I know, of course, that it is usually the hope that kills you. But astonishingly, Labour and Jeremy Corbyn look to be in with a fighting chance in next Thursday’s general election. I’m usually sensibly sober about this sort of thing, and I shall remain so: the likelihood is still that the Tories will win. But a couple of weeks ago I couldn’t foresee anything other than a huge Tory win; now I’m not so sure.
Lots of things seem to be going on.
First, it is becoming clear that Theresa May is far from the competent, stable politician it was complacently assumed she was. Her relentless focus on herself does not sit well with the evidence that she has little confidence in her own policies or her ability to engage in any meaningful debate. Alternating between her mantra about ‘strong and stable leadership’ (when increasingly it is evident that she is far from strong and stable) and tediously personal and negative attacks on her opponents does not make a coherent, inspiring or edifying campaign. It has the air of unhinged panic.
Second, although the opinion polls continue to suggest that May and the Tories are the most trusted on Brexit, it is hard not to wonder whether this perception may be crumbling. The reality—which the Tories have done well to mask—is that May and her Brexit team (Davis, Fox and Johnson) have so far made a complete mess of Brexit. Provocative statements, absurdly bullish rhetoric, threats and diplomatic incompetence suggest that the Tories will turn the negotiations into a disaster. Not everyone has grasped the truth yet, but it is this: Labour will almost certainly make a better job of the Brexit negotiations than the Tories. Corbyn has a better chance of getting a deal; May has a better chance of achieving catastrophe.
Third, the Labour manifesto is great. This is not because it is robustly costed or fully workable (it probably isn’t), but because, unlike the Tory manifesto, it makes an effort. Labour are offering a positive vision, and as such are tapping into many of the concerns that motivated so many people to register protest in last year’s referendum. British politics needs this vision; and even if one disagrees with the politics behind it, we are all better off for having a party of the left standing on this platform. The Tories offer little except for more cuts and a belligerent attitude towards the EU; Labour are offering a constructive approach towards the EU and a plan for a reformed society based on social justice. The Labour manifesto undoubtedly has a touch of utopianism about it; but I’d rather that than the platitudinous vagueness and misery of the Tory manifesto.
Fourth, Jeremy Corbyn is reminding us that when he gets media exposure and a greater opportunity to be heard, he is a quietly impressive figure. I’m certainly no Corbynista, but as each day passes Corbyn looks considerably more impressive than May at connecting with people and at managing a campaign. Corbyn would make an unusual, unconventional Prime Minister, but it is no longer impossible to imagine him occupying Number 10—and doing so with greater competence than May.
Fifth, a lot will depend on turnout. The most recent ICM poll put the Tories 11 points ahead, but that is after adjustment on likely turnout (i.e. factoring out those deemed unlikely to vote); if that adjustment is removed from the equation, then Labour trail the Tories by only three points (a figure in line with some other polls). Clearly, for Labour to have any chance they must mobilize certain groups—above all the young—to vote. The priority in the final week of the campaign must surely be to urge young voters and other groups traditionally lukewarm about voting to turn out next Thursday.
Three weeks ago I was adamant that I would not vote Labour. Not any more. The Greens remain the choice of my heart; but my head tells me that I should add my vote to the Labour numbers. I live in an extremely safe Labour constituency, so I could probably get away with my modest show of support for the Greens. I’ve yet to decide. All that matters is that one does whatever one can to get the Tories and their miserable politics of self-interest out of government.
Theresa May arrogantly assumed that by calling the election she would automatically be handed a landslide. But it turns out that an election campaign allows for scrutiny of what the political parties and their politicians stand for. The more one scrutinizes May and the Tories, the less attractive they appear; conversely, Corbyn and Labour look more attractive with each passing day.
Labour’s current turmoil mirrors that of the country as a whole, and lessons can possibly be drawn from this. A common problem is at the root of both: a disconnection between the head and the rest of the body. Brexit is the way this has manifested itself in the country: a large proportion of the population expressed, through a vote to leave the EU, their dissatisfaction with the political, economic and financial establishment. For Labour, the dissatisfaction with their establishment—party grandees and the parliamentary party—was aired in the 2015 leadership contest won by Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn was the anti-establishment candidate, and was voted in on the back of a popular insurgency among ordinary, rank-and-file party members. In the way he dressed, spoke and acted, and in his record as a notoriously rebellious MP who put principle before personal ambition, Corbyn was a man who oozed an anti-establishment vibe. Many of those who voted for him did so because they ‘wanted their party back’—a party that, in their view, had been hijacked by Tory-lite Blairite modernizers and corporate-friendly career politicians. Optimistically, and perhaps idealistically, they hoped that by installing their man at the helm, the rest of the parliamentary head might start connecting again with the body.
The chances of this hope being realized were always remote. From day one of Corbyn’s leadership there were murmurs of plots against him, and it was never going to take much for the murmurs to become a crescendo preceding an attempt by the Westminster politicians to oust him.
The EU referendum and the subsequent Brexit crisis was the opportunity the plotters were waiting for. As a pretext they cited Corbyn’s apparently lacklustre campaign to remain in the EU, attributing to him a large responsibility for the failure of the Remain camp. It is far from obvious that they are right about this—not enough at a detailed level is understood about who voted Leave and why. On the one hand, in a campaign dominated on both sides by overblown arguments, misplaced passion and straightforward mendacity, Corbyn’s more low-key, honest and cogent position was a welcome relief; he presented reasoned arguments, without resorting to a strategy of fear-mongering, and he was upfront in his reservations about some aspects of the EU while making a sensible case for Remain. On the other hand, in a campaign that allowed for little nuance, and in which the stakes were so high, Corbyn’s contribution appears to have been both misconceived and largely ineffective: he looked too much like an informed Remain voter with one or two doubts, rather than an inspiring leader fully committed to his cause (and there are those who believe his lack of commitment masked a sanguine attitude to the prospect of Brexit).
Whether Corbyn conducted a good campaign is open to argument; for his enemies, however, the possibility of reasonable doubt over the matter presented the opportunity they had been waiting for. And so an attempted coup is under way—and a Corbynite resistance is taking shape. How it will pan out is unclear, but it is not likely to be pretty. Corbyn is most likely finished, since his position has become untenable: Labour cannot function in any meaningful parliamentary way when its leader commands so little support among his fellow MPs. At the same time, however, Labour will struggle to function as a party if its anti-Corbyn grandees and parliamentary party fail to connect with the majority of its members. Is there a candidate who can pull it all together? And would the Corbyn supporters among the membership be prepared to transfer their support to him or her? At this extremely early stage the answers to neither question appear encouraging. For it would seem that much of Corbyn’s support comes from people who do not want the ‘same old Westminster politics’, and who are reluctant to embrace a consensus politics if that involves diluting their own ideals. Stand-offs, infighting, haemorrhaging of support may all feature in the weeks and months ahead.
The parallels between Labour’s woes and the Brexit crisis are somewhat ironic. For Corbyn’s position mirrors the Brexit position; and the Labour parliamentary party position mirrors the anti-Brexit position. The former are cast as anti-establishment; the latter (less fairly, perhaps) as establishment. It is of course much more complex than that, and this is only one of many ways in which the current crises—both Brexit and Labour—can be read. And this is much more about perceptions than it is about reality: Brexit is perceived as anti-establishment, and anti-Brexit is perceived as establishment. (I write this as someone who is strongly anti-Brexit and broadly anti-establishment.) But if we do read it in this way, what might we learn? One answer is that the political and financial ‘establishment’ will do just as most of Labour’s MPs have done: they will attempt to step in to end the anti-establishment insurgency carried out by a popular majority.
It is unlikely either ‘establishment’ will succeed, in part because both have been severely wounded by huge hits. But more than that, the game is changing; old rules and certainties no longer apply. Neither the Labour party nor the Westminster and City establishments in their current form are suited to the new game that is emerging. Labour thrived on the old certainties of an identifiable working class, and on a two-party system that fostered loyalty and consensus within ‘broad church’ politics. But society and politics are now fragmented—with divisions that go far beyond class—to such an extent that it is hard to see how Labour in its current form can bring it all together. Of course, one cannot be sure: there may be an inspirational and imaginative figure or movement who is able to build bridges across the divides. But more likely is the prospect of Labour splintering or splitting. And while it could be argued that this disarray and disintegration is limited to the political left, there is mounting evidence that the Conservative party faces similar challenges on the right.
The Westminster establishment, which in essence is built on a whole political system, will similarly struggle in this fragmented political culture. Just as the Labour party may no longer be fit for purpose, so too the wider political system. In the short-term all sorts of battles will be won and lost: the Brexiters may win, or the anti-Brexiters may win; the Corbynites may win, or the anti-Corbynites may win. But these battles, interesting and exciting though they will be, are merely the froth on the surface. Beneath the surface there are wildly changing currents that may result in much more radical developments, tearing down establishments and transforming both national politics and Labour politics.
David Cameron’s response to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader was to tweet that ‘The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security.’ Other Tories have been filling the airwaves and the newspapers with similar dire warnings of just how much danger has suddenly descended upon Britain. I haven’t left my flat today to check, but I imagine that up and down the country supermarkets are scenes of mayhem as terrified people fight to load up on provisions in order to bunker down and survive this threat. On the other hand, my own economic security (and that of my family and most other people I know) has got so much worse since 2010 that there really isn’t much left to be destroyed.
The Russian Embassy tweeted a reply to Cameron: ‘Just imagine UK media headlines if Russian President called a leading opposition party threat to national security?’ Indeed. There would be lots of discussion about Putin’s totalitarian tendencies, about how such language is the first step to banning opposition. This is how totalitarian regimes, dictatorships and military juntas start out: opposition parties are labelled as threats to security, justifying their suppression.
I do not think that the Tories have a Macchiavellian plan to outlaw the Labour party, but it is interesting how ready they are to adopt the language of totalitarian aspiration. I suspect that Cameron and his party are genuinely appalled by the idea of one-party states and dictatorships (even if not by living examples of such states, with whom they are more than happy to do business); but I also suspect that they have such a deep sense of entitlement to power that the language of dictators comes to them naturally and without thinking. For how else does one explain a tweet as ridiculous as that of Cameron—and a tweet that in many other countries would be rightly regarded as sinister?
My guess is that, while Tories would not want to suppress Labour, they do like to daydream about hobbling the opposition in such a way that Britain does become in effect a one-party state. (And we’re all allowed our utopian fantasies, even if we wouldn’t base our tweets or media interviews on them.) Thus, some Tories have been talking gleefully about how the election of Corbyn presents the opportunity to destroy the Labour party, and the Left more generally, for good. One might have thought that politicians committed to the idea of democracy would welcome the spectrum of debate provided by a diverse opposition rather than attempt to shut down debate by raising absurd spectres of threatened security and openly hoping to wipe out an opposition party. But the Tories are not the most convincing democrats: yes, they fight elections, but they do so in ways that avoid any genuine democratic debate. In truth, the same thing could be said about all the main political parties, but the Tories, with their deeply rooted Establishment interests, have always believed themselves to be the natural party of power and hence the least sympathetic to a truly vigorous democracy.
So it has started: the Tories, and the Tory-dominated media, have begun their crude attack campaign on Corbyn. It will maximize hyperbolic rhetoric, it will play on fear, it will be unashamedly demagogic, and it will be tinged with nationalism. Labour will be portrayed at every opportunity as anti-British, anti-family, anti-work. There will be little attempt at any real debate and little that resembles a vibrant democracy in which ideas and policies are freely and openly exchanged and discussed. And, without any hint of irony, we’ll be reminded by the Tories and their media friends how fortunate we are to be living in the great ‘cradle of democracy’ that is Britain.
On General Election night earlier this year, as the political disaster was gradually unfolding, I had the bleak thought that Labour was finished as a party of the left. This year was the first time I had voted Labour since 1997. The party’s direction under Ed Miliband’s leadership hardly pointed to a leftist’s dreamland, but it did seem to signal a slight veering away from the rightward drift of the Blair and Brown years—enough, at least, to win my vote. But back in May I was convinced that the scale of the electoral defeat would prompt a more thoroughgoing lurch to the right than anything in previous Labour party history. The lesson I guessed that many in the Labour movement would take from the defeat was the need shamelessly to steal as many Tory clothes as possible. Initially, nothing about the subsequent leadership contest altered my prediction. Jeremy Corbyn got onto the ballot paper at the last minute, with minimal support and with the almost open acknowledgement that his participation was simply to ensure that an alternative voice was heard. I expected him to come a very distant last; Corbyn and his supporters probably expected the same. But then politics got as surprising and exciting as I’ve known it in my lifetime: Corbyn won by a huge margin, and the Left suddenly seems alive again as a mass movement with electoral possibilities.
Of course many will say (and are already saying) that Corbyn’s victory really will finish off the Left. His leadership, it is suggested, will turn out to be a disaster as the Labour party descends into internecine war and electoral oblivion. And that may indeed happen. Although Corbyn’s democratic mandate is comprehensive, and there can be no question about his legitimacy and popularity as leader, I imagine the internal party plotting against him has already begun—and there will be many who are resigned to biding their time and waiting for what they believe to be the inevitable implosion. And right now it is genuinely hard to see how a Corbyn-led Labour party can make any electoral inroads. His numbers in winning the Labour leadership are impressive, but those numbers are a fraction of the overall electorate. If the fairly tepid leftist manifesto of Miliband was rejected, often comprehensively, in seats that Labour should be winning, then the prospect of a more resoundingly left-wing programme gaining traction with voters seems remote.
But in fact I think there are grounds for optimism about Corbyn’s leadership—even about the possibility of Prime Minister Corbyn. This despite the gloomy predictions of politicians and commentators, even as early as the morning after Labour’s defeat in May, that Labour were finished as an electoral force until at least 2025. For many, even in the Labour movement itself, this is still the default view. Yet predictions in the immediate aftermath of what was without doubt an impressive Tory success and a traumatic Labour failure are hardly to be given much weight. The current government has been up and running for only four months and the road to the next election is a long one. Right now the Tories would win again, and easily, but I would hesitate to suggest the same might be said in four years’ time.
Consider how unimpressive the Tories are as a government, and how potentially disastrous are their policies. Their commitment to austerity is not only based on some highly dubious economic ideas, but even if successful in its own limited terms will almost certainly increase poverty and inequality (already among the highest levels in Europe). Inequality extends to many areas: protection for employers is being extended at the expense of employees; cuts to legal aid mean that equality before the law is gradually becoming a thing of the past; access to education, health and welfare will become increasingly hard for a growing proportion of the population. A programme with those outcomes is a risky venture; the Tory rationale of divide-and-rule can backfire if the divisions do not work out as they plan. The neo-liberal ideological commitment of the current government carries plenty of electoral risk. Tuition fees and student debt, already the highest in Europe, are likely to increase over the next four years; insecure housing and homelessness will rise; dependence on food banks and charity are likely to become an engrained feature of British society. The Tories seem set on dismantling the BBC; they may well dismantle the Union; they are likely to damage Britain’s relationship with the EU; and they seem enthusiastic for secret trials, overseas assassinations and backdoor routes into military conflict. None of this commands obvious popularity.
About the only satisfying aspect of this grim litany of the likely impact of the Tories on Britain is the realization that it could all go disastrously wrong for the Tories themselves. Just because the electorate narrowly voted for all this a few months ago (and with little enthusiasm one suspects—the Tory election campaign was the most resoundingly negative campaign I can ever remember, entirely based on attacks on Labour and fear-mongering about the SNP) does not mean that the electorate will accept the even more stark results of austerity that are likely to be apparent in four years’ time. A lot can happen in four years, and it might not take a great deal for the inequality, injustice and poverty that were just about acceptable to the third of the electorate who voted Conservative earlier this year to become increasingly unpalatable to the same voters in 2020. And that’s not even to factor in the possibility of crises such as Black Wednesday, the Credit Crunch, high political scandal, Middle Eastern wars or refugee crises that have the potential to derail any government.
Things could of course go badly wrong for Labour too, above all if the party looks inwards rather than outwards. There are interesting things going on in politics all over Europe that suggest some tectonic political shifts are happening: the emergence of Syriza in Greece, the rise of Podemos in Spain and the remarkable success of the SNP in Scotland point to a growing disenchantment with traditional politics. (Nor is this exclusive to the left: the Front National in France, the Danish People’s Party, Jobbik in Hungary, even the modest success of UKIP in Britain, Vlaams Belang in Belgium and Golden Dawn in Greece, indicate that disenchantment is having transformative effects on the Right too.) Corbyn’s campaign, which rapidly evolved into a movement, should be seen in this wider political context. The trick for Corbyn (and Labour), of course, will be to sustain the movement’s momentum and ultimately to broaden it further.
There is much talk about how Corbyn, for all his qualities, is simply not cut out to be a party leader, let alone a Prime Minister. Corbyn entered parliament in 1983, at around the same time that I became really interested in politics, and until this year I cannot recall anything in his career to suggest that he would want to be, or was suited to be, anything other than an often impressive, maverick, independent-minded backbencher and campaigner. I always had a lot of time for his politics and approach (and that is not me jumping on a bandwagon—I remember, for example, being impressed by his views on Northern Ireland back in the 1980s, or his consistent opposition to nuclear weapons, or his prominent role in the Stop the War coalition). But if anyone had suggested he would make a good party leader I would have thought that person mad. Yet now may actually be the ideal time for a leader such as Corbyn—in other words, a leader who embodies none of the traditional leadership traits. Corbyn lacks the PR polish of a Blair or a Cameron, but that may well be a surprising strength rather than a presumed weakness. His down-to-earth style based on principles and passion and his unconventional emergence from a career on the backbenches may contrast rather well with the schmoozing, back-scratching and back-stabbing, deal-making, spin- and style-obsessed path of political ambition that has traditionally forged Prime Ministers. As political movements reject traditional politics, so they are likely to reject traditional political leaders. Corbyn may well look rather good next to Cameron—and for all the Tory jubilation at Corbyn’s victory, there is a real possibility that the Conservatives will unwisely and complacently dismiss him as an opponent. Cameron and the Tory government may experience discomfort in the emergence of a type and style of politics with which they are unfamiliar.
Above all, Corbyn’s chances of success will depend on his policies. His greatest challenge will be taking the parliamentary Labour party with him—that is evidently the main danger to his leadership, and no doubt there will have to be considerable finesse in the way he combines his policy programme with his leadership of the opposition. That could well end up a mess. But if Corbyn can avoid trouble there, what I hope is that Labour sets out a clear, consistent and radical left-wing agenda from the outset. It is inevitable that Corbyn and his policies are going to take some huge hits from the Tories and the media—it will be brutal and fierce. But he’s got four years to make his arguments and win over the sceptics, and there is more chance of being successful in the long run if the message and arguments are consistent from the start. So, for example, it looks likely that the Tories will immediately begin hammering away at Corbyn’s views on nuclear weapons; much as they used the supposed threat from the SNP as an unsubtle bludgeon during the election campaign, so they will use the argument that Corbyn is ‘a danger to national security’ as a crude and sustained attack on Labour. This will probably resonate with the public in the short term. But if Corbyn, and more particularly the Labour party, remain firm in their position in the face of this, consistently and clearly pointing out the contradictions and fallacies of the Tory idea of ‘security’ and the strengths of their own position, then I see no reason why the argument cannot be won. It won’t be won quickly, and it won’t be won at all if Labour become flaky about their own position. And that applies to everything, from opposition to austerity, to policies promoting equality and social justice, to reducing tuition fees, to supporting the welfare state: there is a great opportunity to make a coherent, clear and persuasive argument for all these, but one that would be squandered if Labour become jittery in the face of the relentless Tory and media attacks.
How confident am I that Corbyn will become next Prime Minister? In all honesty, not very. Over the years I have seen how formidable the Tories—and their corporate and media allies—are at attaining electoral success. But for now I am delighted that British politics will have a clear party of the left—I think our politics and political culture will benefit from that, far more than it would from two main parties following broadly similar centre-right austerity programmes. And, as I’ve suggested, I do not think it impossible that over the next four years the political landscape will alter in ways that make a Corbyn victory at the 2020 general election a realistic possibility. At any rate, Labour will likely, and rather surprisingly, get one vote in 2020 that, without Corbyn, would otherwise have gone elsewhere. My election night assumption that Labour would lurch to the right was accompanied by the thought that it would become a party that I could never vote for again. Yet quite unexpectedly I may not only find myself voting Labour again but also, and for the first time since 1992, doing so with some enthusiasm.