There’s been a phenomenal amount of discussion in recent weeks about Jeremy Corbyn’s emergence as front runner in the Labour leadership election. What surprises me is that even as the Labour establishment rounds upon Corbyn supporters, few are asking why the MP for Islington has become the pacesetter in this campaign. Some Labour luminaries appear to be in denial that their assumptions are being radically challenged, even to the extent that Corbyn supporters have been told, bluntly, that they are ‘wrong’. If this is meant to be a democratic process, it’s an unedifying one. The gloves are well and truly off.
And the mockery and condescension is having little effect on diminishing Corbyn’s popularity. For all the scaremongering about mischief on the margins – fake supporters, entryists – the core surge behind Corbyn seems to be a genuine reflection of where Labour supporters want their party to be. And that appears to be a very different place to what the party hierarchy assumed. The notion that someone like Jeremy Corbyn could be calling the shots in a few weeks time must have Blairites and Brownites alike in an ‘end of days’ frame of mind. It was unthinkable even a couple of years ago but now it almost has the inevitability of logic about it. How did it come to this? Personally, and I speak as someone who hasn’t made up their mind which way they’ll vote in the leadership election (other than it won’t be for Liz Kendall), it doesn’t seem that hard to understand.
The mythical centre
It’s a cliché to say that Britain has become more divided. But I wonder if one of the changes of the last five years is that government policies increasingly have very narrow and precise impacts, especially on the mythical centre ground where ‘ordinary, hard working’ people are supposed to live. Depending on your occupation, salary, marital and family status and health (disability allowances etc), small changes in tax, welfare or child support rules are creating unparalleled turbulence across broad swathes of the electorate. Two families, with more or less similar circumstances, in similar locations, may well face very different outcomes depending on whether one person is working or if they have additional children or are claiming housing benefit support. Where the rules affect you, they affect you hard. Where they don’t, you could be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is all about. As a consequence, the centre is no longer the stable, predictable constituency that Blairites (and Conservatives) think it is. It’s like the famous sculpture, ‘The B of the Bang’ created for the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, a tumultuous core with individualised spikes of complaint and concern poking out in every direction.
Prior to Corbyn’s emergence, none of this was reflected in mainstream political debate. As in 2010, the Right was swift to set in stone the narrative of the Conservative election victory. Within hours of the election being over, it was presented as an accepted fact that Labour had to begin a period of deep soul searching and reform. Establishment figures like Peter Mandelson couldn’t get onto the sofas quick enough to slate Ed Miliband and decree that the party needed to be more “aspirational” and business friendly. The message was clear: to beat the Tories, the party needed to become more like them, enough to capture the marginals but without going so far as to alienate the core vote.
Whither the landslide?
I don’t agree with the Mandelson view. Britain does need the Labour Party to change, but I believe it needs to become a party of conviction rather than a party of convenience. The Conservatives won just 36.9% of the vote. Votes cast for Labour (30.4%), the SNP (4.7%) and the Liberal Democrats (7.9%) comfortably surpass the Tory total. The 12% of votes cast for Ukip cloud may the left/right split but it’s accepted that in the North, many Ukip voters were formerly traditional working class Labour supporters. At the very least, the left wing vote is the equal of the right, suggesting a deeply polarised electorate and, politically, a very divided country.
If that analysis holds true then Labour doesn’t need to transform itself to become a paler version of an ideology that its traditional supporters loathe. I don’t agree it should turn its back on core values and beliefs to capture a few extra seats in the south. Instead of constantly apologising and being defensive, the party needs to be more confident and attack-minded. It lost the election but in terms of the share of ideologies, traditional left wing values were far from vanquished. I believe the situation is only “a disaster’ because that’s the mood music that the Conservative government and its supporters in the right wing media want us to hear.
Into this strange, uncertain environment comes Jeremy Corbyn, attracting huge support, perhaps, because he is the one candidate who actually seems to represent something more than just expedience. For the millions struggling on zero hour contracts, who have seen minimal wage growth, who face being punished by tax credit reforms and who have limited opportunities to express their views because trade unions and other worker movements have been so weakened, Corbyn’s principles resonate.
Yesterday’s man isn’t Corbyn, it’s Blair
Tony Blair said that anyone whose heart was saying Corbyn needed a transplant. He’s entitled to his view even though many find it unbearably arrogant. Most of the backing for the Corbyn campaign is allegedly coming from young party members, the new blood who represent the future of Labour, not its past. Some of the voters in this year’s election were born the year Blair first swept to Downing Street. To them, he is not the modernising, vibrant leader who led Labour from the wilderness in 1997, rather he’s the demonic figure in Peter Kennard and Cat Phillip’s ‘Photo Op’, taking selfies as Iraq burned. Is it any wonder they don’t feel he represents something they want to support? To them, Blair, not Corbyn, and not socialism, is the ghost of Labour past.
Blair made his comments in the same week that the Chancellor announced he was abolishing the maintenance grant. A typical student will now leave university with debts of £53,000. And this was reported as a background fact, rather than a headline worthy of the utmost attention. Fifty three grand for a university degree is a colossal, eye watering sum. It should be a matter of national shame that we are placing such a terrible burden on graduates before they have barely started life. If you want to understand why young people might support a candidate like Jeremy Corbyn you don’t really need to look much further.
Joseph Stieglitz, the US Nobel prize winning economist, made this point that the blind spot of so-called progressive centre left politicians like Blair and his protegé, Liz Kendall, is that they are arguing for something that doesn’t work.
It may be dangerous to vote for Corbyn. But it feels equally dangerous, if not more so, to insult the intelligence of his supporters for refusing to move as far to the right as the party elite.
Originally nominated through a slightly patronising process – some MP’s openly confessed they endorsed him in the interests of “having a debate” – Jeremy Corbyn is now causing huge alarm to the other candidates and the New Labour grandees because he seems intent on having, and winning, the kind of debate they didn’t really want to have.
Meanwhile, the Tories are encouraging their supporters to infiltrate the Labour leadership process because they smugly feel that Corbyn winning the election will be the final nail in the opposition’s coffin. I think they should be careful what they wish for. As Paul Krugman recently commented in the ‘New York Times’:
“I don’t fully understand the apparent moral collapse of New Labour after an election that was not, if you look at the numbers, actually an overwhelming public endorsement of the Tories. But should we really be surprised if many Labour supporters still believe in what their party used to stand for, and are unwilling to support the…..flight to the right?”