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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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.