A Party is selecting a new leader and is using, for the first time, an open selection process. The early frontrunners from the moderate wing of the Party, who have dominated the Party in the previous decades, have faltered and disappointed. Others, young and dynamic politicians, have refused to run for personal and political reasons. Instead, the insurgent, an outsider candidate from the Left of the Party is gaining momentum. He is backed by a wave of younger activists who are disappointed by the Party’s previous period in government with its compromises and controversial war and are idealistic for a new settlement. As the campaign progressed, the moderates try to rally around a candidate, any candidate, to stop the insurgent Left. However, it is too late. The insurgent suddenly finds himself Party Leader.
The year is 1972 and George McGovern has just become the Democratic nominee for President.
On his way to the nomination, McGovern defeated Edmund Muskie, a Senator from Maine and stalwart of the moderate wing, whose campaign collapsed after an infamous incident where Muskie allegedly broke down and cried whilst condemning press attacks on his wife and Muskie’s subsequent poor performance in the New Hampshire primary. In that primary, McGovern had surged from a low of 3% at the start of the year to 37% (compared to Muskie’s 46%). McGovern also defeated other leading establishment figures such as former Vice President (and 1968 Presidential nominee) Hubert H. Humphrey and Senator Scoop Jackson. He was aided by Senator Ted Kennedy’s refusal to enter the race after the Chappaquiddick incident and the early withdrawal of Senator Birch Bayh due to his wife’s cancer diagnosis.
George J. Mitchell, a Muskie staffer and later Muskie’s successor as Senator, said afterwards that “Muskie’s appeal was to reason, to legislative accomplishment, to sort of general policies in the best interest of the country. The primary electorate was interested in emotion, passion, strong views on every issue, and the general election candidate who tries to navigate a nomination process by not being clear on very hot button issues finds it difficult in the nominating process”.
The similarities between the 1972 Democratic primaries and Labour’s current leadership election are uncanny.
The Collins Review, like the McGovern-Fraser Commission, rewrote the selection rules, creating a much more open leadership contest and removing special voting power of MPs (or the local Party bosses in the case of the Democrats). The end of the electoral college has enabled a burst of support for Corbyn to potentially carry him to the leadership with no ability of MPs to veto his rise. Of course, MPs retained the power over the shortlist although that power was not exercised to block Corbyn.
McGovern’s supporters, as Mitchell observed, wanted emotion and clarity in their candidate; they were the heirs to the spirit of Bobby Kennedy’s tragic last campaign. His support base was made up of ethnic minorities, women, the young and New Left activists; they were anti-Vietnam, pro-drug liberalisation, pro-abortion and supportive of a basic income. Corbyn’s supporters, according to a recent YouGov poll, preferred a leader who will make a shift to the left and providing effective opposition to the Tories to one that understanding how to win. As Jonathan Freedland so accurately observed, Corbyn’s support is about identity, not power. His supporters want authenticity over the (perceived) cynicism of the Party’s moderate wing and a break from the supposed disappointments and failures of the ancien régime.
The Muskie, Humphrey and Jackson of this race are Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. Burnham and Cooper have positioned themselves carefully, seeking not to offend the Left or the Right. Burnham flip-flopped on welfare and he and Cooper have failed to set out any defining mission for their proposed leadership. Their campaigns have been vanilla in the extreme. Kendall’s analysis of Labour’s failings is correct and her attempts to move Labour towards the centre are necessary for the Party to win. Yet, she has employed too much of the short, sharp shock and too little of the optimism, hope and moral language needed build a winning coalition within the Labour selectorate.
The princes-over-the-water in 1972 were Ted Kennedy and Birch Bayh. Both would ultimately run for their party’s nomination in 1980 and 1976 respectively; both failed. For Labour, Chuka Umunna and Dan Jarvis are the pretenders to the crown. The pressures placed on his family stymied Umunna’s nascent bid. Jarvis too declined to run for family reasons. However, should the crown be available in future, both are expected to run.
As McGovern’s campaign gained traction, an “Anyone But McGovern” coalition formed amongst the moderates and the party establishment. This coalition, led by Georgia Governor (and future President) Jimmy Carter, sought to fix the rules of the primaries to dilute McGovern’s support and enable Humphrey to gain the nomination. However, their attempts failed and McGovern sealed the nomination. A similar movement has arisen to encourage Labour moderates to unite in order to better enable a Corbyn defeat. This could backfire by amplifying Corbyn’s anti-establishment status and does not deal with the need for a figure from the centre or right of the Party to offer a compelling vision that appeals to a majority of the Party.
George McGovern won the Democratic nomination but was destroyed in the 1972 Presidential election by President Richard Nixon. The “amnesty, abortion and acid” caricature clung to him, the Eagleton controversy and McGovern’s subsequent indecisiveness made him look weak, and Nixon’s southern strategy ripped apart the electoral coalition that had delivered the Democrats the Presidency in all but three election post-1928. Nixon carried 49 states (including McGovern’s home state of South Dakota) with 60.7% of the vote, winning 520 electoral college votes to McGovern’s 17. One in three registered Democrats voted for Nixon. His margin of victory was the fourth largest in history. Under Corbyn, Labour faces a similar fate.