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Labour’s campaign: A serious election pitch or a battle for the next leader?

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn reacts during the launch of the Labour party election manifesto in Birmingham. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images) - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Labour’s leadership appears to be preparing for defeat – and the party’s current battle appears more focused on ensuring the shift leftward continues under a future leader.

There is something strange about the final days of Labour’s campaign – a series of frenetic announcements, policies, and documents from which it’s hard to glean a coherent strategy.

One particular recent example was an idea you’d think more fitting of reality television – or an Oprah Winfrey giveaway – than a serious proposition from a man looking to become the prime minister on Friday: Jeremy Corbyn offered to give a homeless family a mansion.

Picking up on a previous statement by John McDonnell that if he became chancellor he would not move into Number 11, but instead commute to work and offer the Downing Street address to a homeless family, Corbyn said he would do the same thing with Chequers – the Buckinghamshire country house used by the prime minister to host summits and cabinet awaydays.

Both propositions raise questions. Being chancellor is a round-the-clock job that can require urgent work to prevent huge economic crises – so why could McDonnell not move into Number 11 and offer up his own current home to a homeless family?

And as for Corbyn’s proposition, surely offering one mansion – equipped for the affairs of government – to a homeless family is a slipshod way of fixing a serious problem, a gesture where serious help is needed.

The ridiculous part of this is that if Corbyn were PM and McDonnell chancellor they would be in a serious position to tackle homelessness. Heads of government could look to review the entirety of the government estate, and sell-off or demolish sites to build thousands of low-cost council homes. They could review planning law, expand shelters and fix the welfare system.

Even while they propose to do some of these things, instead of concentrating on the real systemic changes they could make, they focus on gesture politics to signal their saintliness.

A similar muddle of signalling infests the party’s actual policy, even when they are supposedly backing big changes.

The party, for example, pledges to build 4,000 homes especially for rough sleepers – an idea which sounds great, but which experts in the sector would baulk at, if for no reason other than it might push desperate people in hostels or similar accommodation to the streets in a misguided belief that would get them a home faster, for example.

Labour pledges to end in-work poverty within its first term, but only spends enough to reverse half of the cuts to working age benefits introduced by the Conservatives. Meanwhile, it spends £58 billion outside of its costings to the so-called ‘Waspi’ women who lost out as a result of pension changes – a relatively wealthy group – in a way that especially benefits the better-off among them, and scraps tuition fees in a way that most benefits high-earning graduates.

As it does this, it pledges to make a “typical” family £6,716 a year better off, reliant on supposing a family of medium earners has two parents commuting by rail, currently receives no government help with childcare, and yet would get it later, along with numerous other assumptions. It is possible there is no family in the country that would benefit in the way these assertions suggest.

Labour is promising the world in a way that no government could ever deliver, and using almost any number it can conceive to offer it – somehow reaching the levels of implausibility displayed by their opponents, a party led by a man fired twice for lying.

To remain one of the faithful relies on not noticing this, and certainly not pointing it out. You must believe in all of these things, in the saintliness, in the goodness of the aims, and in all of these contradictory and confused numbers.

And that’s not even the worst of the requirements to still be one of the party’s vanguards. It also requires ignoring or belittling staggering accusations of widespread anti-Jewish racism, including a devastating leaked dossier of evidence submitted to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is investigating the party for institutional racism.

The only legitimate response to this is to apologise, vow to listen, and vow to tackle the problem. It is true that Labour is far from the only home of anti-Semitism in the UK, and it is true the Conservatives have a long-standing and deep problem with Islamophobia. Neither of these points remotely excuses Labour, and activists who offer up either are indulging in the worst sort of whataboutery.

After the emergence of the leaked dossier, some Labour cheerleaders found themselves more worked up about potential breaches of GDPR than they ever seemed to be about anti-Semitism. Labour has turned good and principled activists into deniers of racism.

Looking at these chaotic final days, it is hard not to conclude the party’s leadership has given up on actually winning this election. It does not seem to even be pushing to minimise its losses.

Instead, Labour’s leadership seems to be salting the ground, spreading the fuel, and poisoning the pills for any future leader of the party who might try to steer away from the course set by Jeremy Corbyn, inviting comparisons on selflessness and on ambition that no future leader who expected to win could ever match.

It seems to be a bid to make sure Corbynism lasts beyond Corbyn, but in the most destructive ways possible. There is much that could be taken from Labour’s shift leftwards in recent years and kept, but the current plans seem to leave the party with no room to evolve or to adapt to the electorate.

The mantra seems to be that Labour will be in Corbyn’s image, or it will be nothing.

Perhaps Friday will offer a shock. Perhaps this will look wildly wrong. But it feels like the last week of Labour’s campaign is aimed at the party’s own succession battle far more than it is aimed at forming the next government. And amid the scorched earth tactics, it risks ensuring that whoever succeeds Corbyn could merely be the leader of the ashes of the party.

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