Labour’s leadership election is haunted by guilt and shame | Zoe Williams | Opinion

Some say the Labour leadership election is boring, but boredom is in the eye of the beholder. So far, from the outside, it has not ignited; it lacks passion, the candidates differ only in presentation. Even from the inside, among party members, a common enough sentiment is, let this contest end and someone win. There is a sense that the candidates are not doing enough either to differentiate themselves or to upturn expectations. It is not the candidates themselves who lack verve, but their supporters. Every candidate has their fans, but they are shy, which is the opposite of what fandom is supposed to be about.

The twist of the 2016 US election was the revelation that supporters didn’t matter as much as “stans” – wild enthusiasts, evangelists, people who would wear a candidate’s face as a tattoo. It’s the Joan of Arc view of politics: we don’t even need 100 people so strong, just 10 could do it, with God on their side (God, here, standing in for the might of conviction). Without cheerleaders, the casually interested don’t know where to put themselves. All the Labour candidates have these stans, but there is an overarching pall over expressing enthusiasm.

It is a fiction of the left that an election loss is always its fault, and anything that comes after, therefore, its shame. This is partly down to the lofty though reasonable idea that a constructive programme of equality and justice should always prevail, and if it doesn’t the deficiency is in the messenger. It’s also partly down to the internecine wrangles for which Labour is famed, which find expression in the different wings of the party blaming one another for a Conservative government.

But those recriminations have this time been less severe than the simple guilt, shame and despair that have dominated the mood since 12 December. It would have been crass for any candidate to come out tap- dancing. For a good few weeks it was almost obligatory to commence every sentence with a proclamation of devastation. Performative sadness became part of the Labour story, which was not fertile terrain for followers.

Each campaign is muted in a different way. Rebecca Long-Bailey was extremely well resourced. She had the support of major figures around Jeremy Corbyn – Jon Lansman, Len McCluskey, John McDonnell. The only hindrance was their failure to cooperate with each other. Her problem was the contradictory imperative. If you’re billed as the candidate who will faithfully continue Corbyn’s work, you have to mourn his failure. She was mocked for giving his leadership 10 out of 10, but what other answer could she have given?

Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn

Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn. ‘We weren’t all expecting defeat in the general election, but for the remain left the Corbyn dream had already died.’ Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images

Keir Starmer’s stans (and I am one) had a head start. Being comprised mainly of left remainers, we were already catastrophically disappointed over last May’s European elections, when Labour barely campaigned for fear of appearing too pro-EU, and thereby disavowed the most advanced leftist manifesto ever produced by the Party of European Socialists. (It called for mass, grassroots, transnational cooperation on climate, human rights, equality; a new contract for the young; a seismic reassertion of power in the workplace: it was brilliant).

We weren’t all expecting defeat in the general election, but for us the Corbyn dream had already died, insofar as it was meant to be about pluralism and principle. Yet even among most Starmer stans, there is a similar reluctance to dance on Corbyn’s grave: Starmer himself is from the left of the party, and most CLPs who nominated him were pro-Corbyn in 2015. There is also residual embarrassment at backing a man.

Lisa Nandy is in the most interesting position of all – as the outsider she has found herself holding together a surprisingly broad but shallow coalition. The support of the Labour right – “gifted” from Jess Phillips – comes with a set of demands. She has to talk about realism and practicality and electability – all the classic arguments of maintaining Labour as the nice face of the status quo. She has to marshal voters’ “legitimate concerns” as a way to make the radicals pipe down.

Yet her natural intellectual bent is quite different, antithetical even, from what we might call classic Westminster. It’s a tension she manages quite well, but her supporters can’t charge hollering into battle for fear of exposing their differences with one another. She invites sincere but tentative allegiance.

The reason I am a Starmer stan has nothing to do with remain or Europe. I interviewed him in 2013 as departing director of public prosecutions, and he explained the new thinking on rape and sexual violence; how the system had been vexed by the concept of the perfect victim. She would not be a sex worker or drug addict, promiscuous or alcoholic; she would always have behaved in a prescribed way and reported the crime in a timely fashion. It in effect situated “imperfect” women outside the rule of law – which was a problem not just for victims, or even just for women, but for justice.

I was impressed by his sober conviction and unwavering values. But more than that, I was struck by how he arrived at these conclusions, which was by listening to women who had been raped, not as victims but as equals. I have met maybe two or three people in my professional life – none of the others politicians – who can hear marginalised people not for a focus group, consultation exercise or view from the doorstep, but as peers equally credible and important in the shared endeavour of social justice. I say that not in a bid to persuade, but because passions do run high in this contest. Grief has made everybody coy, but the boredom is skin deep.

Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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