WHEN, thanks to nominations from parliamentary colleagues who consider him an idiot, Jeremy Corbyn last year made it on to the ballot paper in Labour’s leadership election, the early consensus was that there was no way a modern party would ever elect someone so deeply rooted in the politics of the past.
Corbyn was there to “widen the debate”, after which he would return, defeated, to the obscurity he had enjoyed – and richly deserved – since his election to the House of Commons in 1983.
Things did not, as we now know, play out as predicted.
Corbyn’s retro-politics proved irresistible to Labour’s membership and he was elected with a thumping majority over his far more high-profile rivals.
Surely, then, only a fool would dare rule out the possibility that, in just two months, the prime minister of the United Kingdom will be one Andrea Leadsom.
Leadsom – until the EU referendum campaign, a political unknown – does an impressive (or terrifying) line in old-school conservatism. Her champions include family favourites like Iain Duncan Smith and Nadine Dorries and her greatest hits include such smashes as opposition to equal marriage and a desire to overturn the ban on fox hunting.
Home Secretary Theresa May, a Liberal thinker compared with Leadsom, has the support of the majority of Tory MPs; she received the backing of 199 of her parliamentary colleagues while Leadsom got just 84. But – as Corbyn showed us so very starkly – the wishes of MPs and the wishes of party members are not necessarily the same thing.
Leadsom’s Brexiteer credentials might just help her win over the majority of Tory members. And then? Well, then it will seem as if the past 30 years in politics just didn’t happen.
Adherence to the Third Way – the politics of pragmatism – might have become the tried and tested method of winning both UK and Scottish parliamentary elections, but Corbyn and Leadsom would represent a return to the days of the widest ideological divide.
This, undoubtedly, will appeal to many of those infected by the desire to join political parties. Those oddballs, who pay good money for the right to go to endless meetings and knock doors in the pouring rain, see political beliefs as central to their identities. The unreconstructed leftism of Corbyn and the firm-hand right-wingery of Leadsom will make it easy for adherents of either to see what divides them.
In Scotland, despite rhetoric that tends towards the radical, the SNP has proved, over three consecutive election victories, that the politics of the centre ground continues to hold considerable allure for voters. Neither Leadsom not Corbyn appear to be interested in the sort of compromise required to take a centrist line.
The EU referendum campaign, divisive and rancourous as it was, has created the perfect climate for a trip back to the days when national politics was at its most tribal. Add into the mix the current vilification of Tony Blair – and, by extension, his centrist politics – and we can look forward to the death of the Third Way.
This cannot be good news for anyone who believes in “progressive” politics. Corbyn supporters – or a very large number of them – are less concerned with winning elections than they are in distilling their politics down to its most ideologically pure. It is preferable to be morally right but powerless than to make concessions that might lead to electoral victory.
British political history tells us that, when the main two UK parties are at their most polarised, the Conservatives have the advantage. Voters want competence and financial prudence and, given the choice between right-wing Tories and left-wing Labour, have tended to give their support to the former.
But surely, you might think, Theresa May will win this Tory leadership contest. After all, she has a track record of experience and – even if one doesn’t share her views – demonstrates some clarity of thought and sense of purpose.
These things, however, mean less than they ever did. The Leave campaign was victorious in the EU referendum after spinning a mix of lies and half-truths and adding meaningless platitudes about taking back control.
Like Corbyn’s appeal, Leadsom’s is to those who want an end to control by “elites” and “the establishment”. Just as there were a great many Labour Party members who could never come to terms with “sell-out” Blair, a great many Tories are uncomfortable with the modernisation of the party carried out under David Cameron. These activists have tholed rather than embraced socially liberal policies such as the equal marriage Leadsom opposed.
We could, I suppose, argue that a step back to the days when we knew – beyond doubt – what the differences between the main parties were is a good thing: if politics is a battle of ideas then let’s see the team colours, bright and clear.
I’m not convinced. Real change in society is created – and endures – when those of differing views come together. The Third Way is not a fudge. It is truly radical politics. It requires imagination and courage; left or right tribalism requires only loyalty of the blind and unthinking variety.
The coup against Corbyn has not, so far, succeeded. His parliamentary party looks weaker and more divided than any in living memory.
Should Leadsom defeat May, then don’t bank on a similar crisis affecting the Conservatives. Tories like to win and if that means getting behind a new prime minister that most of her MPs didn’t want, they’ll do exactly that.
The UK, already divided by the referendum, will become yet more polarised by the political battles ahead.
How long, I wonder, before we’re crying out for a new figurehead for the political centre ground? Blair’s reputation may be trashed beyond repair by the Chilcot report into the Iraq war, but the politics that led him to three general election victories can still bring left and right together. Who, though, will make the case for the Third Way in this divided kingdom?