For a political party that should be concerned about the future, the Labour party likes to spend an obscenely long time talking about the past. The fight for the party’s leadership, which has slowly unwound over the summer months, has taken place on old battlegrounds.
Opponents of Jeremy Corbyn, the rank outsider turned odds-on favourite, accuse him of rehashing policies and politics from the 1980s. In turn, Corbyn’s supporters argue that the three other candidates – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall – are nothing more than throwbacks to the Blair era of the late 1990s and early 2000s. (That this was Labour’s most successful period in history is, to a Corbynite, irrelevant.)
One can only imagine what ordinary British voters thinks of all this. And imagination is all we can actually rely on because no one has asked them yet. In the three months since the leadership race began there has not been a single opinion poll pitting the four candidates against any of their likely Conservative opponents at the next general election in 2020. Labour is choosing a new potential prime minister without having any idea which one of the candidates has the best chance of winning.
It’s a different story in the US, where there have been five polls in the past month alone comparing the main Republican candidates with their likely Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Republican primary voters backing Donald Trump are fully aware that their man is currently on course to lose by 14 points to Clinton, while Jeb Bush would be just four points behind.
The big argument at the heart of Labour’s race is whether Corbyn, a candidate from the hard left, has any chance of winning a general election. Conventional political wisdom suggests he doesn’t but conventional political wisdom can be wrong. A poll predicting he would do no better or worse than any of the other candidates could end the debate on electability once and for all. More realistically, a poll showing Corbyn-led Labour party crashing to 25 per cent or losing another 50 seats might make some of his supporters think again.
If Labour has to dwell on the past, there is a more recent history lesson that’s worth remembering. When David Cameron announced his candidacy for the leadership of the Conservative party in 2005 he was the rank outsider. An MP for just four years, a shadow minister for just a few months, he was standing against a handful of well-known political figures.
But his campaign took off following a televised focus group with swing voters, carried out by an American pollster Frank Luntz. The group loved this fresh-faced newcomer and overwhelmingly backed him. From that moment the race changed, Cameron had momentum and, in the end, won fairly comfortably.
The key difference to today is that the Conservative party, battered by three successive defeats, was desperate to win again. Strangely, the most vociferous Corbyn supporters do not appear to care whether their candidate has a chance of becoming prime minister. For them, purity of opposition is better than the pragmatism of government. A Luntz-style focus group may not make a difference now anyway but at least the party couldn’t say it wasn’t warned.
Steve Bloomfield is Monocle’s Executive Editor.