Jeremy Corbyn and Tariq Ali. Flickr/The Weekly Bull. Some rights reserved.
The scenario is more a political patchwork, scrapbook of ironies, than one from which it is possible to draw many hard and fast judgements. From the Labour right we hear decried the inconsistency by which middle-class people explain to working-class non-voters why working-class people didn’t vote Labour. From the left; why the party machine and loud commentariat that just presided over a second consecutive election defeat, might want to pause a moment before hectoring anybody about what it takes to win an election.
The most prudent advice would be that Labour heed the words of Johns Prescott and McDonnell; there is no need for a crisis here, and cause still less to openly express so acrimoniously whatever divisions might lie within the party. To do Labour the favour of reframing their current scenario: they increased their 2010 result by half a million votes, George Osborne is implementing a large proportion of Ed Miliband’s economic policies, and the party is undertaking a historically open leadership election (credit again to Miliband) that has given airing to views on which Labour’s members and natural supporters have spent the last quarter-century feeling betrayed. At the same time – and though it is fleeting, flippant currency – Labour has once again attracted popular attention and energy as the party most concerned with the declining quality of life and real incomes the average Briton is suffering.
Corbyn is both a cause and an effect of all this, and it is prudent to remember that Labour’s post-election surge in membership began before he announced his candidacy. The party will have to hope that Corbyn’s arrival on the leadership scene, and now the likelihood of his taking the leadership, will further spur, and not quell, the spirits of those who initially returned to the Labour fold as merely a consequence of the election result and ominous idea of five more Tory years.
Hope, indeed, must feature large in the Corbyn prognosis. We must hope that the no-nonsense, everyman allure so disingenuously captured by Nigel Farage and UKIP will swing, in a rather more edifying, purposeful protest vote, towards Corbyn. We must hope that Green voters might – guiltily but amicably – be persuaded to drop new affinities in the anticipation that their concerns may be represented in the intent of a major party. We must hope wildly that nationalisation of the railways (with which most Tory voters agree) brings a single-issue swath of Labour gains to London’s commuter belt and the irate, Abellio franchise-suffering passengers of Anglia. There will be hope again that Corbyn is the turnout-catalyst amongst those who polled a 0% probability of voting on May 15th, but 40% of whom identified as Labour.
He will have limited ideological cover; indeed, what popularity he can attract and sustain amongst middle England will rest more in his personal appeal, and however long he can keep central the goal of a fair society, than ideas that Marxism is a sophisticated economic critique with contemporary relevance. Corbyn will often stand alone – the no-doubt withering attacks will be for his shoulders to bear, and no matter the allegiance and obvious respect he has earned from other MPs over a lengthy career in politics that has left Corbyn, enviably but not unjustifiably, untainted by the unflattering moniker of career politician.
And yet it is not all about hope, there are some strategic factors that don’t look unfavourable. Just as home county Tories are unlikely to vote in another party, no matter their rage at the ‘scar’ of High Speed 2, who – really – will Labour’s jilted, centrist membership vote for other than the same party led by Corbyn? After almost 20 years of Labour taking the votes of its left for granted, there would almost be a pleasant irony in the contrary scenario presenting itself. Moreover, it is pertinent that Labour successes of the last five years came in talking-up tax avoidance, energy companies operating as cartel, media ownership and hacking, the problems of declining real wages and quality of life. Labour were at their best and most popular when advancing a clear message of social justice, rather than attempting to assure of their ability to take moderated versions of the same decisions voters were anyway happy to entrust to the Tory Party. Though many Labour supporters oppose both Corbyn and the Tories, it is naïve on their part to assume that austerity policies can be ended without the political dialogue moving to the left, after which we might end up with something agreeable in the centre – the process of splitting hairs with the right has led only to the erosion of values so many still hold dear.
Whatever Tory assurances that they fear the candidate most like themselves (David over Ed, Liz Kendall above all other mortals), it is hard to imagine Cameron relishing the prospect of facing a man valued for the surety with which he holds opinions that will show his own for extreme, rather than as only the common sense that free market austerity has come to pass for. On a personal level, one suspects he will not so readily welcome engaging with a figure who makes no attempt – as Miliband always clearly felt obliged – to compete in the Etonian register of the swaggering, bantering male where Cameron will always excel.
In each of Corbyn’s leadership rivals – and this, certainly, is the point to which we always return – there appear only varying degrees of three people who, try as they might, fail to inspire much beyond an eerie sense of adults looking to take the obvious next step in already-accomplished careers. Corbyn’s laconic decency at the to-do surrounding his campaign and the controversy he has aroused, combined with a genuine warmth and gratitude for the episode’s more human impulses – the generosity of ideas by which he was nominated, the utopian openness of the process that has seen his popularity swell, the surprise engagement from people far younger than he – cannot help but endear him further to those who perhaps started with an only borderline loyalty.
Meanwhile, a lineup of media – both right and left – and so too the Labour Party machinery, will continue to either counsel against naivety and folly, or simply joke and play harbinger at the doom that would surely follow a Corbyn leadership. It is not that any one of these camps has a nefarious and preconceived agenda or alternative masterplan awaiting fulfilment, only that they have long been prone to imagining outcomes within the narrowest, safest, and statistically verifiable ranges of business as usual. It may be with Corbyn, it may be with scenarios waiting in the future, but eventually they will be left pondering how they got it so wrong, and be made to regret that they did not heed warnings, including this leadership contest, that their irrelevance to communities outside their own had long been inevitable.
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