He’s done it! They gathered in a pub near Westminster (your correspondent watched from a motel in South Carolina) and sang The Red Flag on Saturday, as Jeremy Corbyn was elevated to the leadership of the UK Labour party, with close to 60% of the raw vote, removing the need for a run-off. Corbyn, one of the most left-wing MPs in the party since his election to the seat of Islington North (read Fitzroy North, Annandale, or 202-212 Vulture Street, Brisbane) in 1983, trounced his three “centrist” rivals in every sector of the vote: full members, associates and supporters. Corbyn is, by global standards, a left social democrat, wanting to deprivatise railways and energy, start a national investment bank to rebuild depressed areas, support the NHS, abolish uni fees and stay out of foreign wars. To the British press — including, to its shame, The Guardian — he is Mao’s Red Guard, here to burn down the palace. The left have hailed it as a victory for ordinary members, the right have called it a disaster for the Labour Party, and both are right and wrong in equal measure.
Corbyn’s victory was due to one thing — Ed Miliband and his leadership group threw open membership for three pounds, abolished the three-estates electoral college system (MPs, unions, members) and killed the union bloc vote. That made it feasible for Corbyn to do well. If there’d been a strong centrist candidate, a Blair, a Brown, or even someone like postie-turned-home secretary Alan Johnson, Corbyn would have been held at about 30%. But the only people who turned up were the sort of mediocrities who form the meat of Labo(u)r parties now — people, well-meaning or careerist or both, who spotted early on that such parties are good places for people with no particular talent except a capacity to tolerate boredom. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall didn’t just lose to Corbyn, they were rejected as people who had changed sides on Iraq, on budget cuts, tuition fees, privatisation, etc. Possibly quite nice in person, they were simply repellent as all that mainstream Labour has become. Corbyn is utterly his own man, and, despite the beardy image, a sharp-edged political operator — far more so than earlier leftists such as Michael Foot and Tony Benn — whose huge vote was gained from good organisation.
The right, predictably, are hugging themselves in glee. The right of Labour are simply calling it “the death of the Labour Party”. Pro-nuclear Copeland MP Jamie Reed resigned from the shadow front bench because Corbyn is anti-nuclear and Copeland lives on the never-never of new power plants reviving its collapsed economy. And he tweeted his entire resignation/denunciation letter. Solidarity forever. About eight other shadow cabinet members resigned their post too, the only real loss being Tristram Hunt, shadow education secretary, a posh historian who has nevertheless, over the years, become an effective attack dog against the Tories in the meeja. Numerous forces of MPs — one faction dubs itself “The Resistance” — are forming to create a cunning plan to remove Corbyn as soon as he stumbles. Red-cordial talk early on had this happening before Christmas. But this would create such a crisis in the party as to create a split down the middle, and many have backed off. They want Labour to falter and fail, decline in the polls, for Corbyn to be bested by Cameron and look pathetic, and be quietly replaced. “Sanity restored” is then declared and Labour marches on to respectable defeat in 2020 — or even victory, if a fresh recession lands.
Might happen. Here’s why it might not. The right in the UK, Australia and elsewhere have drunk their own moonshine. They think the right-voting public is in love with privatisation, marketisation, free labour movement, foreign wars and mild social liberalism. They think their base agrees with the tiresome five leader articles The Economist publishes each week, in which 27-year-olds in blazers tell you how the world is. The Great Public does not. The public remains nationalist, statist, collectivist and semi-nativist in many aspects of their lives. The UK electorate has been working on a 60% turnout model since 2001 — when, after four disappointing years of New Labour, the overall vote fell by 12%. That’s usual. What’s unusual is that it didn’t recover. Cameron’s margin in 2010 was pathetic — given 13 years of Labour and the economic crash — and New Labour’s defeat mainly due to the diffidence of Ed Miliband and his overly marginal policies. Corbyn’s team believe that the southern electorates now deemed middle class, are in fact full of poor and precarious voters who will come out for someone who offers real improvement in their lives. The right of UK Labour — people like Dan Hodges or our old mate John McTernan — are desperate to believe that isn’t the case. They might be right, but their desperation comes from the fact that they may be wrong. And if that’s the case — well, such people weren’t experts at all. They were just a bunch of chancers who rose without a trace.
The actual right are even more amusing. They’re not worried about Corbyn Labour at all — that’s why they’ve written 900 anxious articles about how great a Corbyn victory would be for the right. For writers and editors hired in the 2000s, in their 20s, Straight Outta Oxbridge (oooooh, I’d see that movie), Corbyn’s victory is simply a repeat of Labour’s early ’80s move leftwards, when they assumed Thatcher was simply a passing aberration, and normal progress to socialism would resume as soon as possible. The tone of their articles is that hallmark of over-exuberance, premature celebration. They think Corbyn’s victory will shuttle Labour down into the low 20s percentage wise, end Labour for a generation, etc, etc.
But the UK has had, since ’08, four years of recession and three years of jobless recovery. Vast regions remain depressed and those doing well now present huge numbers of the middle class with unaffordable housing options and a squeezed lifestyle. The Tories aren’t the insurgent party — they’re the defensive one, owning this economy with a majority of eight in the Commons, and none at all in the Lords. Many of the policies that Corbyn wants to put forward — deprivatising railways and energy, starting a national investment bank to steer money to depressed areas, mandating a living wage, saving the NHS, too, will be popular among Tory voters who never drank the neoliberal Kool-Aid, as will staying out of foreign wars.
But what Corbyn and his team will have to do is avoid the current left trap of demanding economic rights without providing any answers on how they will be provided for. Demanding the NHS be fully funded. How? Demanding tuition be free. How? And so on. He will have to mount an argument about production not consumption, about how Western economies are deflated, consumption-dependent vacuums, and simply cutting state spending won’t solve that. He appears to have gone some way to doing that with the appointment of the production-oriented John McDonnell as shadow chancellor. The great advantage Corbyn has is he’s beholden to no one. He can and should denounce Blair, Brown and Mandelson as simply the prologue to Cameron and Osborne, all purveyors of economic evacuation. The Tories present a huge target for those who aren’t hamstrung by the Blair legacy.
What might also concentrate the mind of the right is that Corbyn might not want to contest the 2020 election. He’s 66, and a man with an activist and oppositional soul. The right can’t understand why someone would be in politics just to move things in a certain direction, not take power. Corbyn’s deputy is Tom Watson, hammer of Murdoch, and more centrist, and Corbyn is no fool. He could quite easily do two years clearing out Blairite deadwood, attacking the Tories, developing innovative policies, and then hand over to the more electable Watson, with a deal in place on a slate of moderate-left policies that simply seem like common sense. It could all crash in disaster in six months — and it will do so if Corbyn channels the worst of the drippy and cultural left — but five years is an aeon, and that sort of thing could turn in a week. No wonder the whole sick crew — Blairite mass killers, Labour traitors, the Oxbridge bright boys — are so manic. Not only their success but their whole world is at stake.