Labour left-winger is a genuine contender, but will Labour plotters knock him out, asks Lesley Riddoch
Is Jeremy Corbyn MP set to upset the carefully managed Labour leadership contest?
The left-wing MP for Islington North has stunned party organisers by winning support from the Unite union and enthusiastic backing from many constituency activists. Some internal polls suggest he could come a close second and potentially even beat Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and bookies’ favourite Andy Burnham for the top job.
But the surest evidence of Corbyn’s rise is the rumour that Labour MPs are already planning to overthrow him.
Weekend papers reported that if Corbyn wins, unnamed MPs intend to start gathering the 47 names needed to trigger a coup immediately. One said: “We cannot just allow our party, a credible party of government, to be hijacked in this summer of madness. There would be no problem in getting names.” Corbyn, 66, is thought to view himself as a stop-gap leader, who would stay in post for two or three years, until a younger “soft-left” figure emerges – like Wigan MP Lisa Nandy, the party’s deputy chairman John Trickett or former National Union of Mineworkers president Ian Lavery.
Meanwhile, a few years in opposition led by a genuine man who can reground Labour and burst the party’s Westminster bubble, might not seem like such a bad idea.
Of course, for readers of a certain age the words Michael Foot spring immediately to mind– another thoroughly decent, academically gifted, old-style socialist whose time in charge of the Labour Party was about as productive as “Red” Ed’s.
But politics is about timing. Right now voters across Britain are weary with a consensus where diversity is measured only by the amount of austerity politicians are prepared to inflict. As commentator Zoe Williams observed, people are sick of Labour’s “buckle down and take your medicine” approach. In the Sunday Politics’ Labour Leaders’ Debate, chaired by Andrew Neil, Andy Burnham also identified a widespread disillusionment with a metropolitan elite, often parachuted as Labour candidates into seats with which they have no authentic connection. And he agreed with Jeremy Corbyn, arguing the welfare bill could be capped more fairly by restarting council housing so poor families are not dependent on private sector landlords “raking in” housing benefit. Whilst the SNP might be chuckling about the novelty of a radical proposal they introduced a few years before they abolished the right to buy, it still sounds new within the context of the English political scene.
But Corbyn’s performance on the Andrew Neil programme demonstrated another of his great assets: you can understand him. He completely avoids jargon and complex explanations. Perhaps that’s why he got into trouble over his “friends” in Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA during an irascible interview with Channel Four’s Krishnan Guru Murthy. It’s a very long time since a potential party leader has so obviously lost the rag with a prominent journalist. But the general public is no more enamoured with slick interviewers than well-coached politicians. Comment afterwards seemed to favour Corbyn – “impressively raging in the face of tabloid trivia,” was one commentator’s verdict. When asked the same question by Andrew Neil on the Sunday Politics, he repeated his answer.
He had used “friends” as a courteous collective term at the start of an event trying to seek common ground in the Middle East. Peace isn’t achieved by talking to people you agree with but by engaging those you disagree with. Mo Mowlam did it in Northern Ireland and she succeeded – a long overdue mention of a tangible Labour achievement.
Indeed, the more Andrew Neil tried to suggest the earnest-looking Corbyn might be danger personified the more straightforward and commonsense the Bogeyman’s answers began to sound. Did he support the Tories’ proposal to limit child benefit to two children – as caretaker leader Harriet Harman suggested?
“No, it’s an appalling idea. Children should all be equally loved and cherished. We should turn the conversation to tax avoidance which is in excess of £50 billion a year.”
Would a Corbyn government leave the British economy looking more like devastated Greece or indebted Venezuela? “The British economy is not like either country. We should borrow to fund infrastructure improvement. Where the centre-left has implemented austerity across Europe they have lost office.”
Would you support bombing Isil in Syria? “No (The only candidate to give a clear answer) I’d choke off cash for Isil and help refugees.”
Would you have any of the other three candidates in your cabinet? “I’d bring back shadow cabinet elections (abolished by Ed Miliband) and if they were elected I’d work with them.” And of course, Corbyn is the only candidate backing the SNP’s call to scrap the replacement for Trident.
Let’s face it. If Jeremy was standing as a candidate for the Scottish Labour leadership, he’d win hands down. But he’s not.
So is the prospect of a Corbyn-led Labour Party credible and would it really mean the death-knell for Labour in a way other leadership candidates could plausibly avoid?
The degree of panic over Corbyn’s challenge was barely visible on the Sunday Politics because Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham both need his second preference votes. Equally, the Tories are reportedly cock-a-hoop at the prospect of another “loony left” leader. So much that David Cameron reportedly gave the surprised Corbyn a tip: “It’s important you don’t go on holiday. August is vital.”
So is an upset in the offing? Is it possible that English voters who said Nicola Sturgeon was the best leader in the General Election have found a similar figure to support?
In 1992 eight million people entitled to vote stayed at home. By 2001 that number hit 18 million, a 125 per cent rise. In May it was almost 16 million. These are the voters Labour can realistically try to reanimate. But is that more likely with a Blair-lite managerial-style leader or with Jeremy Corbyn?
According to Matthew Norman of the Independent: “In what reminds one of a stultifying dreadful fringe theatre production… [Labour] let the mad uncle out of the attic as a joke, but found … he made far more sense than his sneering nieces and nephews.”
In other words, all bets are off.