I am delighted that Jeremy Corbyn has been elected leader of the Labour Party. That the disparate voices advocating for a more just and equal Britain, against austerity, against the war on the poor and disabled, has finally found political expression in a major, UK-wide political party. That the Tory government and their vicious agenda will finally have a clear and consistent opposition. I think the effect of this will be enormously beneficial.
But can a Corbyn-led Labour Party win a general election, or at least deny a Tory victory? I don't know.
There has been a lot written on this, and it is not worth rehashing all of it, though I will attempt to summarize some of the main points. Some very good analysis by Owen Jones
. Some interesting advice in terms of style
, based on Ken Livingstone's successes and failures. A very positive view
from a few weeks ago; and a highly sobering note from Andrew Rawnsley.
Briefly, the positive case: he has created an enormous amount of enthusiasm and got a movement behind him; he can reach out to those disenchanted by mainstream politics, both by presenting a genuine alternative to austerity and by his 'anti-establishment status'; he is perceived as honest, principled and likeable. The negative: Labour lost because they were not trusted on the economy or welfare, and Corbyn's politics are doubling down on those perceived weaknesses; getting non-voters to vote and to vote Labour isn't as easy as it sounds; he will have the media against him; he wil have half his party against him.
Who might he attract? ex-Labour supporters who have turned to the Greens, SNP or Plaid Cymru; young, disollusioned non-voters (if they can truly be reached); some UKIP supporters who vote UKIP out of a general, vague anti-politics sense, rather than ideological riht-wing politics. Who might he repel? Reasonably comfortable, centrist, swing-voters who went for the Tories this time; UKIP voters for whom immigration really is a dominant issue.
Overall, I suspect that the odds are against Labour, andI suspect would have been whoever won; Labour, in opposition, were not going to be able to convince centrist voters that they were more trustworthy on the economy simply by moving even closer to Tory positions, and they certainly weren't going to win over dissolusioned voters that way.
I think the main thing that will determine how people view the relative economic credibility of the parties is totaly out of the hands of any Labour leader, namely, what happens to the actual economy, which depends on both government policies and the world economy. If it crashes and burns, which may well happen given the way things are going in China
, then that could totally destroy Tory credibility, however much they protest it is not their fault. Austerity policies will undoubtedly exacerbate any downturn, and the pain that is being inflicted through Tory welfare policies will suddenly start hitting a lot more people.
Jeremy Corbyn's message might start looking appealing to a lot more current 'centrist' voters then. On the other hand, there's a risk that, if the Tories and the media are successful in portraying Corbyn as a dangerous loony lefty, then such voters might be inclined to 'stick to nurse for fear of worse'. But it will certainly give Labour a much stronger chance, and it would create an environment in which the sort of anti-establishment mass-movement enthusiasm that Corbyn has generated through the leadership campaign might have the chance to spread further into a potential winning coalition. On the other hand, I suspect that if things do not go too terribly economically, then this movement may find it hard to break out of the circles of the already convinced, the ones who go to Corbyn rallies and share lefty articles and memes on social media - which is not enough to win an election.
The Tories could destroy their credibility in other ways too - they may tear themselves apart over the EU referendum - which is something that Corbyn and Labour can influence, depending on how they play their cards - or the new Tory leader - if Cameron keeps to what he said about not running for a third term - may not prove convincing to the electorate. Cameron, much as I loathe his policies, is a highly skillful politician, and has an air about him (however unjustified) of confidence and competence. With someone else, the Tories may fare less well.
But before all this, the biggest hurdle Corbyn faces, I think, is party management; he has the support of much of the rank-and-file members (he got just a shade under 50% of 1st preference votes amongst full party members, and now something like 15,000 new members
have joined, presumably most of whom approve of the latest developments) but he is opposed by the great majority of Labour MPs.
From everything I've seen he is going to try to be inclusive in bringing all sections of the party (that are prepared to work with him) into the Shadow Cabinet, and proclaims a commitment to being open and democratic about policy-making - which presumably means being willing to accept policy positions he is not too keen on where that is the clear will of the party - and all of this will be very necessary. But it's going to be a very tough balancing act of picking which battles to fight, and where to make painful compromises. Only time will tell if he is actually able to do this.
For the record, my inclination is that he should probably stand his ground on most matters of economic policy - both because it is right, and because the anti-austerity, anti-welfare cuts message is where he has most chance of capturing public imagination. I doubt, actually, that many Labour MPs are really
all that convinced of the arguments for austerity, maybe some of the Blairites, but they have been convinced that Labour only has a chance if it accepts it. So many of them might be willing to say "Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound", or something like that.
But where I think he really does need to compromise is foreign/defence policy, if he is not to totally break the Labour Party. Most especially, Labour needs to be supporting staying in the EU in the referendum. Flawed as the EU is, I really don't think there's much appetite on the left and center-left for leaving, and it is something that most Labour MPs would fight tooth and nail for. (For what it's worth, I also believe Britain needs to be in the EU, disgusted as I am by Fortress Europe and Eurozone-imposed austerity.) Likewise NATO - I am no fan, but there would be no better way to both break the party and leave an open goal for the Tories than advocating for leaving.
In opposing Trident replacement, I think there's a much better political case for him holding firm (not to say moral), and where I suspect a lot of ordinary party members would be with him (and perhaps, in their heart of hearts, any MPs). Apart from anything else, British nukes are militarily useless, as a lot of military figures recognize, and Trident replacement will take up a huge proportion of the defence equipment budget. But here the compromise might be to argue for, say, putting half or even more of the savings from cancelling Trident replacement into the conventional defence budget, with the rest for (say) green energy; even if Corbyn would ideally like to see a lot lower military spending (as would I). But it is probably a good area to open up to wider party debate to see what ordinary members actually think.
In the end, I am not higely optimistic in terms of the odds of Jeremy Corbyn walking though the doors of Number 10 in 2020 - I think it is probably no more than 50/50 that he can hold the party together long enough to make it to the election as leader. But I am hopeful, in that this is the first time in a very long time that there has actually been a real major left-leaning party in England. And he could
just pull it off; the normal rules of politics says it is very unlikely, but those same rules said he was a 100-1 shot for leader in the first place; the world is changing fast, and the rules of politics with them, so just maybe Jeremy Corbyn, together with a newly-invigorated Labour Party and movement, can create a new set of rules. I hope.