Ross McKibbin on the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn
It was said of one of Neville Chamberlain’s ministerial appointments that it was the most improbable since Caligula made his horse a consul. Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour Party is in the same category. Not that it is a joke; just that it was highly unlikely and almost without precedent in modern British party political history. Corbyn is probably unique in his lack of conventional qualifications for the job. George Lansbury and Michael Foot, the former Labour leaders he most resembles, had been cabinet ministers; Foot was Callaghan’s deputy in the 1976-79 government. Corbyn’s lack of conventional qualifications, however, is the reason he won. He was in a sense an anti-candidate: he exposed the emptiness of the conventionally qualified. That Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper were members of the last Labour government did them no good. That the best candidate the Blairites could find was Liz Kendall, who never stood a chance, was a telling reminder of their collapse. It was also a reminder of the collapse of New Labour’s political strategies. Corbyn could be elected because there is no longer a ‘centre’ in British politics to be fought over. The Lib Dems, whose raison d’être is or was being of the centre, came close to being eliminated at the general election in May, and it’s fantasy to believe that the Conservative Party now occupies that position. Those who argue that Labour should move to the centre, the party’s perpetual ‘modernisers’, are in practice suggesting that Labour should adopt policies wholly incompatible with any version of social democracy, however ‘modern’. Kendall’s campaign was a return to New Labour’s media strategy, which was based on making an accommodation with the Tory press. But that strategy was always bound to fail once New Labour was finished and the Tory press had returned to the fold.
Those who supported Corbyn were in any case not moved simply by the detail of his likely policies. They were moved by his manifest opposition to the dominant ideology of modern Britain, to the ‘system’ and its disreputable character. That makes him attractive to a significant minority. There are a number of ways we can write the history of Britain since Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. One – an accurate one – is to see it as a story of the remorseless corruption of the country’s elites. I don’t mean a story of paper bags filled with money – though money is central to the story – but of a fundamental corruption of the spirit and a degradation of the idea of a democratic citizenship: the story of a country put up for sale. Though New Labour certainly did not create the system, it was complicit with it at almost every level, and whenever one of New Labour’s old stagers appeared on television to denounce Corbyn you were reminded of that. Corbyn was not thought to be complicit, which was much to his advantage.
New Labour was a party of the winners. Corbyn is the candidate of the losers and part of the excitement of his campaign was a sense that for once the losers were on the winning side. His victory will test a number of theories. Commentators attributed Labour’s defeat in May either to its alienation of the aspirational classes (the Blairite explanation) or to the alienation of its core vote (the non-Blairite explanation), or both. These are in fact extreme simplifications of a complex phenomenon. Labour’s old core vote still largely votes Labour, if it votes at all, while the middle class is now so huge that generalisations about it are almost meaningless. Nonetheless, it is hard to see Corbyn as the representative of the broad middle class of southern England. Whether those Labour voters who voted Ukip can be won back is difficult to say. If it can be done, Corbyn has the best chance of doing it. He is (or was) a Eurosceptic and is against austerity, though he favours refugees and doesn’t share Ukip’s views on immigration. Nevertheless, he looks Old Labour – the party of the traditional welfare state. Though he’s the MP for Islington North and very much a product of London politics (not necessarily a help nationally) he is not associated with the ‘progressive’ middle class, or with modern plutocrats and the lifestyle they are thought to have. Alone among the candidates for the leadership, Corbyn appeared as if he understood the life-chances of Ukip voters. Such appearances are important: if he can’t appeal to them no other Labour leader will. But appearances can cut both ways. Although much of what Corbyn stands for is actually in the interest of the middle classes – the current system doesn’t work much better for them than for the traditional working class – that isn’t the way things are perceived at the moment.
Corbyn does have some things going for him. Although the Tory machine will set out to destroy him as it has other Labour leaders – it began immediately with the absurd business of his non-singing of the national anthem – he might turn out to be less vulnerable than he looks. He is, as they say, authentic, and not (yet) associated with the shifts and evasions typical of the political class. Above all, he is not open to the charge of hypocrisy. This has in the past been a favourite weapon of the Tory press: to say of Labour leaders that they don’t practise what they preach; that they live like the people they are supposed to despise; that their sympathy for the poor or the deprived is all a pretence. But Corbyn doesn’t have two kitchens, two nannies or two Jaguars. He doesn’t appear to have misused his parliamentary expenses. Not having been to Oxford or Cambridge, he is no admirer of the foolery of Prime Minister’s Questions, as was clear from his first outing. The tried and true techniques of Tory denigration, which did so much damage to Ed Miliband, were not developed for a one-off like Corbyn and against him could be less effective. Furthermore, the Tory Party is not what it was. Even in the most favourable circumstances it has struggled to find votes. That it won any kind of majority in May was as much a matter of luck as anything else. The country’s political future is as unpredictable as it has ever been, and that isn’t necessarily unfavourable to a one-off.
Yet Corbyn’s stint will probably end in tears. The first reason for thinking so is the behaviour of those in the Parliamentary Labour Party who opposed him – which is all but twenty of them – especially those members of the shadow cabinet who immediately resigned. Their petulance, together with their obvious bewilderment at what has happened, is the mark of people who believe they are entitled to rule; and I don’t think they will accept their dethronement lightly. They and their mates in the media will seek continually to undermine Corbyn, and they will not be too scrupulous about it. Were the parliamentary executive still elected by the PLP, many of those who walked out would almost certainly have been elected to the shadow cabinet. But, thanks to Ed Miliband, those appointments are now in the hands of the leader.
The second reason Corbyn is likely not to last is the effect of the compromises he will have to make. Much of what he stands for, however desirable (like the renationalisation of the railways), is thought to be politically impossible, and he will be under much pressure to compromise, as he has already over the EU. But to compromise is to risk the support of those who elected him. If he does, he becomes like the others: someone at the command of the opinion polls whose opinion shifts with the breeze. Besides, his strongest supporters are a large number of young people who, though sympathetic to a version of Labour, are not sympathetic to compromise. It would be interesting to know how many of those who voted for Corbyn didn’t vote at all in the last general election or voted for a different party (the Greens?). Corbyn is not simply an anti-candidate, he is an anti-political candidate: the candidate of those who dislike the manoeuvrings and trade-offs of parliamentary politics. That is a big weakness.
The third reason is the method by which he was elected. Until Kinnock’s election as leader in 1983, the PLP made the choice. This had obvious advantages. It is a defined electorate: we know who its members are, they have themselves been elected, and they have an interest in choosing someone who can win. That arrangement also makes it possible for the party to eject a failing leader swiftly. Twice now, in 2010 and 2015, the party has been left leaderless and voiceless for months when it needed authoritative leadership. None of the recent methods used to elect the leader has been properly democratic: they have all rested on gimcrack electorates weakly policed and open to manipulation; this is true not least of the present system whereby anyone with a passing interest could buy a vote for £3. What’s more, successive reforms have probably missed their real target, which is to end the endless interventions of the party – or the trade unions’ – bureaucracy in the selection of parliamentary candidates, one reason for the decay of the party’s membership. Local parties are also open to manipulation – that goes without saying – but no more so than any other group, and they have, or are thought to have, democratic legitimacy. Restoring the right of local parties to select candidates without interference is probably more important than changing the way the leader is elected. Many MPs who nominated Corbyn – nomination being the only right they retain – did so as a jeu d’esprit, never expecting him to be elected. But he was; and the result has been to introduce a degree of tension between the PLP and its new leader that can only be destabilising. Confining the choice of leader to the PLP is obviously no longer acceptable, but a method that simply marginalises Labour MPs is hardly any better. The least bad way would probably be to restore an electoral college, with or without trade union representation, which gave greater weight to the PLP while preserving the rights of the membership. The right to buy a vote I hope would not be preserved. And the whole business would need to move at a less stately pace than the interminable process that elected Corbyn. That would at least provide some of the balance that has now become all too necessary.