As Jeremy Corbyn turns from red herring candidate into the one to beat in the leadership vote, Euan McColm asks why both opposition and government can’t wait to give up the battle for the centre ground
WHEN Jeremy Corbyn announced he was to stand for the vacant leadership of the Labour Party, the news was greeted with indulgent amusement by many of his colleagues.
New Labour, co-created and driven by Tony Blair, is a source of both shame and anger
The MP’s presence on the ballot paper would be good for debate, said some, which was code for “he’s a loony leftie and he doesn’t stand a chance”.
But those sceptical colleagues aren’t so dismissive now. Last week, the 66-year-old MP emerged as a real contender for the job. Support for his unreconstructed “old Labour” views has soared among party members and he’s no longer the makeweight in a contest that also includes Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendall.
Corbyn was a 100/1 outsider to succeed Ed Miliband when he entered the leadership race but leaked polling has suggested that he’s ahead of his more moderate rivals. One shadow cabinet member reportedly greeted news of Corbyn’s surging support by saying: “What a horrific week for the sensible people in the Labour Party.” Many of Corbyn’s colleagues (or “comrades”, as he might have it) are truly horrified by the prospect of him winning the leadership and attempting to answer the Conservative Party’s general election victory by dragging Labour to a place on the left which might appear principled and authentic but would, in all likelihood, make the party as unelectable as it was in the early 1980s, when the Specials’ Ghost Town was at the top of the charts and Margaret Thatcher was at her most successful (and divisive).
But perhaps support for Corbyn’s old-fashioned left-wing views shouldn’t come as such a surprise, given the current wider political picture. There certainly appears to be an appetite among a large number of voters for a more “radical” politics. If we look to Greece, we see a government led by the far-left Syriza party, which has captured the imagination of a population which feels that, after the global financial crash, capitalism has failed them. Syriza’s populist manifesto chimed with an electorate that has spent years living under conditions of grave austerity.
The success of the party in winning majority support for the rejection of the terms of an EU bailout package despite there being scant sign of it producing an alternative solution to Greece’s financial chaos – beyond “everything will be fine” – stands testament to the heady power of left-wing sloganeering in times of difficulty.
Although the United Kingdom could not be said to have faced anything like the difficulties that have brought Greece to its knees in recent years, the same defiant rhetoric has found a substantial and willing audience. And the SNP, despite having been in government at Holyrood for more than eight years, continues to use the language of the rebellious outsider.
During last year’s independence referendum campaign, the nationalists told a story of Scots being fundamentally different to others in the UK. According to the SNP, to be Scottish was to be more compassionate, more concerned about those in need, less in thrall to big business (we wouldn’t be “bullied” by any company which suggested that a Yes vote might have negative repercussions).
FOR supporters of Corbyn, his victory would mark a decisive end to the Labour Party’s bid to win votes on the centre ground. The New Labour project, co-created and driven by former prime minister Tony Blair, is a source of both shame and anger for those who believe the party lost its soul when it chose to shift its policy positions closer to the mainstream.
A Corbyn leadership would begin, according to one of his supporters, with some party figures being shown the door. Others could expect a period of re-education.
Max Shanley, who sits on the National Committee of Young Labour, paints a picture that may be familiar to students of the former Soviet Union. He said: “The Labour left will have to act swiftly and, I am afraid, brutally in many cases. The Parliamentary Labour Party will have to be brought into line, some members of party staff will need to be pointed towards the exit, and the entire party structures would, in my opinion, need to undergo a comprehensive and thorough review.”
The hearts of those in the Labour party who remain convinced that the party at its most left wing and rigidly ideological is at its least appealing to the majority of voters will have sunk at Shanley’s blueprint for a bright new tomorrow.
“Essentially,” he said, “we need the sweeping away of the current party form, not just to overcome the neoliberalisation of the party internally, but also to construct the type of party that can build people’s capacities, engage effectively with social movements, and eventually enter the state on a transformative programme.
“We have to become far more of an extra-parliamentary party, a campaigning organisation led by the grassroots and not by parliamentarians. Labour party democracy has long been on the agenda of the Labour left, but it should mean not just changing some of Labour’s internal processes but making it a bottom-up party structured more like a social movement than a hierarchical tool of the leader.”
But while that sort of language might seem like a caricature of the left, it represents a viewpoint that is being encouraged by what appears to be a shift to the right by the Conservatives.
David Cameron may have won his party’s leadership in 2005 on a promise that he represented a new style of Tory, more compassionate, more socially liberal, less “nasty”, but this week the UK government unveiled plans for a crackdown on trade union rights of which Thatcher would surely have been proud.
Under Conservative proposals, picketing will be criminalised, employers will be able to hire strike-breaking agency staff, and the flow of cash from union coffers to the Labour Party will be staunched. Business Secretary Sajid Javid’s reforms mean that, in the case of key public services, 50 per cent of those eligible to participate in a vote must do so or it will be considered unlawful. And, once that threshold is reached, at least 40 per cent of all those eligible must vote in favour of strike action for it to proceed. This means, for example, if 100 teaching staff were asked to strike and only 50 took part in the vote, 40 of them – or 80 per cent of those who voted – would have to be in favour. These new rules will apply to strikes called in the heath, transport, fire, education, energy, and border security sectors.
Beyond the new threshold for strike ballots, the government will demand that all unions ask each member whether they wish to pay the political levy and then ask the question again every five years. Currently, Labour receives much of its funding from the £25 million raised in levies each year and this new rule could seriously reduce party funds.
Javid also proposes that unlawful picketing should become a criminal rather than a civil offence and that named union officials will have to be available to liaise with police during pickets to ensure that a code of conduct is adhered to. According to Mick Whelan, leader of the train drivers’ union, Aslef, this is an attack on union rights which bears comparison with life in “fascist Germany”.
Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB, is more restrained in his language but said the reforms would have a devastating impact on industrial relations in the UK since they removed any incentive for employers to settle disputes.
Kenny said: “When workers jump through draconian hurdles for their vote for strike action to be lawful, the employers can then ignore the will of their own workers. Workers will have to give employers 14 days’ notice of strike action. That is more than enough time for employers to legally hire another workforce to break the strike.”
He added: “It is clear the Tory party high command intend to make the Labour party bankrupt by cutting off the main source of funding that they have relied on since the 1930s. This is aimed at undermining political campaigning by unions on behalf of their members and communities.”
IT APPEARS clear, then, that the stage is set for a clash of right and left of the type we have not seen in British politics for many years. All mainstream parties had shifted towards the centre, believing it to be where the majority of votes could be won but Cameron’s Tories increasingly appear traditional in their outlook, while Labour, even if Corbyn is not victorious, appears to be home to a great many who believe that – despite Miliband’s failure in May – only a move further left can save it.
Some Labour figures are unconvinced. The shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna was, briefly, a candidate for the Labour leadership before withdrawing from the race, citing pressure on his family and those close to him. He believes that even if Corbyn comes second in the Labour contest, the consequences for the party will be negative.
“People have got to consider very carefully what message the result will send to the public. It’s not just about who wins this contest; it is the shakedown of the results,” he said.
“We are not just selecting a Labour leader, we are selecting somebody who is a Labour prime minister. But we’re also giving an indication to the people of Britain where we are centred, what we think, what we think the solutions will be.”
And Umunna has support in his belief that a shift to the left would further damage Labour. Cameron – who would, naturally, relish such an outcome – is also of the view that in an old-fashioned right-left battle, the left will not win.
On Thursday, it was revealed that the Prime Minister had advised Corbyn on how to win the leadership contest, saying the Labour MP should model his campaign on his own successful pitch of a decade ago.
During a meeting of the Conservative 1922 committee, Cameron told colleagues that he had advised Corbyn: “You have got to be the change candidate – I was the outsider.”
The Prime Minister’s advice may have been playful in nature, but it did throw up an obvious point: if a Tory MP wants Corbyn to lead the Labour Party, then perhaps he’s not the best man for the job.
Radical left-wing proposals may have captured the imaginations of Greek voters who were desperate for a glimmer of hope, and a great many British voters may respond to traditional socialist rhetoric. But the general election result is still warm and showing signs that, for the time being, right trumps left.