The conventional wisdom is that it can’t work. But the conventional wisdom was that he couldn’t win. Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, believes he can secure power for his party by arguing for genuinely radical, socialist policies. So can he once again defy conventional wisdom and win not just his party’s leadership but the premiership too?
There is no doubting the scale and decisiveness of Mr Corbyn’s victory. He won nearly sixty per cent of the votes cast, three times as many as his nearest rival, Andy Burnham. The avowedly Blairite candidate, Liz Kendall, took a mere 4.5%. And he won handsomely not just among those who had forked out £3 to vote but among long-standing Labour Party members too. No recent Labour leader, not even Tony Blair, can claim such a huge mandate of support from his party.
He did it on the basis of a call for change: in the policies that the party should be advocating but, even more importantly, in the whole way of doing politics. If there is one thing on which the nation seems to agree it is that there is too much spinning in politics. Most of us believe that politicians will tell us what they think we want to hear. Part of Mr Corbyn’s appeal was that he told uis what he really believes. That struck a chord not only with existing party members but also with tens of thousands of people, many of them young, whom he inspired to join up. Their slogan was ‘I voted for a new kind of politics’, the kind of politics that, in the words of Mr Corbyn’s mentor, Tony Benn, ‘says what it means and means what it says’.
This approach might explain shifts in support over recent years: from the two main parties to the Liberal Democrats from about 2000 onwards; the arrival of UKIP as a mainstream force and, to some extent, the resurgence of the SNP. Nor is it a British phenomenon. Being fed up with the conventional parties has inspired the creation of new forces of protest in politics elsewhere in Europe, notably in France, Spain, Italy and Greece. Mr Corbyn’s supporters believe that in defying the conventions about how politics is conducted he can appeal well beyond those who traditionally support Labour.
Being a party of protest is, of course, hardly new for Labour. That’s why it came into existence. And the chief focus of its protest has always been more fundamental than the way politics is done. The socialism in its origins seeks radical change in the whole way society and its economy are organised in order to reduce inequality and bring about greater social justice. Its challenge has been how to stay loyal to those values while persuading enough voters to vote for it.
There are basically two ways of doing it. One is evangelical. It says socialists should have the courage of their convictions and set about persuading those who don’t yet share those values to adopt them. It believes in the force of argument and is against compromise. The second is tactical. It says that however persuasive its oratory, socialists are never going to win a majority by argument alone. Politics is about coalition-building which means deal-making; and deal-making requires compromise.
The evangelical route was the one broadly adopted by Michael Foot in 1983. It inspired committed Labour supporters who thought they were finally going to get what they had always wanted, a genuinely socialist government, but it led to a shattering defeat at the hands of the voters. The tactical route was the one adopted by New Labour under Tony Blair. It won the party three decisive electoral victories but at a cost, in terms of compromise, that many in the party found unpalatable.
The difference in the two approaches was encapsulated by David Blunkett, who tried both. In the aftermath of Mr Corbyn’s victory he spoke reflectively about how, as one of Labour’s leaders of protest in the 1980s, he had filled halls, been on marches and rallied the troops but all to no avail. It was only through making the compromises necessary to get elected that he and his like had been able to accomplish anything at all. He said Mr Corbyn’s challenge was to find a way to harness the real enthusiasm for change of all those who had rallied to him, while at the same time ‘talking from the same page as the British people’.
It’s Mr Corbyn’s ability or even willingness to do the latter that is making sceptics doubt that he can lead Labour anywhere other than into a wilderness. His whole career for the last thirty years has shown him utterly committed to the evangelical route and opposed to the tactical one. In that period he plugged away at the same unchanging message and he rebelled against the Labour whip over five hundred times, more than any other backbencher. He never served on the front bench. And as for ‘talking from the same page as the British people’, few think he has any intention of compromising his views on such issues as welfare, immigration, taxation and defence.
His appointment of John McDonnell, his campaign manager and long-term ally on the far left of the Parliamentary Labour Party, as shadow chancellor, seems to many to confirm this. Mr McDonnell is even more hostile to the capitalist basis of the modern British economy than Mr Corbyn. Given the widely-held view that Labour lost in both 2010 and, even more, in 2015 because of public mistrust of its economic policies, the appointment seems to many within the PLP as proof that Mr Corbyn is not really interested in being on the same page as the British people. Charles Clarke, a home secretary under Tony Blair, told me Mr McDonnell ‘could not provide a credible alternative economic policy’ to the Tories and predicted that Labour backbenchers would end up devising one of their own.
It is this belief that Mr Corbyn has no interest in trimming his views to what the British people might think that led eight members of the old shadow cabinet to refuse to serve under him. Economic policy is not the only area they think he will go out on an unelectable limb: Europe, defence, membership of NATO and replacing Trident are other policy areas where they do not wish to follow him.
Mr Corbyn clearly believes in the power of his evangelism; after all preaching the message he has preached without wavering for the last thirty years has got him this far. He claims, nonetheless, that he wants to unite the party and will respect those whose views he disagrees with. But many will only believe in his willingness to compromise when they see it. They think his record proves that he believes it is better not to compromise and to lose rather than compromise too much in order to win, the charge he and others have consistently made against New Labour.
What is clear is that the scale of his victory has bought him time. Those in the parliamentary party who think his election a disaster will simply have to sit it out until what they regard as the inevitable impending defeat becomes clear to everyone. His supporters hope that in the time he has won, he can upset the applecart of conventional British politics even more sensationally than he has already done within the Labour Party and that ‘a new kind of politics’ can sweep the country.
What’s your view of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory? Does it inspire you to believe that a different sort of politics is being born, or do you think that it will simply lead to an even greater defeat for Labour and an assured decade of majority Tory government?
Let us know what you think.