What the adulation of Jeremy Corbyn will mean for British politics

What the adulation of Jeremy Corbyn will mean for British politics


Antifrank on what he describes as “Puppy Love

We’ve been here before. Last year, many Scots found themselves electrified by the campaign for the Yes vote in the independence referendum. The energy and enthusiasm crackled as many voters for the first time found that they were being asked to vote on something that really mattered to them. The idea proved far more important to these voters than any of the detail and when the referendum was defeated they thronged to join the SNP, followed by a landslide for the SNP at the Westminster election in May this year. The ferment remains tangible to this day.

So when Labour lost so crushingly and so unexpectedly on 8 May, we should have known that there was a ready audience waiting to be inspired by someone new that spoke to their disillusionment with vigour, without compromise or hedging and with a fresh perspective. For all that, the emergence from nowhere of Jeremy Corbyn as a political superstar has shocked the political establishment. In large part on the back of his candidacy for Labour leader, Labour’s membership has increased by 50% since the general election and the total electorate for the Labour leadership contest was just over 600,000. Crowds pack out venues wherever he speaks. The excitement is tangible.

But there is a big difference from the Scottish independence referendum. That cause was all-consuming in Scotland last year for all Scots, not just those inspired by the Yes campaign. The question of Scottish identity was and remains the most important question facing Scotland today. (Even then, the quiet determination of the No support defeated the noisy verve of the Yes campaign.) There is no equivalent cause that is confronting the wider British public in the way that the Labour electorate has been inspired. So where is this energy and excitement going to lead us?

There is a preliminary question. All the sage political commentators, pretty much without exception, are expecting Jeremy Corbyn to be a disaster as Labour leader. Why? Three reasons have been given: the extremeness of his views; his past activities; and his lack of leadership stature.

It’s certainly the case that he would be a very different type of leader. Only a

fragment of the Parliamentary party regards him as leadership material. He would not be able to lead the Parliamentary party to follow him by personal example, given his long history of rebellion (he has voted against the Labour leadership on more occasions than David Cameron has). He has no track record of substantial achievement to command respect. He would be reliant on the massive support base that he has in the wider country to keep the MPs in order. That is not a recipe for enthusiastic engagement.

I am unconvinced that the public is automatically hostile to the thrust of Jeremy Corbyn’s economic views. They may be way outside the political mainstream as it has been set for over thirty years but the public remains in a surly mood and is open to new answers.

As has been seen in the Labour leadership campaign, those in the Labour party defending the current consensus have been unprepared to defend the conventional wisdom. He can point to support among professional economists. The Conservatives would need to dust down the debating lines of the 1980s and update them for the new millennium. A new audience would need to be repersuaded.

Much depends on how anti-austerity is defined. The public seem to have decided that cutting the deficit is very important, though some of these questions seem very leading to me. James Morris, in a lengthy article (which is essential reading for anyone thinking about how Labour might go from here), notes in passing that:

“If you ask voters whether tax rises or borrowing increases worry them more, they say ‘tax rises’ by 16 points. But make the choice about Labour tax rises or Labour borrowing and it is Labour borrowing that causes the greater concern.”

If Jeremy Corbyn can address the concern about Labour borrowing, he may make headway here.

He would have a harder job taking the public with him with his analysis of social policy. He would be pushing against a closed door with his view that we should be open to immigration and asylum seekers and the public for now has firmly made up its mind that social security spending needs keeping firmly under control. The attempt could be made but it would be an uphill struggle.

But where Jeremy Corbyn would really struggle is on his approach to foreign policy. He floats withdrawal from NATO, is notably pro-Russian and anti-war, has opposed every military intervention Britain has taken part in since he entered Parliament with the exception of Sierra Leone and is a hardline advocate of both a united Ireland and of Palestinian rights. Most of these positions are miles from the British consensus. The British public have never been peaceniks and it seems highly improbable that they will have a Damascene conversion about this in the near future.

More seriously still, his foreign policy views have led him to consort with some deeply unsavoury characters and to take actions that will look treacherous to many. He is going to find himself endlessly explaining himself before he even gets started. The chances of him getting to the point of getting a fair hearing for his ideas are not good: a large part of the public is likely to write him off well before that point.

So I agree with the consensus that Jeremy Corbyn is likely to be a serious failure as Labour leader. With ghostly support in the Parliamentary party and a sensational past, he looks unlikely to lead a coherent opposition and in fact looks much more likely to discredit Labour as a divided party that are willing to be led by an unrepentant extremist.

That will leave a lot of previously-enthused and now angry Corbynites. So, to return to my original question, what will they do next?

Much depends on how exactly Jeremy Corbyn fails. If he is ousted by a coup within the Parliamentary party, the blame will be heaped on the MPs perceived to be responsible. The contempt that Thatcherites had for the 1990 Cabinet would be as nothing when compared with the odium that Jeremy Corbyn’s acolytes would summon up for the Labour right. The hashtags would rain down and a hunt for red Tories under the bed would erupt. The £3 supporters would consider their options, whether or not they had been previously purged.

If Jeremy Corbyn is brought down in a media storm, the Parliamentary party will not escape criticism because doubtless his supporters would regard the support given him as insufficient. But the main focus would be on the media forces of conservatism (who equally would be revelling in it all).

If he resigns quietly, defeated, he would be decently mourned in the way that Ed Miliband has been. This is by some distance the least likely route to failure.

The critical question is whether Labour could then harness the energy and enthusiasm that Jeremy Corbyn has conjured up without the object of their affections. In the event of a Parliamentary coup, that’s going to be very difficult indeed.

Should Labour want to hang onto these contingent supporters? In the words of Ed Miliband, hell yes. Both the left and the right of the Labour party are making the same error at present, seeking to move the tent rather than make the tent bigger. The Corbynites‘ ideas may not form the foundation of an election-winning coalition, but Labour need their votes and they would benefit hugely from their active engagement in their campaigns.

It should be noted, however, that the Corbynite section of the wider electorate is likely to be decisive for the next leadership contest as well as this one. So the Parliamentary party need to put forward candidates that they are willing to vote for.

What could Labour offer the Corbynites after his departure from the scene? For most Corbynites, their enthusiasm comes down in large part to their idol’s line on austerity. The social and foreign policy aspects of the Corbynite prospectus could probably be safely ditched.

Labour will have decisively chosen to take an anti-austerity line if they elect Jeremy Corbyn. They could not credibly take yet another handbrake turn on the subject – the public would correctly conclude that they had no consistency. So Labour will need to stick with their choice and then, as I have noted above, they will need to define “anti-austerity” with care.

John McDonnell has already been working on this, distinguishing between deficit reduction and spending cuts. Tax rises, always a tricky subject for Labour, would be required but the non-Corbynite public might be more comfortable with a Labour leader who acknowledged this head-on rather than stretch credulity by claiming both to oppose specified government spending cuts and yet still to accept that the deficit would need to be closed by other unspecified spending cuts. Much will depend on the state of public finances in 2020 in any event. It probably isn’t the gamble that most leading Labour politicians would have wanted to take in the wake of the general election defeat but it doesn’t have to work out badly. The message does, however, need to be delivered with enthusiasm and brio. The Corbynites could help to do this.

So if Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure is brief and inglorious, who could take up this challenge? It is already apparent that none of the other leadership candidates this time could command their respect let alone their adulation. If Labour are to hang onto these contingent supporters they need to look again at their talent pool. Perhaps Rachel Reeves, Jon Cruddas or Jon Trickett could find that their thinking had evolved in a tax and spend direction. Maybe Keir Starmer or Stephen Kinnock, neither of whom have a past to shake off, could try anti-austerity clothes on for size. Or perhaps someone else that I haven’t thought of at all may decide that he or she can ride this tiger.

What is for sure is that if Labour don’t succeed in keeping the Corbynites, others will hoover them up. The Greens would be hovering like vultures to pick over the remains of the Corbyn carcass: with Jeremy Corbyn at Labour’s helm, they are in peril of losing a large chunk of their vote, but if he crashes and burns they would be hoping to recoup that from Labour with interest. The SNP, currently fretting that Jeremy Corbyn might siphon off some of their socialist support, would be fortified if Labour turned its back on anti-austerity politics. Even Plaid Cymru might be able to woo the Labour left in Wales.

Labour cannot allow that to happen and would have to protect their left flank. So it seems that Labour are destined to be an anti-austerity party for some time to come, however Jeremy Corbyn performs in office. Those in the Labour party who are philosophically in favour of the government’s macroeconomic approach have some hard thinking to do.


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