Picture: The first PMQs maybe?
Antifrank looks at how CON might respond to a JC victory
When the Conservatives had finished celebrating their unexpected overall majority and started gazing across at the potential Labour leadership candidates they no doubt started thinking about the challenges of their next possible Labour opponent. Newspapers and blogs speculated about which of the leadership candidates the Conservatives most feared, and then newspapers and blogs further speculated whether the Conservatives were laying false trails. This speculation revolved primarily around Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. Jeremy Corbyn was considered largely as a joke candidate, with more frivolous Tories considering enrolling in order to vote for him as a “vote for the worst” candidate (showing that X Factor has had an impact on the political discourse).
In a few short weeks the race has turned upside down. The Labour establishment is horrified at Jeremy Corbyn’s transformation into favourite for the leadership election and most Conservative supporters are chortling.
If Jeremy Corbyn wins
The Conservatives are rightly keeping quiet right now on the basis that one should never interrupt an enemy when he is making a mistake. That all changes after the leadership contest is over and any mistakes have been made. What if Jeremy Corbyn wins? How should the Conservatives take him on?
The prospectus for a Corbyn-led Labour party runs roughly as follows. If Labour can unite the left and also enlist a new cohort of voters behind them, they have the opportunity to reshape the political debate. The optimistic version of this thesis sees Labour sweep to power on a Syriza-style mandate in 2020. The cautious version sees Jeremy Corbyn step down in 2018 to allow a more electable leader to take over for the election campaign on a softer left but still leftwing platform.
The Conservatives should seek to undermine every part of Jeremy Corbyn’s prospectus. If they can avoid doing so, however, they should not engage in a battle of ideas: by taking on his ideas they would be implicitly treating them with a seriousness that would invite support from others.
The Conservatives have a better strategy available to them, which is to seek to split the left based around Jeremy Corbyn’s political past, immediately challenging Labour establishment figures to disown any connection with a party led by a man who has invited unrepentant terrorists to the House of Commons shortly after they attempted to wipe out the elected government, who believes in homeopathy, who believes that it is the US drive to expand eastwards which lies at the root of the crisis in Ukraine and who describes Hamas as friends. Rather than compare him with Keir Hardie or Alexis Tsipras, they should compare him with David Icke.
Such a strategy has both short term and long term advantages, few of which have all that much to do with Jeremy Corbyn. It would immediately put senior Labour politicians of all stripes on the spot, forcing them to decide there and then whether they would work towards party unity or take a stand based on principle. Some at least would refuse to work with Jeremy Corbyn, making it easy for the Conservatives to portray the Labour party as riven by splits: as, indeed, it would be. It would undermine the prospect of Corbynmania leading to a wave of new support for a sharp left turn in British politics.
In the longer term, the Conservatives would seek to label any politician who chose the path of party unity as someone who would serve under a man with Jeremy Corbyn’s beliefs, marking them out as unscrupulous, a wild-eyed leftwinger, lacking leadership qualities or all three. The Conservatives would seek to smother Labour dissidents with their embrace, publicly inviting them to leave the hellhole of Labour leftwing politics to join them. While such offers would be curtly refused by most if not all, it would foment suspicion within the Labour party. The prospect of a disunited left would yawn ahead for years to come, even if Jeremy Corbyn was replaced fairly quickly. His putative successor would inherit a nest of vipers.
Occasionally the idea is floated to go easy on a leader who is perceived to be weak in case he or she is replaced by someone more capable. That always seems a daft idea to me but if Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader of the Labour party it will be particularly half-baked. By going hard on Jeremy Corbyn early if he is elected, the Conservatives have the chance to discredit not just the current Labour leader but to salt the ground for his successors.
If Jeremy Corbyn falls short
The betting markets still make it more likely than not that someone other than Jeremy Corbyn will emerge as Labour leader. Barring a dramatic collapse in his support, however, he looks likely to secure a sizeable share of the leadership vote come what may. The new leader will need to decide how to respond to this.
The instinctive reaction of a new leader will be to try to unify the party. The Conservatives have every interest in securing the opposite. Accordingly, in these circumstances they will be trying to portray the new Labour leader (whoever he or she is) as being dangerously beholden to the extreme left. The higher Jeremy Corbyn’s final vote, the easier it will be to send out this message.
While the Conservatives would probably prefer Jeremy Corbyn to win the leadership nomination, one advantage of him finishing a good second would be that they could take as read the loony nature of his politics because the new leader’s team would not want to defend them, for fear of being tarred with the same brush unnecessarily. Each Conservative attack, however, would prompt the Corbynites to defend their man’s corner, undermining the new Labour leader’s positioning.
If Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t win, the next Labour leader is going to have to think carefully what to do about him. If he is offered a shadow Cabinet position, the Conservative “reds under the beds” line of attack is going to have much more potency. If he is not given a meaningful role, the twitterocracy is going to be incandescent.
Liz Kendall has made it clear that she would not touch him with a bargepole but Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper have been more equivocal about whether they would include him in their shadow Cabinets (Andy Burnham in particular has gone back and forth on this). If they’re serious about winning the next election, on taking up the leadership role they need to say quickly what place they see for Jeremy Corbyn. The choice is between signalling a left turn and institutionalising a left-right split in the Labour party. These are both unattractive options and the Conservatives would be ready to pounce either way.
Playing the man not the ball
From this point Jeremy Corbyn only ceases to form part of the Conservatives’ strategy for attacking Labour if he withdraws or if he drastically underperforms current expectations. Right now that would be a serious shock.
The strategy I have outlined above is not particularly complicated and it is not particularly pretty but given the existing strains within Labour it would be very likely to be effective. It also goes with the demographic grain. Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn are keen to enlist new younger voters but it is likely that the largest group of voters in 2020 will be the over 55s. The youngest of this cohort of voters first voted in 1983, so their political memories will include Labour’s vicious leadership battles with the left in the 1980s. A repeat should make it easy to corral them into the Conservative pen.
I tried hard to see some positives in all of this from Labour’s viewpoint but on this occasion I couldn’t. Given how the leadership contest has unfolded, a whole new line of attack has opened up for the Conservatives which should solidify their existing vote and potentially recruit them many more supporters. I expect them to take that with gusto.