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4 August 2015

Owen Jones: if Jeremy Corbyn wins, prepare for a firestorm

If Jeremy Corbyn wins the Labour leadership, he will come under attack from the media establishment, the Tories and much of his own party. That's because he presents a dangerous threat to the post-Thatcher political consensus. 

By Owen Jones


“Get Corbyn” is nothing if not an inclusive campaign. The liberal left and conservatives alike have united, dripping condescension, smarm, contempt or outright bile on Jeremy Corbyn and those who support him. The Corbyn campaign may have unleashed the biggest pan-British progressive grassroots political movement for many years, but it has few friends either in the media establishment or Westminster. And should Jeremy Corbyn win the Labour leadership – and it is by no means sewn up, despite the compelling evidence that awards him frontrunner status – then this movement will be plunged into a political firestorm. So, with just a few weeks before the result is announced, it is probably time to prepare. What would a Jeremy Corbyn victory look like?

Firstly, it is worth understanding the attitude of the right. At the outset of the leadership contest, the more personally unpleasant, troll-ish elements of the British right declared themselves enthusiastic supporters of Corbyn. There were two motives. Firstly, straightforward triumphalism. No majority Tory government has ever won an election on such a low share of the vote as the party did in 2015, but its supporters behave as though they won a majority of 200 seats. These elements believe the left has already been defeated, and Corbyn’s ascendance will achieve nothing but the implosion of the Labour Party. Their second motive is to turn the left into a laughing stock, an absurd joke political position that does not have to be engaged with – and thus legitimised – but simply mocked and ridiculed.

But the troll right has been eclipsed by a far more savvy – and nervous – right. “Socialism represents an enduring temptation,” warned Margaret Thatcher in her memoirs. “No one should underestimate Labour’s potential appeal.” As her former chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, put it on her 80th birthday: “The real triumph was to have transformed not just one party, but two.” This was the sincerely held belief of the right’s iconic leader herself. As her close personal friend, Tory MP Conor Burns, told me, Thatcher once declared to a crowd of her supporters: “Our greatest achievement was Tony Blair. We forced our opponents to change.” New Labour’s acceptance of many of the underlying assumptions of Thatcherism was, in the view of Thatcher and her supporters, the crowning glory of their great crusade. Their project was safe, unchallenged, a new political consensus.

Such an achievement is now in great danger. Under the headline ‘A Corbyn victory in the Labour leadership battle would be a disaster,’ the Telegraph deputy editor Allister Heath warned: “Britain needs as many pro-capitalist parties as it can get. For a brief period in the mid-1990s, it had at least three: the Tories, a reformed Labour Party under Tony Blair which appeared ready to embrace markets for the first time, and the Liberal Democrats, who at the time were still pretty centrist.” The rise of the New Right and the end of the Cold War were supposed to have eradicated socialism, mourned Heath, but “left-wing ideas have since made a return, to the great regret of commentators such as myself.” A Jeremy Corbyn victory would have a “disastrous effect”, he warned, because it “would become acceptable again to call for nationalising vast swathes of industry, for massively hiking tax and for demonising business. The centre-ground would move inexorably towards a more statist position”.

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What Heath is alluding to here is the ‘Overton Window’, an invention of the US conservative right. The ‘Overton Window’ refers to the political ideas that are seen as politically acceptable, palatable, mainstream, centre-ground, and so on, at any given time. The ideas outside the Window are seen as extreme, fringe, deluded, ridiculous. This Window is not static: it shifts. The advocates of privatisation, deregulation, lower taxes on the rich and anti-trade unionism have dramatically shifted the Window in their direction over the last generation or so. Heath’s fear is that Corbynism will send that process hurtling into reverse. He knows that, in the decades following World War II, those with his political opinions were once seen as ridiculous as the Corbynites are today. The illusion of any given era is that it is permanent; Heath knows that this is not true.

Here’s why Allister Heath’s fears are well-grounded. In an article back in late 2013, while at City AM newspaper, he looked at the results of a YouGov poll and declared that “slowly, but surely, the public is turning its back on the free market economy and re-embracing an atavistic version of socialism”. The poll found that – in large numbers – voters supported public ownership of utilities like rail and energy. Support for left-wing economic ideas was often higher among Ukip voters than the rest of the population. “Supporters of a market economy have a very big problem,” he warned. “Unless they address the concerns of the public, they will be annihilated.” Other research backs up – and compounds – Heath’s fears: suggesting large majorities in favour of everything from hiking taxes on the rich to improving workers’ rights. Heath knows that when Corbyn and his supporters are given prime slots on TV, radio and in the mainstream media, however hostile the media spin is, millions of people – whether they didn’t vote, or voted Labour, SNP, Ukip or even Tory – will often be nodding along.

No wonder that Matthew Lynn, again writing in the Telegraph, warns that “Mr Corbyn will drag the whole political debate to the far Left, especially if he is working with an equally delusional Scottish National Party.” Bashing those Tories who are cheering Corbyn on, Conservative activist Oliver Cooper – again in the Telegraph – also warns that Corbyn would “shift the entire political debate to the left”, lending “credibility to the far-left’s rejection of reality: giving a megaphone to their already over-blown and bombastic politics of fear and envy”. Jeremy Corbyn’s “brand of socialism would poison the groundwater of British politics for a generation: influencing people, particularly young people, across the political spectrum”. Thatcher was once dismissed as unelectable, he points out: when she became Tory leader, Labour cheered because they thought it meant they had the next election in the bag. “The danger of bringing socialism back to the UK under Jeremy Corbyn is all too real,” he concludes.

Indeed, the Corbyn surge is just one element of a much bigger phenomenon. In the aftermath of the recent Greek crisis, in which the Syriza government was humiliated, Donald Tusk – the head of the European Council – declared that he was “really afraid of this ideological or political contagion, not financial contagion, of this Greek crisis… For me, the atmosphere is a little similar to the time after 1968 in Europe,” warning of a “widespread impatience” which, when “a social experience of feeling” became “the introduction for revolutions.” Indeed, all over Europe, social democracy is crumbling in favour of xenophobic right-wing parties, like Ukip, the National Front and the True Finns, or populist left-wing parties like Syriza and Podemos. There is a growing political ferment, finding its expression in lots of different ways, causing mounting fear among the European elite. Corbynism is just one manifestation.

Then there is the attitude of the continuity New Labourites. I may have opposed Ed Miliband’s political prospectus, but – in the run-up to the election – I was in no doubt that “I would rather be arguing with a Labour government than fighting a Tory government.” This is not the view of many New Labourites. Tony Blair summed up their attitude. “Let me make my position clear: I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform,” he said at his notorious recent speech for the Progress think-tank, in which he called for Corbyn supporters to get themselves heart transplants. “Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it. Even if you did [win] it wouldn’t be right because it wouldn’t take the country forward, it would take it backwards. That’s why it’s not the right thing to do.” Those of a similar ideological disposition to Blair within Labour would never want the party to succeed under Corbyn, and would do everything possible to sabotage its chance of success.

If Corbyn takes over, both he and the movement he represents will face a formidable axis of opposition. They will share one objective: to make sure he fails, preferably in the most humiliating way possible. It would be a permanent lesson to the left, with the objective of wiping the left out as a political force forever.

Let’s start with the Parliamentary Labour Party. It is well known that Corbyn only scraped on to the ballot paper. Presuming that no left candidate would make it on to the ballot paper, the Shadow Cabinet minister Jon Trickett and I had been planning a ‘Not The Labour Leadership’-style national tour to try and build up a grassroots movement. That proved superfluous. Some MPs nominated Corbyn because they were on the left of the party, including many new MPs. But some did so because they came under extraordinary pressure from their own grassroots, a foreshadow of the increasingly enthusiastic movement we see today. There were politically savvy right-wing Labour MPs who knew that the Labour Party had changed since Blair was effectively ejected as leader, and they feared from the outset what Corbyn’s campaign could achieve.

If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader, many senior New Labourites have already declared that they will not join his Shadow Cabinet. Some Labour MPs may effectively go on strike. Imagine the first Prime Ministers’ Questions: Corbyn could face a cheering Tory party, determined to cause as much mischief as possible, with a largely silent Parliamentary Labour Party behind him. There may be an attempt by some members of the PLP to stage an instant coup, but this is unlikely because it is too crude: it would be seen for what it is, an attempt to overturn the results of an entirely democratic election, leaving Jeremy Corbyn a martyred hero and the PLP at war with the party membership, and would not achieve the goal of permanently humiliating the left.

I would never underestimate the ruthlessness and effectiveness of the PLP and media establishment linking hands to turn victory into an opportunity for organisational and ideological destruction of the left,” one Labour MP tells me. “The PLP will do whatever makes them look best and makes us look worse. And they may be happy to endure a split until Corbyn is deposed.” Hostile MPs will obsessively leak to the media; they will cite Corbyn’s rebellious record as justification to refuse to tow the line; their strategy will be to bleed a Corbyn leadership to death.

As Chris Mullin – the ex-Labour minister and writer of A Very British Coup, which explores the fate of a left-wing Labour Prime Minister at the hands of the Establishment – puts it: “The media will go bananas, of course. Every bit of his past life will be raked through and every position he has ever taken will be thrown back under him.” People Jeremy Corbyn has met, or has been close to, will be scrutinised in great deal. Quotes will be taken out of context and twisted. His political positions will be ruthlessly distorted. The media will seek to portray Labour as being in a state of chaos (a narrative fuelled by right-wing MPs); and Corbyn as dangerous or ridiculous or both.

Assessing the Corbyn campaign, the BBC journalist Mark Mardell was intriguingly candid. “It is hardly surprising that Westminster journalists crave the ideologically soft centre,” he writes. “None is on the minimum wage, let alone tax credits, nor are any, to my knowledge, owners of third homes on the Cayman Islands, or running big corporations. They are nearly all university educated and live in London or the South East of England (Yes, all that goes for me, too). There is group-think in the muddled middle, a fear of thinking outside a comfortable box.” Whatever their pretences, the BBC and many of its journalists will be among those attempting to undermine a Corbyn leadership.

How can such a campaign be fought? As a senior SNP figure tells me: “Observing Corbyn’s success from outside looks remarkably like what we went through in Scotland in run-up to referendum.” He had a warning: “What you’ve seen thus far thrown at Corbyn is just scratching the surface, I’m sure of that.” But note what happened in Scotland. Yes, the campaign for independence failed – for now. But despite a co-ordinated campaign of fear by politicians, big business and virtually the entire media, the result was far closer than had originally been predicted. And crucially Scotland has become politicised, with soaring levels of political engagement

A grassroots movement is being built by the Corbyn campaign. But what we’ve seen now must only be the beginning. Hundreds of thousands will have to mobilised all over the country, from Truro to Glasgow, from the big cities to the market towns to the countryside. It won’t just be about doorknocking and leafletting. Firstly, the mother of all voter registration drives has to be unleashed. The poorer you are in modern Britain, the less likely you are to vote. Labour received its second highest share of the vote from 18-24 year-olds since 1974, but less than half of them voted. Barack Obama triumphed because of a strategy of ‘expanding the electorate’.  

It’s a poll with limited value, but YouGov suggested that Jeremy Corbyn was ahead of other candidates when Ukip voters were asked which prospective Labour candidate would make them more likely to vote for the party. So Ukip voters must be love-bombed. This strategy would have to be kickstarted as soon as the leadership contest is over, hopefully helped by a record influx of new members and activists that followed. As the independence movement has politicised Scotland, so such a movement would have to do the same in England and Wales.

If Jeremy Corbyn wins the contest, his victory speech will be defining. It will have to full of progressive patriotism, a rousing history of how ordinary people throughout history confronted and overcame injustice. It must surely emphasise his intention to build a coalition of low-income and middle-income Britons – the majority of society. That means standing up for, say, self-employed people (who now make up one in 7 of the workforce) who are often starved of bank loans, whose incomes have often been falling, who lack security, whose tax credits are under attack, who lack pensions and paid sick leave and maternity leave, for example. It will emphasise how a costed abolition of tuition fees is effectively a big boost to the living standards of middle-income university graduates. It will demonstrate how a Public Investment Bank and ‘people’s Quantitative Easing’ for infrastructure will move Britain away from a low-wage, low-skill, low-productivity economy to a high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy. It will surely pledge to deal with the housing crisis by not just building council housing and legislating in favour of private sector tenants, but enable home ownership for those who want it without undermining social housing. A prosperous, just, equal society, in other words, that benefits all.

But above else, Jeremy Corbyn will have to strike a conciliatory tone: which will not be difficult, given that’s his default approach, in any case. When he is attacked – whether by the media or by his own party – they will be identified as the aggressor. An emphasis on conciliation and unity within his own party – building on his recent ‘unity statement’ – will make it politically harder for those within the PLP who wish to undermine him.

‘Get Corbyn’ is coming from all directions; should the campaign succeed, against what were initially overwhelming odds, then the hard part will begin. It will be very hard indeed, and those who wish the Corbyn movement well need to prepare for it now. At stake is the future of the left in this country, and outside Britain’s shores: so no pressure. But as hard as it will prove – and it will be formidably difficult – the challenges are not insurmountable with enough creativity and commitment.

Editor’s Note, 11 August 2015: The headline was changed at the request of the author.