In a Backbench exclusive, Labour MP and Deputy Leadership candidate Ben Bradshaw questions whether Jeremy Corbyn can lead the party to victory in 2020
First elected as Labour MP for Exeter in 1997, Ben Bradshaw currently holds one of just 12 Labour seats in the southern regions (excluding London). From 2010 to 2015, the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport increased his majority by 5,000 – a swing that was distinctly antithetical to the national trend.
One of five candidates vying for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party, Bradshaw believes that his experience of defeating the Tories in the south makes him the ideal individual to help cure Labour’s current electoral malaise. In an interview with Backbench, Bradshaw expressed that, “My unique selling point is that I am the only candidate, on either ballot, with a record of being in a safe Conservative seat and turning it into a Labour stronghold, which is what we will have to do in spades across England and Wales if we’re to have any hope of getting back into government.”
When pressed on how he believes Labour can regain votes lost to the Tories in May, Bradshaw prioritised the need for a credible economic message and strong party leadership – commonly perceived to be the two fundamental flaws of Ed Miliband’s tenure. “We need to rebuild the public’s trust that we can run the economy competently… We completely failed to defend the record of the last Labour government… In a democracy, it’s impossible to win general elections if you’re not trusted to run the economy competently, and if your leadership isn’t rated.”
In relation to the rise of UKIP, Bradshaw advocated a combative approach. In Bradshaw’s view, Labour must reclaim the politics of patriotism by reigniting a discussion on English identity, while forcefully challenging Nigel Farage’s party on policies that are “more Tory than the Tories”.
A poll published by The Times last week suggested that Bradshaw’s message is somewhat failing to resonate with the Labour rank-and-file. Bradshaw ranked fourth out of the five candidates on 11%, over 30% behind frontrunner Tom Watson. Indeed, it appears as though more idealistic candidates are winning the post-election posturing. The same poll, conducted by YouGov, predicted that veteran radical Jeremy Corbyn would win the leadership contest by a margin of 6% over Andy Burnham. Moreover, a private poll, recently leaked by The Mirror, indicated that Corbyn could even achieve a landslide victory.
Commenting on this ascendancy of principle over pragmatism in the Labour Party, Bradshaw’s sentiments were immutable. “There is no such thing as principle without winning,” he expressed. “The only principle that matters is the principle that we are prepared to adopt the policies that will win us the next election. Anything else is just self-indulgence.”
Thus, when pressed on Corbyn’s staunch socialist approach, the deputy leadership candidate expressed extreme scepticism: “When people have been through a serious trauma, as we have, there is a great temptation to reach for the comfort blanket, rather than to think in a hard-headed way about who would have the best chance of winning us the next election.”
Bradshaw carried-on by saying that, “The idea that we lost seats like Southampton and Plymouth to the Tories because we weren’t radical or left wing enough just doesn’t add up.”
Though Bradshaw remarked that he would be willing to work with whoever the party chooses as leader, it is clear that a distinct divergence of opinion would have to be negotiated in the event of a Corbyn-Bradshaw partnership.
Nevertheless, common ground could be found in relation to the new ‘Living Wage’. Indeed, Bradshaw – if elected deputy leader – would push for the Living Wage to be extended to the under-25s, a group of individuals who will be excluded under Chancellor George Osborne’s new proposals. This is also a policy that has been endorsed by Corbyn, who has been highly critical of the government’s vilification of young people.
In general, however, the two candidates exhibit markedly different strategies. Bradshaw speaks with a Blairite philosophy, taking a pragmatic approach designed to acquiesce to public opinion. Corbyn’s outlook is akin to old-school Labourites, Foot or Benn for example. Yet, the question remains as to whether it’s the Blairite or Bennite school-of-thought that is appropriate to the Labour Party in 2015; and which version of its past will ensure the Labour Party’s success in the future.