The dangers for Labour that arise from Jeremy Corbyn’s overwhelming victory are obvious. There is no need to predict what they are. They are taking shape already. The onslaught of the right-wing newspapers has started and is as nothing compared with what is to come. More fundamentally the divisions within the parliamentary party over some policies are immediately visible.
But the volcanic eruption triggered by the outcome of Labour’s contest is also an opportunity and not just for Corbyn. Labour had become a lifeless party. Let us revisit briefly its pre-election conference a year ago as one example of the lifelessness. Last September polls suggested the party was quite likely to win an election. Such a context should at least have generated a degree of excitement, a fizz of ideas about what might happen in government. There was more fizz at a badly run old people’s home.
The fringe meetings were dull, a soporific fearfulness hovering over them. I recall bumping into one Shadow Cabinet member on the way to a typically flat gathering. I asked her what her theme would be. “I think I will stick to the cost of living crisis,” she said. That is what she did. Ed Miliband’s speech became known as the one where he forgot to mention the deficit. The omission was only significant because he had felt compelled partly to agree with George Osborne’s spending plans and the Chancellor’s elevation of the deficit as the issue of overwhelming significance. Seeking inauthentic credibility he had lost his voice, almost literally, in relation to the economy. More widely other speakers from the front bench kept to their safe soundbites, not wanting to upset a leader’s office that was as controlling in terms of public comment as Tony Blair’s or Gordon Brown’s. Last year’s Conservative conference was livelier, with a greater appetite for ideas and debate. Labour had no life in it any more.
The control freakery that began with New Labour was a logical response to the party’s fatal public divisions of the 1980s. The message discipline was awesome and a factor in the party’s election victories from 1997. But in the same way New Labour’s discipline was an overt response to Old Labour’s divisions, the party needed in recent years a response to the stifling control from the centre. Most precisely it needed new ways to breathe politically. Corbyn’s victory is the response.
Quite often the seeds of a successful political project grow to destroy it. Labour had become moribund in its unthinking loyalty. In government for too long all that mattered was the resolution of Blair’s battles with Gordon Brown. As one of Labour’s education secretaries told her ministerial team: “There are Tony’s departments and Gordon’s departments. We are one of Tony’s departments”. With such narrow, rigid control the party started to die as few politicians became fully developed and ideas were regarded as a threat.
In retrospect the rise of Corbyn was as inevitable as the Blair triumph in 1994. This volcanic eruption changes the landscape beyond recognition. Suddenly battles between Blairites and Brownites seem like ancient history and not a recent past that continues to frame the future destructively. Banalities from ambitious Labour frontbenchers about the need to “own the future” and other meaningless declarations are no longer good enough. Corbyn has a clear policy agenda. Internal critics will find that waffle will not be enough from now on if they seek to be credible challengers.
This is partly why the Corbyn ascendancy is an opportunity. Internal critics will need to get their act together, in terms of organisation, ideas and policies. They will need to decide when to express disagreement with a leader who has won the leadership by a wider margin than Tony Blair did in 1994 and in what form the disagreement will be expressed. In facing these challenges some of them will become much bigger, more fully formed politicians. I was on Sky News with Matthew Doyle yesterday, who ran Liz Kendall’s doomed campaign. He struck the right tone. Instead of rubbishing the contest and its outcome he acknowledged that the so-called modernisers had much fresh thinking to do.
They will have the space to think on new terrain and will need to come up with much more than a tamer version of Cameron/Osborne’s ideas.
Part of that assessment is a need to take into account the energy generated by the Corbyn campaign. Some Blairite commentators dismiss the enthusiasm as a “holiday from hard thinking”, as if they have come up with a compelling and coherent left-of-centre alternative. There is more to the energy than naive idealism, although that plays a part in the idolatry of any political figure. Such energy has transformed the politics of Scotland, helped Ukip to win most votes in a European election and now propels a backbencher into leadership.
There is no precedent for Corbyn’s ascent. Michael Foot had ceased to be a rebel when he became Labour’s leader in 1980. Foot had been Jim Callaghan’s loyal deputy, helping to keep his party together. He was elected by MPs alone partly because they hoped he could work with the Bennite wing and the likes of Denis Healey on the other wing. In contrast Corbyn soars to the top as a rebel.
His election might not be the eruption of choice as far as his MPs are concerned, and perhaps as far as the voters are concerned, although that is not as certain as most commentators prematurely conclude. Corbyn will find the demands of leadership impossibly tough, as all leaders do. But his election serves a role in bringing a lifeless party back to life.
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