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16 September 2015

Leader: The duties of an opposition leader cannot be wished away

Jeremy Corbyn has received a remarkable mandate. To succeed, he now needs to convince the party - and reach out to the wider public.

By New Statesman

Jeremy Corbyn won an astonishing victory to become Labour leader, and we congratulate him on that. Tens of thousands of existing party members, as well as new recruits, were inspired by his insurgent campaign and anti-austerity rhetoric and more than 250,000 people voted for him. It was one of the most remarkable events in the long, distinguished history of the Labour Party and was predicted by no one.

As a result of the scale of Mr Corbyn’s victory – he won nearly 60 per cent of votes in the first round – he has a resounding mandate to lead and, indeed, to change the Labour Party. MPs have been right to respect his margin of victory and quell talk of an immediate coup, though there is much opposition to him even among those who have agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet.

Yet with victory comes great responsibility. The role of leader of the opposition is among the most arduous in public life. Its demands and duties cannot be ignored or wished away. Although he is 66 and has been a parliamentarian for 32 years, Mr Corbyn has no experience of office and has run nothing beyond his Islington North constituency. His career in politics has been built on relentlessly challenging the party hierarchy and single-mindedly pursuing his extra-parliamentary causes. This serial rebel – Mr Corbyn has defied the Labour whip more than 500 times – is now charged with unifying a demoralised party that splintered into factions following Ed Miliband’s hasty resignation as leader after Labour’s worst defeat since 1983.

So far, after a chaotic first week, Mr Corbyn gives every impression of being uncomfortable with leadership, not least because he scarcely has a supporting team around him. The appointments that he made to his first shadow cabinet showed that he is prepared to work with those who are not his natural allies. His good intentions were undermined, however, by his failure to appoint any women to shadow the great offices of state and by the appointment of his long-time ally John McDonnell, from the ultra left of the party, as shadow chancellor.

In his acceptance speech on 12 September, Mr Corbyn showed no inclination to reach out beyond the Labour selectorate and the unions that funded his campaign. He repeatedly denounced the malign intent of the media. For all the ­euphoria, he and his supporters must understand that Labour lost in May largely because it was not trusted on economic matters. If Mr Corbyn speaks only to those who voted for him and share his world-view – a formidable number in the context of a party leadership election but 900,000 fewer than the number who voted for the Green Party in the general election – he will condemn Labour to perpetual opposition. The reality may be distasteful but he has to convince Conservative voters that Labour is a party worthy of government.

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Labour faces a vehemently hostile “mainstream” press. Nevertheless, Mr Corbyn will have to work with and build relationships with media organisations – even those he believes are beneath contempt. It is not enough to address rallies and communicate his positions and ideas through social media. Above all, Mr Corbyn needs to clarify the relationship between the leader, the parliamentary party and party members in determining how policy is decided. So far, shadow cabinet ministers are contradicting their leader on a daily basis. We welcome pluralism and an open conversation but, on issues from the renewal of Trident to British membership of the European Union and Nato, clarity is required. Labour has to speak with one collective voice instead of many, as it is doing at present.

Some of Labour’s most distinguished MPs are refusing to serve in the shadow cabinet. A leader who does not have the support of his MPs is vulnerable. A leader who has spent his career rebelling against his party should not expect any loyalty in return, especially when his positions are as uncompromising as his.

There is no precedent in British political history of a new party leader having so little support among MPs. In the months ahead, Mr Corbyn will wear his mandate like protective armour and appeal directly to the membership for support. But he is not naive. He knows that the challenges he faces are daunting. Because of his overwhelming victory, he has earned the right to be heard: to win the leadership, he overcame odds of 100-1. That, as it turned out, was the easy part. Things will be a lot more difficult from here. 

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This article appears in the 16 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War