â€œThe Labour party is a moral crusade or it is nothingâ€ was Harold Wilson’s rallying cry to the Labour conference a little over fifty years ago (somewhat unusually for political quotations it seems clear that he did actually say it). Twelve years later he was declaring they were now a â€œnatural party of governmentâ€. It’s an awkwardly matched pair of declarations that have rung down the decades since (put either into google today and you find clichÃ©d* starting points for more than a few pieces on the state of the Labour party) and they’ve done so echoing down the cracks that divide the party.**
Wilson said it at a time when the Labour party had been in power for nine (ish) of the previous forty years (or nine years overall, their first brief taste of power coming in 1924). Ramsay Macdonald had lacked a majority in his first stint as Prime Minister, than decamped to form the National Government (and being expelled from the Labour party) in his second. Seventeen years earlier Clement Attlee helped establish a new orthodoxy in British politics but had done so in a six year storm of a government that in resolving that internal tension has remained the most revered touchstone in the party’s history.
Tony Blair’s attempt at re-moulding of the Labour party was not (or rather not just) a shift of political ideology but of its self-image from instinctual revolutionaries to natural governors. It’s to defend that shift that has caused him to poke his head back round the doorframe of Labour party politics. Not a ghost exactly, but an estranged uncle thought to have safely emigrated.
If Jeremy Corbyn is anything he is a moral crusader, with a strong sideline in revolutionary instincts.
He is also part of a new fashion in party leaders, the rough-edged ideologues (the passion being as important as the principles) as reaction to the smooth-skinned and smoother-tongued blandocracy that has spread its tentacles through the upper levels of British politics. After reaching possibly unsurpassable heights with the triumvirate of Cameron, Miliband, and Clegg we’ve seen Farage, Corbyn and Salmond all playing on their distinctiveness from that status quo with great success. All making ground based on appearing rather more real than the human-shaped chunks of political varnish they faced. (Iâ€™m reasonably certain that Dave, Nick, and Ed are humans, but itâ€™s the same kind of certainty I have that some enterprising street-entertainer hasnâ€™t just spray-painted a statue silver and put a hat next to it. They share a political style that aims for a solid sheen of competence and often topples into a political uncanny valley).
But those groupings are revealing, if the Lib Dems under Clegg were a medium party that still tried to think and act like a major one then Corbyn is the part of Labour that holds on to a small party mentality.
As David Herdson has notedÂ this would be an awkward fit in more ways than one. Farage is at his best when hitting and moving, delivering a blow but not standing in place long enough to weary people or get hit back from major parties whose main focus is always each other. The ongoing scrutiny and exposure that comes with leading the Labour party excludes Corbyn from that strategy, how will the insurgent fare when he sits anointed.
Perhaps more importantly how will the rest of the party react, will the factions that spent years calling on the likes of Corbyn to fall in to line and unite for the good of the party play the role of loyal supporters. Will the Corbynites be able to keep a straight face when he does his best St Francis impression.***
Corbynâ€™s first week will be the start of some very interesting times for the Labour party to say the least, shadow cabinet resignations, public regrets from within and barely muted celebrations from opposing parties.
The scale of his victory has cleared away the first hurdle of his leadership, it’s prevented anyone speaking of the election not as former Greens/Lib Dems/etc attracted to join the crowd under Jeremy’s big tent, but with whispers and anonymous press briefings seek to deligitimise the victory as the product of entryism, Tory sabotage, and a much mocked sign up process that left Nick FerrariÂ and Ned the CatÂ considering their votes (and entertaining partisan observers).
Instead his opponents are likely to try a balancing act of remaining relevant but distant, close enough to remain in sight but far enough to keep themselves scrupulously clean, a strategy of believing that Corbyn just needs to be left alone with all the rope he’s just won.
But the times will be interesting is that Corbyn is an all-in bet, the people mocking him as unelectable now would have (or did) say similar things about him when he was struggling to even get on the ballot paper. Farage and Salmond have after all been highly successful.
As much as the opposing parties will be gleefully pointing out to each other how many of Corbyn’s policies they can match up with suicide note highlights, they should be watching a different flank, wary of the ability he’s shown to excite people with his character. When the 100-1 shot comes home a winner, you should at least think twice before dismissing him as he crosses the finish-line.****
*This piece is using them in a strictly post-cliche sense.
**This is another of those Yes Minister irregular adjectives, My party is a broad church, his party is divided, their party is potpourriÂ
***Margaret Thatcher certainly said it, but St Francis appears not to have actually spoken eloquently on discord and harmony.
****That said I’d still be sticking long odds up on the board and feeling quite good about it.