Jeremy Corbyn is having a good week. On Tuesday a new poll gave him a 22-point lead in the Labour leadership race, and today he won the support of the trade union Unison. He's now the bookies' favourite to win. But he's also, let's not forget, a once relatively unknown backbencher with markedly left-wing views. So how has he become the clear frontrunner to be the country’s Leader of the Opposition?
We can't ignore Corbyn's strengths as a communicator and man of principle. But there's another reason he stands out just so much. His rivals' campaigns – if you want to even call them that – are just so bad. Each represents a particular response to the post-election crisis Labour has found itself in. Let’s take them in turn.
Before Jezzamania, Andy Burnham was the clear favourite. Artfully disguising his conventional special advisor-to-cabinet-minister career with a regional accent, Burnham had positioned himself as a sort of more normal Ed Miliband (he likes football and guitars, whereas Miliband looked like he’d confuse the two and end up kicking a guitar). Unfortunately, this all quickly unravelled with the welfare bill. Burnham – always suspected by some of blowing a little too easily with the wind – followed the Labour whip and abstained. This was damaging enough to his supporters. But he then explained that he had abstained because he was “not prepared to split the party” but that, had he been leader, he would have voted against it. Confused? You’re not the only one.
Cooper’s strategy is perhaps the most mysterious of them all. Like Burnham, she also abstained on the Welfare Bill vote. However, unlike Burnham, who has chosen to say and do everything, Cooper seems to have chosen the opposite – to say and do nothing. Take her awkward interview on the Today Show, in which she bravely said she was in favour of “values” and “a fairer country”, and outlined her belief that “you’ve got to bring people together”. If this all sounds a bit familiar, it’s because it is. It's essentially the Miliband pitch recooked: talk about fairness, make sure the mood music’s right, don’t say anything particularly offensive to anybody and hope that the electorate will eventually be scared off by the clear villainy of Conservative politicians.
Cooper has already shown herself to be better at the game than Miliband. But Cooper’s response to the political crisis has been to keep her head down, try and satisfy all wings of the party, and talk a lot about values. We all know what happens to those who stay in the middle of the road…
Oh and by the way, drink every time she says “high tech jobs of the future”.
Which brings us to Liz Kendall, whose campaign cannot be accused of failing to spark a response. She is presently last in the running, and for someone whose candidacy is based on her brilliance at winning elections, this does raise questions.
Why has Liz’s Tony Blair impersonation act failed to mimic the master’s success? Well, part of the answer would lie in the fact that rumours of Blair’s mastery have been greatly exaggerated. He did indeed win an exceptional victory in 1997, but the scale of that majority (and the results of the following two elections) were significantly distorted by the electoral system, which Blair knew how to play. But in reality, the whole New Labour project is more complicated than the sea of success that it's been made out to be by the four people who still admit to being fans.
Far from uncovering a new and eternal political strategy (100 per cent Electoral Success, just add water), the New Labour architects were much more the playthings of history than their ego allows them to admit. The Third Way malarkey was a phenomenon across the Western world, a product not so much of political genius, but economic luck: the low inflation that was a consequence of Chinese integration with the world economy and the defeat of organised labour, as well as the asset bubbles that fuelled much of the growth from the late nineties onwards. Kendall’s triangulations are therefore a little worn at the edges.
It’s no use advocating a politics of the centre ground when that centre is being dragged aggressively to the right. And so long as the political story dominating the country is that our present difficulties require government spending cuts and wage restraint, the electorate will vote for the party most able to ensure this. That, for obvious reasons, is the Conservative Party. Kendall’s strategy – of essentially conceding the argument but promising to cut more fairly – is in its own way no different to what Ed Miliband was saying.
This is in fact the curse of all three candidates. Each one retains an aspect of Miliband’s contradictions: Burnham the soft populism, Cooper the desire for party unity, Kendall the advocacy of austerity. In the face of this, the party are turning to the one candidate who marks a clean break with the Miliband muddle without conceding intellectual ground to the Tories. That person is Jeremy Corbyn – the only candidate who doesn't look like a reject from the cast of Thunderbirds.
Whether he can win a general election is an open question, and depends (like the career of every politician) to a great extent on factors beyond his control. But if one of the core failings of Miliband was a simple failure to communicate, it’s clear why Corbyn is doing so well. He might not exactly be Oprah, but when it comes to communication, actually having something to say is always a good start.