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Labour can't win with Jeremy Corbyn - but he's not the one to blame

Labour's self-described mainstream has much to answer for, says Tim Bale.

I'm not so sure the commentariat as a whole got it wrong, but I do know that I did. I'm supposed to know something about the Labour party, but I didn't see Jeremy Corbyn coming. In my book, Five Year Mission: the Labour Party under Ed Miliband, Corbyn is not only not suggested as a possible successor to Miliband but is not mentioned at all.

Indeed, it wasn't until YouGov published its first poll of party members that I began to believe he might actually win. Even then, it took another poll to persuade me that, far from the love affair between Jezza and Labour's grassroots being a holiday romance, it was going to last right up until September and beyond.

That'll teach him, you'd think. But, shamefully, it hasn't. Notwithstanding the confession above, I remain arrogant enough to assert right here, right now, that Labour cannot possibly win, nor even come close to winning, the next election unless it somehow gets shot of Corbyn in pretty short order.

Indeed, if he lasts very much longer as leader then there is every chance that Labour will gift the Tories control of government for a decade or more to come, so great will be the damage done to its already fragile brand.

The ecstatic Labour delegates sitting around me in the Brighton Centre listening to Jeremy Corbyn give his first party conference speech as leader were lovely people. But they were utterly deluded. All the research I've seen suggests that the party lost the 2015 election—something Corbyn neglected even to mention—because it wasn't trusted on the economy, because its leader wasn't seen as a credible candidate for Downing Street and because it was still seen as a soft touch on welfare and immigration.

It will not win an election five years later by being even less determined to balance the books, by being led by someone who looks and sounds even less prime ministerial, and by being seen as an even softer touch on welfare and immigration. Throw in being regarded as a danger to the defence of the realm and the security of its people, too, and you have a recipe for total and utter disaster.

That said, there is clearly something to the Corbynite critique of what the Labour Party had become by 2010 and continued to be right the way through to its second defeat on the trot in 2015. Talk of millions of lost voters (the exact figure seems to vary depending on how left-wing those citing it see themselves as) may be overblown. But Blair and Brown undoubtedly presided over a hollowing out of the party's support, particularly in parts of the working class that might once have been seen as Labours core vote, as well as among those who wanted a rather more direct challenge to Britain's traditionally Atlanticist foreign policy and to what they insist on calling—accurately or otherwise—neoliberalism.

Ed Miliband's failure, as least as the Labour left saw it, to mount a full-blooded assault on austerity didn't help bring these people back. Nor did the fact that he and his colleagues—widely accused of being part of the same hermetically sealed ‘political class’ as their Lib Dem and Tory colleagues—looked and sounded pretty similar to their Coalition opponents. Little wonder, then, that, even though the evidence suggests that trying to win back the lost millions would be a fools’ errand, there was an appetite for something more authentic, less nervy, boxed-in and, quite frankly, boring than the festival of waffle on offer from the irredeemably beige candidates who stood against Corbyn in the summer of 2015—three frontbenchers who could think of nothing more inspiring to say to Labour members than that they were supposedly more electable than he was.

Nature abhors a vacuum and Corbyn turned out to be the phenomenon to fill it—the man to match the latent demand for change on the part of a Labour party membership (old as well as new) which, post-election party members surveys showed, was much more left-wing, much more dissatisfied and much more firmly entrenched in the public sector than many of us had imagined. Had the moderates (or the right, whatever you want to call them) managed to find somebody more charismatic to stand against Corbyn, it might perhaps have made a difference. But, equally, it might not have. Yes, he was elected faute de mieux. But it was about far more than that.

Put bluntly, its thirteen years in power had made the Labour party's mainstream lazy. Rather than continuing forcefully to make the case that their ideas were practically and even morally superior to those of the left, they simply fell back on the argument that those ideas made them more electable. This allowed all manner of nostalgia and delusion to survive and even thrive beneath the surface—indeed, not so very far beneath the surface after they were lent an additional degree of credibility and legitimacy by Ed Miliband's occasional nods and nudges (never full-blown lurches) to the left after 2010. As a result, when the suited and booted and desperately dull approach turned out not to be electable after all, its advocates found they had no other rationale to fall back on—nor very much support, either. There was, to coin a phrase, ‘no there there’.

Given all this, those whose instincts are closer to the majority of the electorate, and whose proposals are more workable in the real world than those of the Corbynistas will ever be, need to come up with big ideas as well as big politicians. True, Labour needs someone with a CV that includes something more than working in and around Westminster for most of their adult life. But it also needs people capable of supplying that man or woman with solutions and stories that move beyond the Blairite, the Brownite, and the supposed verities and virtue-signalling that have always passed for policy on the left of the Labour party.

Whether they are able to carry out that task within the party as it is currently (or soon may be) configured is another matter.

Whether Corbyn himself shares their aims or not, many of those around him are determined to change the party's rules so that the authority of the parliamentary party and the shadow cabinet can be transferred to the National Executive Committee, or else to the leader appealing direct to party members over their heads, with a wave of deselections to follow. If that happens, and the unions approve, then the game really could be up.

Few, if any, in the commentariat currently believe that a full-blown split between Labour's socialists and social democrats is possible. But (who knows?) it may be the next big thing they get wrong.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.  The second edition of his book, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, was published in September 2016 by Polity Press.

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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.