JUST a couple of months ago, as polls predicted stonking great general election victories for the SNP in constituencies across Scotland, it was not uncommon to hear words of caution. The numbers might look spectacular for the Nationalists, said Labour sorts, but they weren’t to be trusted. Come the day, the SNP would do well but wouldn’t meet the high expectations set. Even SNP members subscribed to this view. A number confided they were seriously concerned the predictions of massive gains were so outlandish that to fall short would be seen as failure.
It turned out, of course, that the polls were wrong but just not in the way anyone believed. The SNP did better than anyone thought possible, winning 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats.
It’s worth remembering this turn of events as we contemplate a YouGov poll that puts the unreconstructed left-winger Jeremy Corbyn ahead in the Labour leadership contest.
Mr Corbyn entered the race to succeed Ed Miliband as a rank outsider, nominated by fellow MPs – some of whom had no intention of voting for him – to ensure that the contest had breadth and depth. His presence would ensure the fullest possible debate, said Labour politicians.
Now, however, there’s a very good chance that his presence in the debate will mean a great deal more than that. It may well mean that Mr Corbyn becomes the next leader of the opposition. Which would be an unmitigated disaster for Labour.
Some – former deputy leader Roy Hattersley, for example – say there’s no chance of a Corbyn victory. The poll putting him ahead is a blip and, when faced with having to make a decision, members will elect one of the other, more mainstream, contenders: Andy Burnham; Yvette Cooper; or Liz Kendall.
Lord Hattersley and chums should remember the dismissal of the polls that put the SNP on course for the most incredible gains in May before writing off Mr Corbyn’s chances.
Supporters of the MP for Islington North, it seems, see in him the opportunity for Labour to return to its “roots” (or into its bleak and unsuccessful past, depending on your relationship with reality).
To them, Mr Corbyn is a man of principle and integrity. That his policies – punitive to business and big on public spending – have echoes of the “principled” hugely unpopular Labour party of the 1980s seems not to matter. Because principles are such marvellous things, you see.
Of course, all politicians have principles, it’s just that some are less easy to romanticise than others.
Mr Corbyn’s supporters will have taken succour from an intervention in the leadership debate by former prime minister Tony Blair, who this week suggested Labour has rediscovered losing. According to Mr Blair, Labour cannot win again from a “traditional leftist platform”. In a speech to the Progress think tank, Mr Blair said the Labour leadership debate had been debilitated by the fact it was presented as a choice “between heart and head” and those who said their heart was with Mr Corbyn should “get a transplant”.
According to Mr Blair – who made clear he thought the prospect unlikely – should Mr Corbyn win power, he would take the country backwards.
The former PM is exactly the sort of politician despised by the sort of politician who might be tempted by a Corbyn leadership. Slick, pragmatic, and – whisper it – successful, Mr Blair was always too light on ideology for Labour traditionalists. Thus, his decision to speak out against the possibility of a Corbyn victory can only mean one thing: Mr Corbyn is the right man to lead Labour.
A former adviser to Mr Blair – John McTernan – was rather more blunt. Those who had nominated Mr Corbyn were “morons”, he said. It’s a verdict that has some merit.
It is not unreasonable to assume those who – in great numbers – now support Mr Corbyn to become the next head of their party do so because they believe it is in Labour’s interest to recalibrate itself, shifting to a more traditionally left-wing position.
Let us also assume that, having achieved this, they wish then to put their policies into practice. In order to do this, Labour would have to win a general election.
But May’s result did not reveal a great public hunger for a more left-wing politics. A majority for David Cameron’s Conservatives – after five years of the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition – showed, instead, an appetite for something more centrist. Mr Miliband was seen as too left-wing, for heaven’s sake. And Mr Corbyn makes Miliband look like Margaret Thatcher.
Undoubtedly, some Labour members will never be persuaded that moving further Left would be bad for the party. They will continue to tell themselves that the electorate – that’s the electorate that just sent Mr Cameron back to Downing Street – would vote Labour if only the party’s politics were a bit more old school, a bit more Michael Foot in texture.
The reality of Mr Corbyn becoming Labour leader would, I’d contend, be rather different.
If we accept – and even “radical” First Minister Nicola Sturgeon does – that elections are won on the centre ground, then victory for Mr Corbyn would do nothing more than strengthen the Tory party.
While Labour drifted off, further into the self-righteous but unappealing Left, the Tories would be able to consolidate their position on the centre-right. What’s more, they’d have breathing space to introduce policies of a more right-wing hue. So long as the Tories remained to be seen as the safest custodians of the economy, they’d be free to indulge themselves a little.
Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn may believe that they can create a viable left-wing alternative to the current government but, I believe, that victory for their candidate would have the effect of allowing the current government to become more right-wing.