When Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader in 2015, he was in office but not truly in control of the party. He was elected with the support of just 14 MPs, most of whom longed for his removal. Shadow cabinet ministers plotted to bring him down. And the machine was dominated by New Labour apparatchiks. Since then, Mr Corbyn’s position has been strengthened immeasurably.
He won a second contest in 2016 against a feeble challenge from the soft left, delivered the biggest increase in Labour’s general election vote share since 1945 (from 30.4 per cent in 2015 to 40 per cent in 2017) and forced the Conservatives to abandon much of their manifesto. Even his opponents now accept that he will remain in office for as long as he wishes.
In this week’s New Statesman, we chart how the left’s dominance of Labour extends well beyond the leader’s office. Corbynites now enjoy a majority on the party’s ruling National Executive Committee, and Iain McNicol, the outgoing Labour general secretary (whose resignation Mr Corbyn’s allies had long sought), will be replaced by an ardent left-winger.
Mr Corbyn’s opponents may dislike this outcome but they can little object to it. They were beaten resoundingly when they challenged his leadership (through the hapless Owen Smith campaign) and have offered no inspiring vision of renewal since. Like Tony Blair before him, Mr Corbyn has earned the right to reshape the party in his own image.
There are, however, legitimate grounds for scepticism. Mr Corbyn’s most senior aide, Seumas Milne, was a Soviet Union sympathiser. Andrew Murray, the chief of staff of Unite and a consultant to the Labour leader, was a member of the Stalinist Communist Party of Britain until 2016 and expressed solidarity with North Korea in 2003. They hail from an authoritarian leftist tradition.
As leader, Mr Corbyn has been more pragmatic than some of his detractors anticipated. He accepted policies such as Trident renewal and British membership of Nato in deference to MPs and trade unions. Though a lifelong Eurosceptic, he now advocates permanent UK membership of a European customs union and a close relationship with the EU’s single market. By outflanking the Conservatives, and attracting praise from business, he has shown the astuteness and instinct for triangulation that Mr Blair was once renowned for.
Mr Corbyn deserves to be assessed as a potential prime minister. Too often, disparagers have chosen to insult rather than scrutinise him. The lurid attempt by the right-wing press and the Conservatives to frame Mr Corbyn as a traitor for meeting the Czech spy Jan Sarkocy backfired predictably.
Yet if Labour enters the next election as an unambiguous contender for power, it will face tougher questions than this. Every left-wing government in recent history – from Mitterrand’s in France to Syriza’s in Greece – has been forced to abandon its programme at the behest of the markets. In an era of globalisation, as the leader’s allies accept, socialism in one country is no longer possible (if it ever was). Mr Corbyn has pulled off a remarkable coup. He has control of the party, but gaining control of the country will be a far harder task.
Class and the BBC
“It’s not as simple as a gender issue, it’s partly down to class,” the BBC Breakfast business reporter Steph McGovern told the Sunday Times as she described her struggle to be paid as much as “posher” colleagues in news and current affairs. She is correct to raise the issue. The BBC began collecting data on its staff’s socio-economic backgrounds last year, finding that 17 per cent of its workforce was privately educated compared to 7 per cent of the population. A separate analysis by Sky’s Lewis Goodall showed that nearly half of the BBC’s 80 highest on-screen earners had attended private schools.
Ms McGovern’s criticism of the BBC will have been delivered in her attractively broad north-eastern accent. One seldom hears such accents on the BBC, however. With the exception of football, where working-class, non-graduate millionaires act as pundits, the corporation has been captured by middle-class metropolitans. This is an existential threat to the BBC if it wishes to retain the support and affection of all licence fee payers.
The broadcaster must do more to encourage and promote the likes of Ms McGovern, rather than yet another super-privileged alumna from St Paul’s Girls’ School.
This article appears in the 28 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left