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Expert Comment: Jeremy Corbyn - Labour's saviour or nemesis?

Jeremy Corbyn Wednesday 12 August 2015

Former Politics Professor at Liverpool Hope University Dr Bill Jones comments on MP Jeremy Corbyn’s burgeoning success in the Labour leadership race.  

Unable to command the required 35 nominations, it was only the kindness of several Labour MPs - none of whom actually supported him - that enabled little known leftie Jeremy Corbyn to limp over the line and post his leadership candidacy on 15th June. Since then, developments have been sensational, with Corbyn leap-frogging into the lead over the three more-established candidates and addressing jubilant packed-out rallies across the country. This has delighted those of a leftish temperament, but plunged centre right supporters into deepest gloom. What can we make of 'Corbynmania'? 

It's not unusual for defeated political parties to argue that if they had been truer to their ideological roots, they would have fared better in the election and might even have won. We saw this in 1979 when Thatcher's victory led to the election, in a Bennite fever of enthusiasm, of Michael Foot as Labour leader. After 1997, we saw the Conservatives elect three right wing leaders before finding David Cameron in 2005. In both cases, the swing back to core ideology resulted in heavy defeats. 

Would the election of Corbyn produce the same result? The case is strong. After 1945, Labour was riven by left-right factional disputes. Divided parties seldom prosper and the party was out of power for 13 years before Harold Wilson's cautious prospectus won a tiny majority in 1964. During the 1970s, the left established the Benn-led Alternative Economic Programme that triumphed internally after 1979, but was totally rejected in Thatcher's 1983 landslide win. Labour lost heavily in 1987 and again in 1992. 

New Labour, the creation of Blair, Brown and Mandelson marked recognition that voters had turned away from Britain's road to socialism-nationalisation and did not favour unlimited welfare spending. The new approach tacked strongly towards the market economy and ardently wooed business, especially the City. Public schoolboy Blair was the perfect person to reassure middle class voters that Labour was no longer beholden to its - in any case shrinking - working class unionised core support. 

The result was Labour's biggest ever landslide victory, one that seemed to vindicate the wholesale abandonment of all those 'Old Labour' shibboleths. During Labour's subsequent 13 years in power, left-right factionalism more or less ceased, but defeat in 2010 initiated a rethink under Ed Miliband. This eschewed the 'split the difference' approach of New Labour and shifted left on the assumption that voter opinion had done the same after the 2009 economic meltdown. However, 2015 revealed this assumption to be false. 

Corbyn's critics argue rejection of a leftish - though none too clear - Miliband route in favour of a much more emphatic anti-austerity left wing one that embraces more borrowing, higher taxes, an investment bank funded by 'a people's quantitative easing', the ending of university fees, a substantial extension of public ownership, abolition of Trident and withdrawal from NATO, is tantamount as Alan Johnson said to 'madness'. 

The Economist's columnist Bagehot (8/8/2015) is not impressed by ideas 'which shore up the old status quo; of reinstatement over reinvention’. Bagehot adds: “…he (Corbyn) has the attention of many, otherwise disengaged from politics. These people surely deserve ideas responding to the convulsions - digitisation, automation, globalisation - through which they are living.” 

Corbynites, for their part, argue the party has never confronted austerity policies head on and that the Blairite attempt to position Labour in the centre ground via 'austerity-lite' policies has proven fruitless, with voters always tending to prefer the 'real', i.e. Tory, thing. This attitude sweeps away New Labour as a busted flush; a new approach is needed more in line with fundamental Labour values. Corbyn argues that UK voters, like supporters of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, need to consider new approaches to end the unnecessary cutting of public expenditure and the consequent immiseration of millions of working people. Cutting expenditure will only shrink demand, and lead to contraction and widespread hardship. They claim a focus on expanding the economy is long overdue and this is supported by distinguished economists including Nobel Laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. 

Given the dichotomy between Corbyn's position and that of his critics, what are Labour's prospects if Corbyn actually wins? Clearly a return to schism in the party would occur. A number of leading figures have already declared their unwillingness to serve in a Corbyn-run shadow cabinet and, given he could not even raise 35 supporters among his fellow MPs, he would find himself in a very small minority. It seems the somewhat surprising influx of new members since 2015 are mostly youthful, unable to recall either the wilderness years of the 1980s or the electorally toxic nature of leftwing ideas. They have also warmed to Corbyn's style and personality. 

He is not exactly an exciting politician, but his views are in marked contrast to the crowded 'austerity lite' centre-ground politicians, including his rivals Burnham, Cooper and Kendal. His demeanour too is refreshingly different: transparently modest, low key and endlessly courteous, refusing to engage in the acrimonious political culture displayed so unpleasantly in weekly PMQs. In all these qualities, Corbyn has something of Tony Benn about him, a champion of the left who must be spinning in his grave with envy that his moment has arrived just over a year after his death. 

But could he win? It depends on the short or the long term. In the current climate, everything we have learnt about UK voters tells us Corbyn could not reverse the laws of political gravity. The Tories would be delighted if he became leader; Cameron, Osborne, Gove and the like, would hold up his ideas to ridicule and certain defeat in five years’ time. Labour could even join the Lib Dems as an irrelevant minority. However, my guess is that Corbyn's quiet, unflappable patience would triumph over any bullying Cameron style at PMQs, which would certainly be worth watching. 

Looking to the long term, Corbyn might have a half decent chance of converting Labour to his left-wing programme and then, just maybe a majority of voters too. But that would require, as it did in Greece and Spain, an economic crisis far more acute than anything we have so far suffered. Older Labour voters might have to accept they will see out their years within a virtual one-party Tory-ruled state with just a chance that Corbyn's heartening reinvigoration of youth and grassroots party members will lead to possible victory around 2030.          

Picture by Garry Knight from London, England (Jeremy Corbin) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

                 

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