Andrew Whitaker: Don’t rule out Labour dark horse

Jeremy Corbyn was deemed Labour’s no-hope candidate, but he could spring a surprise, writes Andrew Whitaker
Jeremy Corbyn's messages could strike a chord with many who abandoned Labour over the past decade. Picture: GettyJeremy Corbyn's messages could strike a chord with many who abandoned Labour over the past decade. Picture: Getty
Jeremy Corbyn's messages could strike a chord with many who abandoned Labour over the past decade. Picture: Getty

FOR more than two decades, one of the biggest celebrations of the trade union and working class movement, the Durham Miners’ Gala, has been largely ignored by Labour leaders, and for the most part by the mainstream media .

In the late 1980s, Neil Kinnock ended the long tradition of Labour leaders speaking at the annual event at which evocatively coloured banners from mining lodges march through the city of Durham accompanied by powerful brass bands reminiscent of the acclaimed film Brassed Off.

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Ed Miliband made a one-off appearance at the gala in 2012, making him the only leader of his party to turn up in more than 20 years.

Tony Blair, despite being an MP for a constituency in County Durham, stayed away from the event throughout his 13 years as party leader, with Gordon Brown also a no show.

Yet at last weekend’s gathering of 150,000 – at the event known as “The Big Meeting” – all four of the contenders to succeed Miliband made an appearance.

It’s now more than two decades since the last deep-mined coal mines closed in north-east England, yet front-runners Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, the Blairite-orientated Liz Kendall as well as left-winger Jeremy Corbyn all made a pilgrimage to the cathedral city of Durham.

An obvious question that may have been put to all four by regular attenders of the gala would be: will you continue to grace the proudly Old Labour event with your presence if elected as leader in September.

Clearly, all four candidates, representing different shades of party opinion, felt the need to show their faces as they compete for the support of the Labour faithful.

Corbyn is already a veteran attender of the gala and would be sure to make an annual appearance should he pull off a shock win. With a month to go before Labour members receive their voting forms, there are suggestions Corbyn could fare much better than originally expected when he only narrowly squeaked on to the ballot paper, with some Labour MPs lending him their nominations to ensure a wide range of views were aired, despite not intending to vote for him.

An anonymous Labour MP was reported to have nominated Corbyn in the hope that the type of politics he represents would be crushed, with the party membership endorsing a New Labour-friendly candidate like Kendall.

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But with Corbyn gathering more nominations from constituency Labour parties and securing the backing of the biggest affiliated union, Unite, as well as performing well in set-piece debates, it’s possible the New Labour wing of the party may have miscalculated.

It’s still a big ask to expect a Corbyn win, but there is now a genuine chance the Islington North backbencher could poll more votes than Kendall, who has been backed by New Labour luminaries such as former cabinet ministers John Reid and Alan Milburn.

In a bitter-sweet irony, a change to party rules largely opposed by some on the Labour’s left – the introduction of a one-person-one-vote system and the end of the electoral college system that handed a formal role to trade unions in picking Labour’s leader – appears to be helping Corbyn.

Under the system used to elect Labour leaders during the last 30 years or so, the Parliamentary Labour Party was able to effectively veto left-wing candidates such as Corbyn by using its muscle in the three-way electoral college, consisting of MPs, affiliated unions and individual party members, to heavily influence the outcome.

But with the current contest conducted purely on a one-person-one-vote basis, there’s a greater chance an unfancied candidate who captures the mood of many supporters could poll a big share of the vote.

The fact that Labour sympathisers can get a vote in the contest by signing up as registered Labour supporters for just £3 rather than formally joining the party is also another wild-card factor that could benefit a candidate like Corbyn.

Of course it’s a great unknown, but the open nature of the contest explains why all of the leadership candidates felt compelled to court votes at the Durham Miners’ Gala – in what was probably the first time in decades that so many figures from the very top of the Labour Party attempted to speak directly to the UK’s neglected former mining communities.

An oft-repeated assertion from many commentators, that Corbyn would lead Labour down the road to electoral ruin, is trotted out as if were an immutable fact and that there was no prospect of any other outcome. The UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, which effectively means the outcome of a general election can be decided in a 100 or so marginal seats, often in “middle England”, supposedly makes it extremely difficult to win on a programme that’s not “middle ground”.

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Although Corbyn’s pro-redistribution manifesto would be more likely to gain support under a system of proportional representation, Labour members should not write off the prospect that his message could play well with many who have deserted Labour since its last general election win a decade ago. After all, Ken Livingstone, a politician of the left, won the highly marginal London twice in mayoral elections.

As things stand, Corbyn’s campaign represents the most significant Labour leadership bid by a figure on the left since the late Tony Benn came within less than 
1 per cent of defeating Denis Healey for the party’s deputy leadership position in 1981. The author and former minister Chris Mullin argued at last year’s Edinburgh festival that far from being unelectable, Benn could instead perhaps have been the only mainstream politician to challenge Margaret Thatcher ideologically and offered voters a different way of doing things.

Corbyn may yet be able to make a similar pitch, challenging a miserable pro-austerity consensus, but just like the other candidates – including Kendall, unfairly labelled a Tory by some – it’s important that he’s not simply written off until all the contenders have been able to set out how they would seek to reach out to those who rejected Labour on 7 May.