The new leader may or may not make the grade but his stance can clarify the way forward, writes Brian Wilson
If a week is a long time in politics, then five years is an eternity. We have no idea how the landscape will look when Britain next votes in a general election; only that it will be very different from now.
The question of EU membership will have been resolved amidst much acrimony. David Cameron will have had the good sense to depart before the job makes him mad. Even Scotland may eventually have found something more pressing to talk about than the constitution.
And Jeremy Corbyn? Well, que sera, sera, as the old song goes. If he still leads Labour, it will be as the oldest aspirant prime minister since Churchill. That alone makes it slightly improbable. Before then, the baggage of past utterances may have proved too heavy to bear. Or the simple question of electability could have borne in.
The future’s not ours to see. In an alternative scenario, Jeremy will have metamorphosed into a much-loved national treasure, whose simple verities have awakened middle class consciences while radicalising the marginalised and dispossessed. Nothing is impossible as opposed to unlikely.
For the time being, and somewhat against my expectations, I am finding his emergence as Labour leader quite refreshing. Whether it turns out to be a transitional phase, I increasingly view it is a necessary catharsis. There is no requirement to join the fan club in order to respect the mood which has created one.
Having lived through the life and death of New Labour, I now regard its indiscriminate denigration as ridiculous. Updating Labour’s image in the 1990s was a necessary signal to the electorate and there was nothing about the concept incompatible with a radical programme. On the contrary, I regard the 1997-2001 Labour government as one of the most effective ever, in terms of making a real, progressive difference to British society. Those who dismiss all of that are not Old Labour but wilfully blind or malign.
Labour’s record deserves to be defended for it exceeds, and contrasts with, anything that has happened since – not least in Scotland. Instead, in the immediate aftermath of 2010, too many Labour figures rushed to throw the baby out with the bathwater in the vain hope of self-preservation.
Having said all that, it would be delusory to pretend that the legacy was all rosy. For me, the distinction was not between old and new Labour, which were perfectly reconcilable for those who believe it is outcomes which matter. It was between those in and around Labour who had a commitment to progressive change and others who either lacked or opposed it, whatever their label.
I watched this process developing, from fairly close range. The courtiers with interchangeable loyalties moved closer to the throne. Factionalists were more interested in destroying internal enemies than external foes. The slippery army of advisers, without any life experience, became heirs to seats where once there were sons and daughters of toil.
Nor was the process limited to internal party machinations. Foreign policy errors, including the Iraq aftermath, were not due to some fiendish agenda of Tony Blair but the primacy of advisers whose agenda had nothing to do with Labour interests. Quite the contrary. The political hinterland and wisdom which kept Harold Wilson out of Vietnam were long gone. The only advice listened to came from those whose crude mantra was that British foreign policy must follow Washington, right or wrong.
All of this drained life and soul from these Labour governments and paved the way for the rewriting of history by enemies within and without. In due course, perspective will be regained. But meantime, it is perfectly understandable that there is a widespread desire in Labour ranks to address both the symptoms and substance of that malaise. Dismissing that mood is pointless and patronising; the challenge is to balance it with simple electablility.
The problem for Corbyn’s least forgiving critics within the Labour Party is that they failed to offer an alternative. The evidence of the post-Blair years is that the special adviser generation of politics breeds nothing so much as mediocrity. It gave us the hopelessly under-qualified Ed Miliband and then three leadership candidates who, more than anyone, made Corbyn’s claims look credible.
During the leadership campaign, I wrote that anyone looking for reasons not to elect Jeremy Corbyn was spoilt for choice. That is as true now as then, and it will continue to be put to the test. But it is an incomplete analysis since the same applied to his rivals and it also understates the positive case for recognising that without a cause and a vision, Labour was on its way to oblivion anyway.
There is little need for policy detail at this stage. Labour in Scotland has not reached such reduced circumstances through lack of detail so much as a perceived absence of a radical, or even interesting, political mission. Labour created the Scottish Parliament without much idea of what to do with it; even less how to communicate a convincing narrative of progressive change.
There are many former Labour voters who are well aware of the Nationalists’ phony credentials as an anti-austerity party of the Left and it is to Corbyn’s credit that he set about attacking on that front this week. Equally, even the most unobservant voter might have started to catch on to the fact that the “new”, saltire-wrapped Scottish politics is rife with cronyism, greed and hypocrisy, on which the lid is no longer being kept quite as successfully as in the past.
Whether any of that makes much difference within the eight months prior to the Holyrood elections remains to be seen. That will depend on Labour presenting a credible alternative as well as exploiting their opponents’ weaknesses with a sharper instinct for the jugular. Clearly, this is still work in progress although targets are starting to present themselves at an encouraging rate.
Beyond that, the five-year perspective is the one that matters. For the time being, a fresh look at what Labour stands for and how it should organise itself is no bad thing. Corbyn may not be the solution but his emergence has certainly helped to clarify the problem which is, as ever, to balance what’s good in both old and new.