Those with the most to fear from a Corbyn-led Labour – and the most to gain

This week's Politics Column from the New Statesman's political editor.

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In the minds of the bookmakers, the pundits and most Labour MPs, the party’s leadership contest is already over. But in opposition ranks, some who were previously certain of a Jeremy Corbyn victory are beginning to question their forecasts. The campaigns’ canvass returns show that the majority of the selectorate has yet to vote (with turnout as low as 25 per cent in some areas) and that others have yet to receive their ballots. Most people expect Corbyn to win comfortably among the new category of registered supporters but his opponents hope that party members and affiliated trade unionists will be swayed by warnings of his unelectability. All of the campaigns have agreed to avoid making a legal challenge to the result. Should Corbyn win, however, the teams of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall intend to demand that a full breakdown of voting is published.

For all sides, Corbyn’s victory would be a disorienting moment. No comparable outsider has ever been elected leader of the opposition. Michael Foot and Iain Duncan Smith are cited as precedents but both are erroneous. Relative to Corbyn, Foot was a mainstream figure from Labour’s soft left who had held ministerial office and tussled with the party’s Bennite wing. Duncan Smith may have been a Eurosceptic “bastard” but he went on to serve for four years in William Hague’s shadow cabinet.

The Tories have been near-silent this summer on the grounds that one’s enemy should never be interrupted when making a mistake. Those who cheered when Ed Mili­band’s victory was announced are confident in their judgement. Their warnings that Miliband would “spend more, tax more and borrow more” and strike a deal with the Scottish National Party proved remorselessly effective, despite his protestations. They see no reason why they would prove any less so against Corbyn, who pleads guilty to each of these charges. “If there isn’t a Labour majority but a minority and we’ve got to work with other parties, probably on the basis of a day-to-day arrangement or . . . a supply arrangement, then do that,” Corbyn has said of the SNP.

Thoughtful Conservatives, such as Zac Goldsmith, fear that an enfeebled opposition would lead to reduced scrutiny and worse government, or even that Corbyn could upset expectations and capture the zeitgeist. But more are intoxicated by the belief, in the words of one MP, that “Labour has killed itself before the electorate has had the chance”. As the Tories contemplate their own leadership election, to be held before 2020, many believe that George Osborne’s chances will be further enhanced. The Chancellor and First Secretary of State offers the clearest dividing line with Corbyn: “stability” against “risk”. Yet should Corbyn surprise, other Tories may be drawn to the maverick Boris Johnson.

The hope of the Liberal Democrats is that a Corbyn win would allow them to claim the middle ground, as the SDP did in 1983. Jack Straw, the former Labour foreign secretary, has predicted that they will rise from the dead “like Lazarus”. But as a result of the Lib Dems’ stained reputation, the collapse of three-party politics in England and the Tories’ ambition to colonise the centre, their recovery cannot be assumed.

A Corbyn leadership may make it easier for Tim Farron to attract moderates from Labour but it will also make it harder for him to win over the left-wingers he has targeted by opposing the Welfare Reform and Work Bill and any possible military intervention in Syria. The potential for gains is limited: there are just 16 seats in which the Lib Dems lie within 10 points of the incumbent. For this reason, among others, there is no prospect of defections from Labour.

One of Corbyn’s chief contentions is that he is best placed to revive his party’s standing in Scotland. He shares most of the SNP’s distinctive positions, such as opposition to Trident and university tuition fees, with one notable exception: independence. The 45 per cent who supported that cause would not be easily converted by Corbyn. Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon would also seek to deride him as the leader of a party too divided to be trusted with office.

Nigel Farage has endorsed Corbyn on the grounds that his victory would further attract Labour supporters to Ukip. But Corbyn’s team makes the reverse case: that he would allow the party to reconnect with those alienated by the “LibLabCon” establishment. Yet his unashamedly liberal stance on immigration represents a potentially formidable obstacle to persuading Farage’s followers. If Corbyn, as appears likely, chooses not to campaign for EU withdrawal, Ukip will have space to champion its other great cause. The forthcoming referendum, which most expect next autumn, will raise the salience of Brussels.

It is the Greens who some suggest have the most to fear from a Corbyn-led Labour. For decades, they have exploited the ample territory to the party’s left.

The Greens’ transport spokesperson, Rupert Read, has denounced Corbyn as being “in hock to the ideology of growthism” for his emphasis on economic stimulus through “people’s quantitative easing”. Because of the Greens’ distinctive identity, its support may yet prove more resilient than some assume.

The election of the Islington North MP, his sole title for 32 years, would represent a further destabilisation of British politics. One prediction can be advanced with confidence: few voters would be indifferent to Jeremy Corbyn. For all parties, the rewards or costs of their positioning could be great. The same is true of Corbyn. As Ed Miliband’s experience showed, opposition leaders have only a narrow window within which to define themselves. Like traders in a volatile market, all sides must place their bets with care.

George Eaton is deputy editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism