The tragedy of the Labour leadership contest is they are not debating what really matters to the country and to their party for the future. It cannot resolve most of the big questions, as they are not being posed.
The Labour party in Parliament is bitterly divided over what it stands for, what it should oppose and what it should support, and what it should offer electors in 2020.
Some think it should return to more Blairite ways, agreeing with the Conservative government over matters like lower tax rates, keeping a nuclear deterrent, and running budgets that keep tax revenues related to spending with modest deficits. They recall they won in 1997 by promising to keep to Conservative spending plans, running a surplus in their early years, and keeping Income tax rates at inherited levels. They think Mr Miliband was too left wing.
Others think the last leadership compromised with the Blairites and with the Conservatives too much in 2015. They want a more radical socialist alternative, that opposes nuclear weapons, proposes much higher Income and Wealth taxes, argues for larger public deficits, advocates more wide ranging nationalisation from railways to health and offers a substantial strengthening of trade union rights and influence.
Both these are legitimate positions worthy of debate. It is not obvious looking at the current state of UK politics that either offers a clearly winning formula to give Labour 40-44% of the vote and a possible General Election victory. The problem is this last century debate misses out on matters that worry modern electors a lot. Both sides in the debate would prefer continued membership of the EU despite many Labour voters and a large majority of all voters in heavily Labour areas agreeing with the national verdict to leave. Neither side has a positive view of what to do about unlimited immigration. Neither side dares mention the word England, sicking to their outdated lop sided devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with nothing for the largest country of the Union. Neither has good ideas on how to win back votes from the SNP in Scotland nor how to stop more votes for Conservatives and UKIP in England.
Even more strange is this leadership contest is between two people who largely agree on all these matters. Both Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn subscribe to the view that Labour should shift leftwards on employment rights, pay, tax levels, and more nationalisation. They do not yet have any disagreement on migration, the EU or the problem of English identity and government. It’s an argument about personality and style more than about substance.
Mr Corbyn can claim that Mr Smith is splitting the party and trying to upend a legitimately elected leader. Mr Smith can claim that he has the support of more MPs than Mr Corbyn, who finds it difficult to staff an Opposition front bench given the way many Labour MPs are on strike against the current leadership. Mr Corbyn looks the most likely to win. This poses big issues for Labour MPs, who have to decide if they then will get behind their duly elected leader. Can they suddenly discover confidence in him where they had none a few days before? If Mr Smith suddenly does better and surprises, then he will have a very unhappy party in the country trying to drive him to more Corbyn type policies when the MPs may wish to tack back to try to win more English and middle class votes.
It would have been better if a champion of a genuinely different strategy to Mr Corbyn’s had arisen to have the debate they need to have about the future direction of policy and the country. It would also help if both sides thought through the meaning of the EU referendum decision, and showed some respect for the public view. It is going to be very difficult running an Opposition with no new policies on identity and migration, and with a grudge against electors for voting the wrong way as they see it in the EU referendum. Opposition should be about getting more into line with public opinion, not trying to find more ways of disagreeing with it.