Okay, let’s start with my honestly declared position on this. I don’t think that a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn is likely to win in 2020, and winning in 2020 must be the absolute priority if we are to protect the most vulnerable in our society from what will, in effect, be a third Conservative government. Dismantling public services and institutions is easier than building them and a third Tory term would see the end of any local authority role in education, a decapitated NHS and the end of the welfare state as we know it. As Labour’s candidate in Hemel Hempstead at the general election and somebody who fought virtually a full-time campaign for the six months leading up to the election, I found no appetite on the doorstep for a profoundly more left wing proposition in precisely the kind of setting where Labour must win if it is to form a government with a decent majority again. A hearty conference speech may stir the souls of delegates but, for me, it doesn’t change this reality.
Nonetheless, all my instincts tell me that for those stunned by Corbyn’s election to simply fight much of what Labour’s new leader stands for, and that his election has delivered, would be utterly the wrong response. The “give us (nearly) the price of a pint and we’ll give you a vote” approach to the leadership election was comic in its conception and execution and leads me to the conclusion that our party now has the best democracy that money can buy, but its consequence has produced, or at least could produce, unintended outcomes that stretch beyond the election of “Jezza”, and one of these could be good for politics, even if it is bad for Labour.
Whatever happens to our party over the next few years, Corbyn’s election is another manifestation of the same phenomenon that has given us Nigel Farage on the right, the rise of the SNP in Scotland, and Donald Trump in the US. Domestically, I’m tempted to call it the “Corbage Factor”, a combination of names that is likely to upset each of these arch political opponents in equal measure, but not a suggestion that they either agree on policy or on strategy. Whatever his failings – as judged by this self-confessed recovering Blairite who remains proud of much of what the Blair and Brown governments achieved – Corbyn is a man of integrity and sincerity with none of the nasty selfish nimbyism that is at the core of everything Farage stands for.
The Corbage Factor is not about a congruence of politics or motive; it is about a rejection of the mainstream, same-age, same-suit, production-line politicians that adorn both front benches. The supply lines that gave us John Prescott on the left and Ken Clarke on the right no longer exist; the ladders into modern politics – internship, PPE or something similar (usually at one of three or four elite universities), a post in a think tank and then, without a blink, a safe seat have given us our smartest, best qualified politicians ever, but our most unworldly and disconnected – identikit clones that look and sound the same and whose advisers have given us everything from the Tory’s “Pasty Tax” to Labour’s “Tombstone”. In popular culture, voting has never been more popular – think X-Factor, Strictly and Big Brother – but formal politics itself has never been less respected and, this time, the charge that “you’re all the same” has some truth, at least at first glance.
This is the terrain in which the Corbage Factor flourishes, even if the apparently working class heroes who give it it’s name are anything but that: a prep school boy and a city commodity broker. How ironic that the three SpAd-ish clones – for that is how they came across and are seen as – that Corbyn beat can genuinely claim just the kind of working class backgrounds that the victor might have romantically wanted for himself.
But there is good in this, and a real opportunity for our politics: an enormous number of people in party membership, a level of discussion in pubs and cafes about politics that I can’t previously remember (one that seems to still be flourishing several weeks after his election), a new youthfulness to many in these discussions and a promise to do politics differently. Of course, Cameron and Clegg promised something similar in the Rose Garden five years ago, but nobody expected these inauthentic production line leaders to deliver. With Corbyn they think that this serial rebel might just do so (even if the past few days have shown that he’s not quite sure how to deal with his own rebels). No more the ‘retail offer’ of what I have previously called the spadocracy. Corbyn’s attraction isn’t just his policy offer; indeed, it might not even be his policy offer – it is the way in which this offer is being made. Middle England might not buy his policy, but some will buy the compassion, kindness and honesty that he has pledged to bring with it.
I still don’t think that this will be enough to help us to win in places like Hemel – a town that by origin should be Labour to its core. To win in places like Hemel we need to capture the support of those who have been the very beneficiaries of the innovations of Labour governments of the past – free universal health care, comprehensive education, access to good quality social and private housing significantly before the onslaught of middle age – and we need to support the aspirations and hopes of those voters today. I don’t think that Corbyn’s policy offer does that, but his impact on our politics might be a fine legacy, one that none of the other candidates could have delivered.
In sport there is the notion of ‘taking a hit for the team’; in electing Jeremy Crobyn as leader – and through embracing the tens of thousands of predominantly young people previously un-attracted by our over-professionalised and managerialist politics – Labour may have risked consigning itself to opposition for the medium term, but if politics is re-energised in the process, Labour may just have taken a hit for democracy, and given it a boost that is long overdue.