Labour's anger is the second stage of grief
by Andy White, Head of Innovation

There are said to be five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

The first stage is marked by an unwillingness to accept that anything has changed. Widowed spouses wait by the door for their partner to come home. Children refuse to accept the end of their parents’ relationship. The shock hasn’t sunk in yet.

Stage 1: Denial

The two front-runners in Labour’s 2010 leadership race were, in hindsight, candidates of denial.

Those who blamed Labour’s breakdown on the Gordon Brown affair saw in David Miliband an opportunity to sweep it under the carpet. The rest thought Ed Miliband had the right answers, moving the party on from Tony Blair’s adventures in Iraq and Peter Mandelson’s “prawn cocktail offensive”.

The narcissism of small differences was poetically illustrated by a race in which two brothers squabbled over the legacy of two men who had, in the words of Anthony Seldon, ascended through the ranks “like brothers”.

People will continue to debate whether David Miliband would have fared better than his younger brother at the 2015 General Election. ComRes polls suggested he would have appealed to a wider section of the electorate on a personal level, but the problems with the Labour Party ran much deeper than just Iraq, the crash, or a couple of personalities.

Stage 2: Anger

So now, after the denial of 2010, we have the anger of 2015. Liz Kendall, in the blue corner (allegedly), represents the rage of the vindicated: the Blairites who knew Ed Miliband and the Labour Left had taken a wrong turn.

Jeremy Corbyn, in the red corner, channels the righteous indignation of the betrayed. They see Osbornomics go unchallenged. They watch the rise of Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, Alexis Tsipras in Greece, and the Podemos movement in Spain, and demand their own authentically left-wing figurehead.

The success of Corbyn has cast Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper negatively as the Anyone-But-Corbyn (ABC) candidates. (Had Kendall been more successful, they would surely have been competing to be ABKs.)

Can you stop Corbyn?

Many of Corbyn’s opponents make the mistake of seeing this race as another round of denial. They attack him for denying what they see as the basic truths of politics, for being unelectable, for being “even further to the left than Ed Miliband”.

But those who act in anger act without fear of consequence. The Conservative Party once chose Iain Duncan Smith as its leader. It was a two-fingered gesture to the politics of people like Ken Clarke rather than a serious attempt at fashioning an electoral force.

Mark Mardell argued last week that these difficult emotions may be a necessary step on the road to recovery. The challenge for a party is how quickly and constructively it can move through these stages of grief. As the graph below shows, it took both Labour and the Conservatives four attempts to find electable leaders:



So those looking to block Corbyn may want to question him on his own terms. His supporters back him because they see him as a traditional, principled man of the left. Arguing that he is not a serious prime ministerial prospect is irrelevant to them.

When Tony Blair advises Corbyn’s supporters to “get a heart transplant” they wear his scorn as a badge of honour. They act in anger, not denial.

But is Corbyn definitely ahead?

Another campaign has been brought to life by a poll showing the left winger ahead - and Stephen Bush has argued that this time the polls are supported by the underlying fundamentals.

Nevertheless, this is a hugely challenging race to poll, as the Labour membership is fluid and poorly understood. Many of those registered will not vote. The ‘alternative vote’ system means that candidates usually need to gain second and third preferences from supporters of other candidates.

Stage 3: Bargaining

It is those second and third preferences which may offer Labour a route to the third stage of grief: bargaining. Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham hope that their less divisive messages will win the race.

If they do, they will be tasked not only with electoral recovery in 2020, but with leading their party’s emotional recovery. Depression, the fourth stage of grief, may set in if expectations are too high. But with sensible leadership, they might just reach acceptance – that the past cannot be changed, and only the future counts.