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.