Expert Comment: Corbyn and LabourTuesday 15 September 2015
Dr Michael Holmes from the Department of History and Politics reflects on the challenges and possibilities for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.
Jeremy Corbyn’s resounding victory in the Labour Party leadership election means that, at least in theory, the party can now try to move on from the huge disappointment it suffered in the May 2015 general election. But Corbyn faces huge challenges. First of all, he has to manage a deeply divided party. Many Labour MPs openly distanced themselves from him during the leadership campaign, arguing that his policies are a prescription for permanent opposition.
That is a bit over-simplified. There is no single reason why Labour failed to win the election. Instead, there are two dominant factors, which pull in different directions. On the one hand, Labour failed to win seats of the Conservatives, which is why some in the party argue that they need to move more towards the right. But on the other hand, they also lost seats, most dramatically in Scotland, where the reason was much more to do with their failure to offer a more radical alternative to Tory government.
It means Corbyn faces a real dilemma. If he bows to the majority of his MPs and steers to the right, he risks alienating the thousands who joined the party in the last few weeks, enthused by the very fact that he seemed to offer something different. And in addition, there is no guarantee that moving rightwards is the path to success. I was at a recent political meeting in Europe where a Labour MP stated that Labour should be more pro-business, more anti-trade unions, and tougher on law and order. A Belgian social democrat next to me said “but in that case, why not just vote Tory?”
But the other road for Corbyn is also very far from easy. A move towards a more left-wing position, and an attempt to offer a genuine alternative, will probably necessitate a very long-term strategy to try to shift public opinion. That can be done – but it will have to be done in the teeth of very hostile opposition from the Conservatives, from the vast majority of the press, and also from a European Union whose policies are much more Tory-blue than Labour-red.
Corbyn’s best hope is to try to develop alliances and partnerships with other parties, rather than to have Labour acting in splendid isolation. If he can find ways of working with the SNP, with the Greens, with Plaid Cymru and others in the UK, and also if he can work with partners in the EU, it will make a tough task a little easier.