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.