Jeremy Corbyn managed to get on the Labour leadership ballot. He probably won’t win. But he might do. It’d be an amusing irony if a one member one vote election process designed to prove Labour isn’t unduly influenced by the unions ended up delivering the most left-wing leader in party history.
With the three mainstream candidates pitching themselves to the editorial board of the Daily Express rather than people actually in the Labour Party, Corbyn is proving startlingly popular with the grassroots – far more so than even unrepentant Bennites who write rubbish internet blogs and have supported him for years would’ve expected.
Corbyn vs the Burnham-Cooper-Kendall axis doesn’t just represent a clash of wildly different political perspectives, but starkly opposing ideas of what Labour fundamentally is. Is Labour just the regional-accented wing of the neoliberal establishment? Or is a democratic membership organisation, aspiring to be a social movement?
This election might well end up being the moment an ultimately unsustainable situation came to a head. There’s only so long a political party can be led by people who treat the views and values of its members and core supporters with unveiled disdain. The Liz Kendall/Dan Hodges vision of Labour’s future would be fine if the party simply jettisoned its membership and set up as a Mayfair PR company. But most people didn’t join the Labour Party to demonise benefit claimants and boast about how much they’d cut spending.
It’d be surprising if 20% of Labour members were as left-wing as Corbyn. But 90% plus are going to be more left-wing than the other three. Burnham, Cooper and Kendall may now pay the price for treating much of the party they want to lead like it doesn’t exist. It’s possible that Corbyn could do very well, maybe even win, off the back of rank-and-file disillusionment with the three mainstream contenders on offer – particularly now that registered supporters, not just party members, are able to vote; and that what once would’ve been called the party’s soft left, those well left of centre but who thought the Bennites went too far, has completely evaporated.
Would a Corbyn-led Labour Party win a general election? Looking at the media evisceration of anything that deviates from corporate-friendly default setting, a political landscape where Thatcherism is treated as centrist, and the past conduct of Labour’s mutinous and sabotage-prone centre-right contingent, you’d have to say, probably not.
But then you ponder it some more. Neither would any of the other three. Think about what they’ll be faced with in 2020. The same crushingly impartial corporate media. The same consensus-policing BBC. The same myths about the all-consuming importance of the deficit and ‘clearing up Labour’s mess’. And a Tory Party no longer fronted by the Cameron-Osborne duo, who’ll probably be roundly despised by that point in time – but inevitably led by Boris Johnson, with his immense, terrifying, Clarkson-style popularity among people who’ve had their brains replaced with hyperlinks to The Sun Says webpage.
In that horrible scenario, Corbyn looks just as likely, if not marginally more so, to deliver something approaching a good result for Labour than the other three. You can’t fight a conventional TV-focused election campaign against Boris and win. A Bennite-style Labour-as-social-movement would arguably do far better at weathering the media onslaught than the spin-obsessed Westminster machine bolted together by Campbell and Mandelson. By turning up and actually helping people in their everyday lives rather than firing sound-bites at them from central London, Labour could far more effectively communicate around a trenchantly hostile news media.
And far from making non-traditional Labour voters head for the hills, it could prove remarkably good at drawing support from across the spectrum and established party lines – running with a slate of left-populist policies that could sap the now-abundant anti-establishment protest vote from all directions, from the Greens, from the Liberals, from the SNP, even from UKIP. Numerous polls show that even a solid majority of Farage fans support renationalisation of the railways and the energy sector. It’d also have a very good chance of winning back the legions of ex-Labourite socialists who’ve abandoned it since 1994.
And despite being the anti-personality politician, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a fair few voters might be won over by Jeremy himself – bowled over by a genuine, polite, intelligent politician who doesn’t sound like a second-rate corporate presenter, and whose expenses bill was the lowest in parliament when so many of his colleagues were found knee-deep in excess.
Who knows. We’ll probably never get that far. But just by standing, Corbyn offers us an opportunity to try and drag the political consensus back a bit leftwards. The media will inevitably do its utmost to counteract that, but some key messages might squeak through. More importantly, he’ll give us a chance to unify the resistance to austerity, reinvigorate grassroots campaigning politics, and kick-start the kind of broad mass movement that might take decades to build, but that we’ll eventually need to shunt aside the Westminster-Whitehall set and reshape British politics for good.