their leader in 2001, and then dumped him two years later without even giving him a chance to fight an election. After a brief interlude with Michael Howard, they came up with David Cameron.

Five years is a very long time in politics - and even for the Labour party, it should be plenty long enough to go through all five stages of grief. For the good of the country - and for their own good - they should be allowed to get on with it.