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.
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Vol. 37 No. 22 · 19 November 2015
While I agree with the gist of Ross McKibbin’s argument that a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to make the sort of inroads required to produce a change of government, I would disagree about the causes he cites: the Tory press, Corbyn’s small base in the Parliamentary Labour Party, his inevitable compromises and the nature of Labour’s leadership election (LRB, 8 October).
All the data over many decades suggest that the polls have a primal effect on MPs. If the polls were to show Labour in the ascendant, the PLP would quickly swallow its reservations about Corbyn. Were the polls to tell Labour MPs that they’re all going to win their seats and might even have a shot at power, every single one of them would be sending Corbyn expensive Christmas cards. Second, the compromises usually don’t matter much. Wilson started out with a left pedigree and that meant his compromises were generally regarded as necessary by the left. The same would doubtless be true of Corbyn. And third, the electorate are singularly uninterested in how a given leader was chosen. There is no evidence that the multiple changes in both the major parties’ leadership election methods since 1965 have made a blind bit of difference to their mass support. In effect voters expect the parties to produce their leaders by whatever hocus-pocus they choose; then they get down to the serious business of working out which party (and leader) they would prefer.
I would be more inclined to see Labour and Corbyn’s difficulties in the tremendous deterioration of the solidaristic associational memberships that used to bind the Labour vote together: the trade unions, the large public sector, working men’s clubs, solid council house estates, even the decline in Catholic religious practice. The result has been the atomisation and dispersal of the Labour vote with whole chunks falling off the side to the SNP and Ukip. By contrast the institutional base of the Tory Party – private schools, the Anglican Church, wealthy housing districts, the expanded private sector and even home ownership in general – is as healthy as ever. The result is a one-sided decay of the class cleavage, with the Tories holding onto their old hinterland far better than Labour has.
However much McKibbin dislikes the Blairites – and I do understand why – the truth is that rather than dreaming of how it might renew some of these dynamited old structures of support, Labour would do far better to sally forth and see how it can turn to its advantage some of the features of the brave new world that has replaced the old. The key point is that inequalities of wealth and income are growing rapidly. Labour needs to mobilise the bottom 60 per cent adversely affected by this process. That means it has to appeal to small businessmen, shop-owners, small farmers and so on. This probably entails a shift to social conservatism on some issues, however horrific that sounds. It is a tough ask. But I’m not sure Corbyn is even thinking about what might be required to win.
Vol. 38 No. 1 · 7 January 2016
In his letter Bill Johnson makes several more or less contentious points about the problems of the Labour Party (Letters, 19 November 2015). He is right to emphasise the extent to which the decay of its institutional and industrial base has undermined it, as such decay has undermined every Western social-democractic party. He underestimates, however, the way in which simultaneous changes in the structure of the media have reinforced that process. When the Labour Party reached its peak in 1951 so did the Daily Mirror. At present Labour has no access to a powerful press and legislation brought in by the last Labour government neutered television as an alternative. Even at the most elementary level the Labour Party has effectively no instrument of mass communication. That was very apparent at the last election.
Johnson says that it does not make ‘a blind bit of difference’ how parties elect their leaders. It makes more than a blind bit when their electoral arrangements elect the wrong leader – as the Labour Party did this year. The election of Corbyn is the long-term result of ill-considered changes which now seem almost irreversible, but unless reversed are likely to continue producing wrong leaders.
On the other hand, Johnson exaggerates the electoral strength of the Conservative Party. Its base, he says, is as ‘healthy as ever’. It isn’t. The social base of the Tory Party began to fragment in the 1980s and 1990s and it remains historically weak. This fragmentation gave New Labour an opportunity which it then almost wilfully threw away. All we can say is that, for the moment, the Tory social base is less insecure than Labour’s.
Johnson is right to suggest that nothing is to be gained by trying to rebuild the old structures of social democracy (though I’m not sure who is doing that); also right to argue that Labour will have to look for new allies – simply because the majority of the population are no longer working class. However, he chooses odd examples – ‘small businessmen, shop-owners, small farmers and so on’. Labour has tried to enrol them for the last hundred years with virtually no success.
St John’s College, Oxford