David Cameron has just celebrated his first hundred days as leader of a government that has moved quickly to consolidate its vision of a neo-liberal conservative age and making the most of what was expected to be a lacklustre but usefully diversionary Labour leadership contest. As in 2010, the consolidation has met with much success. But there is a difference: this tim,e it has been less an opportunity to set an agenda of Labour’s previous fiscal irresponsibility and much more a positive and rigorous insistence that austerity is essential and “there is no alternative”.
Well within the hundred days, 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.
While this is all of interest mainly to domestic audiences in the UK, it also has value from a transnational neo-conservative stance. For it suggests that a UK political party potentially offering some opposition to the right way forward has gone so far overboard that it has no prospect of power. As a consequence, those wayward leftist parties of southern Europe will not be enthused and encouraged by a like-minded party in north-west Europe with a serious political future.
An earlier column in this series suggested otherwise: namely, that much more was happening than a futile lurch to the left; that it was not a childish reaction to defeat; and that there were signs in it of a popular movement of support that extended to parts of public opinion which the Labour Party had failed to reach for some years (see "What’s behind the Corbyn surge?”, 26 July 2015).
Since then, the Corbyn surge has continued, voting has begun, and the signs now are that he is the overwhelming favourite to lead the opposition when parliament reassembles in September. With all this in mind, it is reasonable to extend the discussion to what might happen if he is elected, quite possibly on the first count. What are the prospects for Jeremy Corbyn’s first hundred days and how will they compare with David Cameron’s current progress?
A different prospectus
Within the Labour Party the mainstream of the parliamentary party is shell-shocked by what has happened. There is already much talk of determined opposition, initially taking the form of non-cooperation that will make the new leader’s position increasingly difficult. Furthermore, this will come at a time when the majority of the national print media will be dedicated to probing every fault, real or imagined, in both Corbyn and his team.
However, if he is elected by a very clear majority by a far larger electorate than expected, including a Labour Party membership that has shot up by 70,000 members to 270,000 since the election and is still rising, he will have a degree of authority that is far more than anticipated. This alone will cause many wavering Labour MPs to caution against any opposition to the new regime. Added to this is the inevitable element of personal ambition, creating a situation where there is rather more acceptance of the outcome than expected, at least for the first few months. Furthermore, Corbyn has substantial constituency support and many MPs will be under considerable pressure at least to give him a chance.
What, then, of the first full parliamentary session, especially those first hundred days? This is where it gets interesting because it is clear that a Corbyn leadership will involve far more opposition to current government policies, combined with proposing alternatives on many issues, some of them with considerable public support. A Corbyn-led party will be a party of sustained opposition and while this is said to be a problem, there is a strong argument that in the first few months of a Conservative government bent on radical changes and with five years to go until another election this is precisely what very many people want.
In addition, though the national print media will mostly be vehemently oppositional, the broadcast media may be different. If the main party of opposition sets out to oppose austerity, Trident renewal, TTIPS and other policies, while also promoting issues such as industrial investment, fairer pay, rail renationalisation, tough action on climate change and extreme caution about further wars in the Middle East, then a much stronger voice has to be given to those arguments.
There was little or none of this when there was relatively little difference between the parties on many issues, but with this change in political outlook, a much more vigorous public debate becomes possible. Labour may even find itself getting more backing than expected from Greens and Liberal Democrats.
In other words we are moving into uncertain political times, and some thoughtful Conservative politicians may be starting to have second thoughts about Corbyn and what he means, with some even starting to see him as a significant problem.
Even so, the real issue extends well beyond this and can be summarised by the question - is Corbyn thirty years behind the times or ten years ahead of the times? The widespread assumption among most commentators is the former, but if we look across the world at the diverse but increasing opposition to the neo-conservative economic transition and the problems that transition is facing, we cannot be so sure.
One thing that we can be sure of, though, is that if it is Jeremy Corbyn who is much more in touch with wider trends then we will get a pretty clear sign of it inside his first hundred days. If his popularity by that time has stretched beyond what may be a reinvigorated Labour Party, then he may not only last to the 2020 election but present the Conservatives with a much greater problem than almost any of them currently expect.