Why Corbyn represents something more than just Corbynmania

Why Corbyn represents something more than just Corbynmania


A guest post by Professor Glen O’Hara

It’d be easy to laugh at Jeremy Corbyn’s unsteady progress over the last few days. The shambolic late night appointment of the Shadow Cabinet; the outrage over his treatment of Labour women; the long walk of shame when he refused to answer any questions about it, and then tried to get a policeman to help him out; the forgotten bits of the TUC speech; the furore over the national anthem; the Whips’ Office debacle on the tax credits vote; the fact that Shadow Cabinet Minister’s won’t even agree with him in public. It’s quite a list.

But all this is just noise: if Corbyn does get a chance to gain a hearing, he could be around much longer than people think. If he rides out this initial crisis, the very reasons for his elevation to Labour’s top job may take a hold and keep him there for quite some time. It seems less likely that he’ll contest a General Election than it did when his landslide win was announced on Saturday. Can you imagine this farrago of blunders in a full-on short campaign? But betting on years, rather than months, still seems the most prudent course.

This isn’t just because of the pusillanimity of Labour’s MPs. They’ve already shown, at their meeting with Corbyn, that they’re not prepared to give him an easy ride. Having along with Ed Miliband, they’re determined not to go down with the ship again. Nor is it due to Labour’s arcane rule book. That’ll just get torn up if there is a real move against Labour’s ever-more-interim ‘leader’.

No. It’s because Corbyn speaks for, and to, a great big slice of Britain – who just happen to include the audience and selectorate that, for now, dominate Labour thinking and discussion. Consider the many reasons he’s made it there in the first place, obscured by the clown car mashup of his first few days. The first reason is disillusion with mainstream politics itself. Politicians have never been that popular: but, following a brief burst of faith and interest in the early Blair years, Parliament and Parliamentarians’ ratings have slid and slid.

The disaster of the second Iraq War of course makes up a great deal of that: the expenses scandal was in some respects a last straw. Taken with airbrushed front rank politicians’ inability to say anything at all that isn’t qualified and nuanced to the nth degree, in case it comes back and trips them up later, and you now have a public that loathes the way it’s spoken to.

Hence the appeal of Corbyn’s apparently home-spun rhetoric: he just doesn’t sound like a politician. Every time Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall opened their mouths, everyone, a little unfairly, just heard the same old platitudes. Corbyn might be able to make a virtue out of allowing his followers to disagree, and of musing out loud, just saying ‘well, it’s all very interesting’ every time there’s a controversy. It’s a long shot– this week’s low key and restrained Prime Minister’s Questions being the first example. And it might appeal to voters who are sick of being talked down to.

The second reason Corbyn appeals is just the sheer amount of rage and anger there is out there in the country. Hence, in their different ways, the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party and the Scottish National Party; hence the rejection of Labour’s business-as-usual options. The young people who flock to Corbyn’s rallies, who will never be able to buy a house if they live in the South of England. The older people who have such low rates of interest on their savings. Low paid workers who just feel that they’re slipping backwards all the time. A good old-fashioned blast of state socialism might appeal to many of them. Nationalisation of the railways and energy companies is fairly popular, taken in and of itself.

The third reason for his election was the rise of the ‘new politics’ his adherents keep talking about. The Mirror, that traditional voice of Labour, endorsed Andy Burnham; The Guardian, Yvette Cooper. They got nowhere. Why? Partly because of the influence of new social media, in which tens of thousands of clicktivists keep circulating the same blogs and talking points until they convince themselves that they are exclusively right – part of the reason behind Corbynism’s messianic sense of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ politics. Such activists roam from party to party (many of them came from the Greens to vote in Labour’s £3 ‘supporter’ category), looking for an inspiring moral cause to get their teeth into – and to signal their virtue.

They found it in an obscure MP who had already served his constituency for over thirty years, but they might just as easily have latched onto another cause. It was partly happenstance. They think little of the traditional party structures and loyalties of yesteryear, as we saw when so many of them were confused about why they had been excluded from Labour’s vote – for supporting, or even paying for, Green or other candidates.

They think that they should be able to fight for what they believe in using any of the increasingly shell-like structures that post-war British politics has left behind. And, you have to wonder: why shouldn’t they? Their enthusiasm, drive and energy has been something to behold, as it was in Scotland’s ‘Yes’ camp during the independence referendum there: if Corbyn can use that energy to launch a really massive registration and canvassing drive, he might be on to something.

Now let’s not get carried away. We’re talking about hanging on as Leader of the Opposition here, and of making a mark. Every single piece of data we have says that the wider electorate, especially centrist voters in smaller English towns, will probably hate all this. But we have to take the reasons for Corbyn’s victory seriously and think about why this has happened.

Otherwise, it might happen to the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, or even the SNP – doing lasting damage to our democracy. And these are powerful forces that are reshaping British politics. They won’t go away just because their representative is seen to fail. Disengagement, disillusionment, fury and clicktivism are powerful forces. They mean that Corbyn might last much longer than looks likely right now.

Politicalbetting contributors are laughing (or crying) at the moment. Labour’s new leader appears set on slipping on every banana skin he can find. But the deeper forces Corbyn represents – and to some extent, will unleash – are not going to go away. That’s something you should consider carefully when you’re betting about Brexit, a second Scottish independence referendum, the post-David Cameron Conservative leadership, and the 2020 General Election. They might all throw up entirely unexpected results.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Paradoxes of Progress: Governing Post-War Britain, 1951-1973 (2011). He is currently working on A History of Water in Modern Britain (forthcoming, 2016). He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past and can be followed on Twitter at @gsoh31.

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