Can Europe Make It?

Watching Labour: a European perspective

How is the Labour leadership contest being viewed from Europe?

Alessio Colonnelli
3 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn has electrified the Labour leadership campaign. Demotix/Haydn Wheeler. All rights reserved.I spent my best years on an island. I remember the lovely breeze, the drizzle, the occasional scorching day. The 2009 big snow. The underground strikes I agreed with despite being a right pain. I recall waiting for buses that would never come in the middle of a great countryside. This was Britain for me.

It’s a shame I can’t claim now to be one of the eight million foreign-born souls who live there. I wish I could, if anything to be able at least to follow the Labour leadership contest more closely. I’ll tell you why.

As seen from Europe the race sounds cracking. It started off with young candidates (Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna). Traditional parties on the Continent have a ghastly tendency to go for older men instead.

Right sticks in the mud they are. Look for instance at François Hollande, Mariano Rajoy and Sigmar Gabriel; while Matteo Renzi, Alexis Tsipras, Pedro Sánchez and Pablo Iglesias are all welcome yet desperate attempts to buck the trend. But I don’t want to seem ageist. Besides, age is not the main point.

Labour lost miserably on 7 May. Yet today I believe this party is hungry, ambitious and brave enough, like only the young can be. It stood up, dusted itself down and marshalled on. The British press thinks the opposite; but I take a different view.

They say the party won’t win in 2020. Spectator journalist Matthew Parris recently wrote that “the barbarians [Labour] are fighting among themselves and no longer threaten us! Hurrah! And it is true that a Labour civil war or even disintegration would guarantee the Conservatives’ return to office in 2020.” Even candidate Liz Kendall fears that if SNP is not reined in.

They may be right; or not. The fact remains that nobody can really tell now. Anything can happen. British politics is influenced by external factors too, which are mostly unpredictable: conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, the euro, market reactions to the Brexit referendum, immigration waves (I won’t be coming back, don’t worry) – you name it.

Hunt and Umunna eventually dropped out. Jeremy Corbyn replaced them. An ageing man, yes. A career politician even – a representative of the infamous ‘caste’, argh!, they’d say in Italy and Spain. Yet he’s not your average conformist old geezer. Corbyn has the attitude of feisty young people – he disobeyed his whip hundreds of times for a reason. An independent mind; or are his politics actually fantasy, like Alice in Wonderland, as Tony Blair would have it?

But it’s not just Corbyn. Yvette Cooper could win. A woman, finally. It’s been only centre-right parties so far that could boast female leaderships, albeit imbued with patriarchy (Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel). What did the European left do? It produced great minds: Enrico Berlinguer, Neil Kinnock, François Mitterrand, Felipe González, Helmut Schmidt. No women.

I heard and read what Cooper is saying; she’s certainly got what it takes to lead Labour. If elected, one of Cooper’s policies would be better protection of civil liberties. She told the Guardian she’d look into the issue of private sector companies holding way too much personal data – about time.

I’d be tempted to vote for her if I could, though  I wouldn’t easily dismiss Andy Burnham either: his opportunistic skills may well irritate some party members, but in government they’d do the trick. Liz Kendall? Her attempts to make Labour sound greener are strategically right, but her anti-Toryism sounds too much like a fixed posture; a given. And a rather inconsistent one too: she’s regarded a lot further to the right than Corbyn. (And fracking is easy to criticise.)

It’s been a truly electric race. Foreign newspapers are following it step by step. Writing for the Milanese Corriere della Sera, London correspondent Fabio Cavalera said “the more Labour centrists attack Corbyn with irrational arguments, the more ‘red’ Corbyn gathers consensus” (24 August).

Die Zeit reported that, if elected as the Labour leader, Corbyn would apologise for his party bringing the UK into the Iraq war as the motivations behind this were utter lies. The Hamburg-based hugely authoritative weekly also highlighted that Corbyn would not hesitate to apologise to the Iraqis as well (21 August).

Corbyn has also put forward the idea of introducing women-only train carriages to protect women from harassment. The French Les Echos reported that this suggestion was quickly criticised by the two women running in the contest – Cooper is against what she sees as segregation; Kendall claimed the proposal is a defeat against sexism (27 August). All three have a point – that’s all I can say.

It’s a difficult one. Cooper and Kendall’s reactions seem to go a notch deeper. What kind of society would emerge from that? And how practical would that be to implement? Can you imagine Clapham Junction at rush hour with longer trains because some carriages are half empty while others bursting at the seams? But you can see what Corbyn means.

Madrid’s El País has arguably followed the contest more closely than any other foreign-language publication. Burnham and Cooper, said the outstanding Spanish daily (23 August) focussing on the complex voting system, are both hoping that this will give them a leg-up: the election mechanism of the new leader offers much weight to the voter’s “second option”, if no candidate achieves an absolute majority. Hence the war Burnham and Cooper have begun to fight three weeks before the final verdict on 12 September.

Analyses in the European press have abounded, offering varying degrees of depth. Left-leaning publications have clearly been keener followers. Britain always manages to arouse interest.

A few weeks ago the Economist wrote that in a recent index of “soft power” — the ability to coax and persuade — Britain topped the chart as the mightiest country on Earth (14 July). The document was put together by the London-based PR firm Portland, Facebook (data on governments’ online impact), and ComRes (opinion polls on international attitudes to different countries).

In certain fields  like culture and education the UK still enjoys massive global clout. You can see why British politics gets scrutinised so much – and even Labour’s.

But of course the much talked-about Brexit referendum has also catalysed everyone’s attention – nobody on the Continent wants the UK out of the EU. The broader question is always the same: what kind of debate are the British having? What do they expect from themselves and their European partners?

A new breeze is blowing the red flag on the island I used to call home. I won’t be able to breathe it in; but I can hear it. Still, looming on the horizon, heavy clouds are forming: the findings of the much-maligned Chilcot inquiry.

Will they cast a dark shadow on Labour’s future? And justly so, perhaps? Will political opponents get anything out of the inquiry? And Britain as a whole? The wider public still hasn’t reflected much on its colonialist past, being too busy priding itself for having defeated the Germans – now heading Europe. Questions I wouldn’t know how to answer. Perhaps new leaders will.

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