John McTernan: Corbyn or voters need to change

Miliband: spurned by electorate. Picture: Robert Perry
Miliband: spurned by electorate. Picture: Robert Perry
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IN THE end it wasn’t even close. Jeremy Corbyn took the Labour leadership in the first round. It is an overwhelming victory and gives him free rein to run the Labour Party his way. However unlikely the victory once seemed, the fact is that the easy part is now over – the true challenges are just starting.

First, Corbyn will have to turn his attention to the business of running a party. Having never run anything bigger than his constituency office he now has to form and lead a shadow cabinet and front-bench team. And while he can leave much of the day to day work of the party organisation to his highly capable deputy, Tom Watson, Corbyn now has nearly £7m of public money – the Short Money given to opposition parties to support their activities – to spend on staff. The decisions about who he appoints, how he organises his office and the Shadow Cabinet staff will be an early indication of how he will lead Labour – and in what direction.

Second, appointments – both of staff and of spokespeople – are just a means to an end. That end is the effective performance as an opposition to the government, particularly in parliament. That starts this week with votes on legislation to restrict trade union activity and to cut tax credits. And most importantly of all, Prime Minister’s Questions – which will be Corbyn’s greatest test. The floor of the House of Commons is a killing floor – weaknesses in leadership and performance are cruelly exposed.

The twin challenge for any opposition leader is to command the confidence of their benches and the respect of the other side. Corbyn will struggle with both. For one thing, he has the full support of only one in ten on the Labour side.

For another, there is so much material for Cameron to attack Corbyn on, over which almost the entire House will agree, however uncomfortably, with the Prime Minister.

Third, there is reality – the world of the voters. They haven’t changed one jot as a result of the Labour leadership election. They rejected the Labour party at the last election because they didn’t trust Labour to manage the economy, to control immigration or to run a fair welfare system. And the voters did not believe that Ed Miliband looked like a prime minister.

The election of Corbyn has not addressed a single one of the questions.

Even his strongest supporters don’t believe that Corbyn is a potential PM. As for policy, committing to print money to finance public spending does nothing to convince voters that the Labour Party has rediscovered a passion for prudent economic management. Indeed, it does the precise opposite. In addition, it is a type of fantasy economics that few serious senior Labour MPs can support.

Either the voters need to change or Corbyn has to. Neither seems at all likely. That is Labour’s fundamental dilemma under its new leader. If it does not compromise with the electorate then the electorate certainly will not compromise with the Labour party.

John McTernan is a commentator and political strategist who works internationally. He was a Labour adviser on health, welfare, regeneration, defence and Scotland, and was Tony Blair’s director of political operations