Politics, as we have seen over the past year or so, is full of surprises. No one thought that the Scottish referendum would come so close to breaking up the United Kingdom. Few thought that the Conservatives would win the general election with an overall majority (albeit a slim one). And the biggest surprise of all is the still new, still bearded leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn.
There’s an important lesson which bears repeating; the pundits can be wrong, the polls faulty, and the press confounded. All too easily, it would seem. There is no reason, in principle, why the widespread and usually dire predictions about Mr Corbyn’s leadership won’t also be proven wrong.
Mr Corbyn has been so derided, his politics so distorted and his personal life so misrepresented, that if he manages to make it through the week without a well-publicised incident concerning his private parts and a pig he should consider his handling of the Labour conference a success.
It would not be the first satisfactory outcome of his leadership. Whether or not determinedly striding down the street and refusing to engage with a persistent reporter can be counted a “media disaster”, Mr Corbyn’s revamp of the ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions was much more successful.
Discounting the carping about his appearance, he wrong-footed David Cameron by taking the side of members of the public, and substituting the usual contrived jokes with some pertinent questions from the real world, housing and mental health services among them. Mr Cameron only just remembered his best line, that only by building a strong economy can good public services be afforded.
So it may well be that Mr Corbyn will have a good conference. Perversely his critics seem intent on pursuing a strategy to that end. When Lord Mandelson urges his followers, the beleaguered Blairites, to leave Mr Corbyn to fail and “prove” his unelectability before ousting him, he will certainly be doing Mr Corbyn a favour in the short run. The usual trouble from dissenters on the fringe may not in fact materialise, or at least not in the fashion it has traditionally done when Labour has decided to indulge in a civil war.
A legitimate leader
The very fact of Mr Corbyn’s substantial support among every category of Labour member and supporter will also count in his favour. Had he been only narrowly elected, then it might be possible to dispute the legitimacy of his leadership; as things stand, even the wildest calculations of entryism by the far left and by Conservative mischief makers are nowhere near the size of the Corbyn majority.
It was a remarkable achievement – for whatever reason – and Labour MPs know it. They have newly assertive constituency parties to answer to, and they will not wish to be caught plotting this early in a parliament.
Mr Corbyn seems set to re-establish the old decision-making structures of the Labour Party, and they were much loved by the activists. A more powerful conference in which resolutions are “pickled”, to use Neil Kinnock’s dismissive term, into “composites” and thence to policy declarations and, eventually, an election manifesto, is something that suits the new, more “democratic” party.
What still matters is what Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party actually does end up standing for. Here, there is a well-observed paradox...
Individual bits of Mr Corbyn’s agenda are popular – at least, according to those flawed opinion-pollsters. People like the idea of renationalising the railways. They like the notion of building more homes, and investing in public services. They are not as alarmed about the loss of Trident as they might have been during the Cold War; they can see that submarines with nuclear warheads aren’t much use against a threat such as Isis. Being lukewarm about the European Union – as Mr Corbyn has revealed himself to be – is also close to the centre of British political opinion.
What the public seem less keen on is the Corbyn package as a whole. They find him lacking in leadership qualities, ironically enough because he seems content to follow his party rather than lead it.
The voters also seem unwilling to put their hands in their wallets to fund the health and education services they profess to treasure; and they doubt that Labour politicians – of any persuasion – can be trusted on the economy. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell may do no worse than Ed Balls on that score, but that is no achievement when the issue was such a weakness for Labour in May’s election.
There is also the question of whether Corbynism is, in fact, in the national interest. Britain’s place in Europe is paramount, and it is deeply damaging to the country that he has been hedging around so much about the EU.
The criticisms he makes have some validity; no one wants an institutionalised neo-liberal Europe where workers’ rights are shredded. But even if that were what Mr Cameron brought back from Brussels, it would still be disastrous to exit the European single market, given the number of British jobs that depend on it, and the security and stability the EU helps bestow on the whole continent.
Likewise, “people’s quantitative easing” looks very much like simply printing money to fund the never-ending demands of the public sector. It is not cash that would necessarily always be invested in the productive potential of the British economy, as voters seem to have sensed.
So the safest thing to say about Mr Corbyn’s leadership is that it has been surprising at every turn and, in most but not all respects, they have been pleasant surprises. It is also possible that Mr Corbyn will have some less welcome surprises to deliver in the coming years. As George W Bush, admittedly hardly his ideological soulmate, once put it: we should not misunderestimate Mr Corbyn.
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