Leader: The advantage is with Jeremy Corbyn

The party’s transformation has been as profound as that in the 1990s, when Tony Blair created New Labour.

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The Labour conference in Brighton confirmed the left as the party’s new master. Jeremy Corbyn’s surge during the 2017 general election secured not only his leadership but his policy programme. Not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable for a senior Labour politician to champion renationalisation from the conference platform. Yet, in his speech on 25 September, the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, unambiguously declared, “Rail, water, energy, Royal Mail – we’re taking them back.” The party’s transformation under Mr Corbyn has been as profound as that in the 1990s, when Tony Blair created New Labour and abandoned the Clause IV commitment to mass nationalisation.

The roots of Mr Corbyn’s success lie in the financial crisis and the prolonged austerity that followed. The crash led to an enduring loss of faith in economic elites and in unfettered market capitalism. Living standards for the majority are stagnant, and voters have grown ever more weary of public spending cuts. Austerity’s malign effects are daily displayed in overcrowded schools and doctors’ surgeries, potholed roads, enfeebled hospitals and closed libraries and children’s centres.

That Labour’s programme has greatest resonance among the young is unsurprising. On entering office in 2010, the Conservatives tripled university tuition fees to £9,000 (the highest of any public higher education system) and abolished the Education Maintenance Allowance. They have since done little to address a housing crisis that afflicts the young most of all (housebuilding is at its lowest level since 1923). Mr Corbyn’s promise of free higher education, a £10 minimum wage and a million new homes attracted many who felt alienated.

The Conservatives’ repeated failure to meet their fiscal targets (the deficit is not forecast to be eliminated until 2025, a decade later than promised) has discredited their economic programme. In recent weeks, they have again succumbed to infighting over Europe, as Rachel Sylvester writes in this week's New Statesman.

Theresa May understood that the Brexit vote was a symptom of economic and social discontent. In her early speeches as Prime Minister, she challenged the small-state orthodoxies that had defined Conservatism since the Thatcher years. She spoke of government (and indeed the state) as an ally, and vowed to reform broken or rigged markets. This was never successfully translated into policy and was abandoned during her cheerless election campaign. Having squandered the Tories’ parliamentary majority, Mrs May has lost all authority and cabinet colleagues are scheming to bring her down.

Yet it would be foolish of the Conservatives to abandon the insights of early Mayism. There is no future for the Tories as a dogmatic, small-state, libertarian party. The Brexit vote was a cry for social reform and more government intervention, not less. Labour policies such as renationalisation, the higher taxation of the rich and greater market regulation enjoy the support of around two-thirds of the electorate.

Mr Corbyn’s party faces its own challenges. Labour’s decision not to debate Brexit at its conference could not hide its divisions on Europe. Unlike many of his MPs, Mr Corbyn is a lifelong Eurosceptic who sees the single market as an obstacle to socialism.

Though Labour exceeded expectations at the election, it remains 64 seats short of a Commons majority. The circumstances of the 2017 contest, including the worst Conservative campaign in recent history, may not be repeated. Yet the advantage is with Mr Corbyn. Aided by a membership of nearly 600,000, Labour has been renewed.

The Tories’ historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on the circumstances, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. Faced with Mr Corbyn’s challenge, they require another metamorphosis. At present, however, the Tories are transfixed by the question of who should lead the party, rather than what it should stand for. 

This article appears in the 28 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tragedy