UK Parliament / Flickr. Some rights reserved.This series of columns occasionally strays from its remit of discussing issues of peace and conflict around the world. Such a thing happened three times in 2015, with a focus on the wholly unexpected rise of the outsider candidate Jeremy Corbyn to the head of Britain's Labour Party. Almost eight months after his overwhelming victory against the three other candidates in the leadership election, it seems timely to offer a fresh assessment of his prospects.
The first column on Corbyn was written six weeks before the ballot at a time when the surge in his support was exceeding all expectations. It pointed out that the London-centred commentariat saw this as “part of a protest born of a childish refusal to face up to the reality of Labour’s surprise electoral defeat and Britain’s move to the right” (see "What's behind the Corbyn surge?", 26 July 2015).
Whatever the truth of that judgment, the surge continued. When his win seemed assured, but just before the actual vote, the second column fantasised on his first hundred days in power. This made the point that for many in the Labour Party, especially the tens of thousands of new members, Corbyn's appeal stemmed from opposing what was seen as the cavalier way the Conservatives were reversing previous coalition policies in pursuit of ideological certitude:
"[The] government has brought in a raft of changes including a sell-off of housing-association stock, further NHS privatisation, the centralisation of education control, coupled with cuts in 16+ education funding, further controls on labour rights, a planned easing of financial regulation, a substantial cutback in spending on rail investment, and controversial welfare changes.
All of this is in the context of a brilliant if unexpected bonus: the veritable euphoria in Conservative Party ranks over the sudden emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as a serious contender for the Labour leadership, igniting the prospect of Labour being little more than a sidelined protest party heading for certain defeat in 2020" (see "Jeremy Corbyn's first 100 days", 19 August 2015).
The third column examined those first hundred days as if from hindsight. It remarked both on the intense and persistent media rubbishing of his leadership, especially in most of the national print media, and on the deep divisions within the Labour Party (see "Jeremy Corbyn's first 100 days, revisited", 17 December 2015).
The dilemma, and the answer
Nearly four months later, the media opprobrium continues unabated with almost all the press still convinced that Corbyn is unelectable. His performance in the bearpit of the House of Commons may have grown more confident; the Labour Party may have closed the gap in the opinion polls, and some may even show Corbyn to be more popular than David Cameron. But this is all put down to the deep Conservative fractures over Europe, the Panama papers, and other governmental issues.
This attitude will no doubt endure, but it is aided hugely by the second factor highlighted in the previous column: the continuing divisions within the parliamentary Labour Party, among which a hard core of MPs remains bitterly opposed to the 'Corbynistas', with most of the rest deeply suspicious. A significant number of members would frankly prefer to lose the next election rather than win it under Jeremy Corbyn. The commonest term they use to describe the leader, his close associates and staff is “toxic”.
It’s worth disentangling this a little, because what is at stake may not be anything like as ideological as is commonly supposed. Jeremy Corbyn certainly is firmly on the left of his party and he has a very different approach on many key issues to the majority of Labour MPs, so many of whom were part of a centrist generation that came in during Blair's "New Labour" years. There is, though, another way of looking at Labour which illuminates an all-too-often-ignored personal element. This is even more worth recognising because it may signal whether attitudes will change if Corbyn does manage to consolidate his position in the coming months.
In the run-up to the election of May 2015, few in the Labour Party expected to win an overall majority but many expected to be in a position to govern in a coalition or as a minority government. For at least a hundred Labour MPs, shadow-cabinet ministers, their deputies and others, the prospect of power loomed. Almost all MPs in that position are ambitious people: many dream of a cabinet post and a number eye 10 Downing Street itself as a longer-term prospect. This is not to deny that many were genuinely in politics to make a difference – but even from that angle, what can you do in opposition?
In this perspective, the election result was a disaster – not least the collapse in Scotland and the Conservatives winning an overall majority. But for this cadre of Labour insiders, even worse was to follow. Cameron and Osborne, the duo at the heart of the new Conservative-only government, moved vigorously to consolidate their unexpected power and bring in multiple, radical policy changes. Labour's mainstream, already preoccupied with the coming internal battle, failed to offer proper opposition to these. As they dithered, Jeremy Corbyn came from nowhere to generate huge support inside a newly invigorated Labour Party, with thousands more joining to swell its membership. Within weeks, all the old certainties of New Labour were gone.
It was a triple whammy: out of power, losing any early prospect of personal advancement, and – most depressingly – now out of tune with a new leadership that was garnering widespread grassroots support. The latter can be dismissed as Trotskyite entryists from the outer fringes, but anyone with even a passing knowledge of the new membership knows this to be nonsense.
Since then the predicament for so many MPs has plumbed yet further depths. In the first three months of his leadership, many of his bitterest opponents had a real hope that Jeremy Corbyn would be gone by the year's end, indeed quite a few of them were undermining him at every opportunity. As the third column in that mini-series put it: “The level of leaking from that sector is a marvel to behold, with lobby correspondents hardly able to believe their luck.”
Yet Corbyn has not just survived but is starting to develop consistent policies that are very far from unpopular. Perhaps most interesting is the challenge to the government’s there-is-no-alternative-to-austerity stance, which is made more relevant by the widespread public anger at the huge levels of tax avoidance. It is worth noting that this is one key area where those close to Jeremy Corbyn have a strong record, especially John McDonnell. The seminal book by Nicholas Shaxson on tax havens, Treasure Islands, points out that McDonnell has one of the strongest records of any member of parliament in opposing the extraordinary lobbying power of the City of London.
In short, the argument is gathering force that Jeremy Corbyn is ahead of the times not behind them. The crucial question for Labour's future is whether many Labour MPs, now sunk in dismay and frustration, can grasp this. If they do, and then help forge a stronger challenge to the Conservative government, then all bets over Britain's political future will be off.