Jeremy Corbyn is finally shifting toward the centre ground, though he may have set off too late

The Labour leader is on the march to Nuneaton, where his destiny awaits

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Monday 07 May 2018 14:02 BST
It's not an easy place to find and Corbyn may not know when he's arrived
It's not an easy place to find and Corbyn may not know when he's arrived (Reuters)

Jeremy Corbyn has taken his first steps on the Long March to Nuneaton. It is a destination that was entered into his political sat nav in the small hours of Friday morning, perhaps with a little reluctance, but that is where he is heading. Nuneaton, he appears finally to have accepted, is the hill in northern Warwickshire on which he will live or die.

That Labour lost control of Nuneaton council in Thursday’s local elections was a gentle political earthquake. Hours later, the journalist turned Corbyn campaigner Paul Mason made a startling admission: “Progressives can win if they make an alliance,” he said. “To win swing seats in the Midlands and Southern England, Labour needs to get even more outside its comfort zone and fight for centrist votes.”

On Saturday afternoon, and this is not coincidence, the party released a new promotional video. “When we win, Britain wins,” is its central claim and the vast majority of its two stirring minutes is given over to praising the achievements of the various New Labour governments: the introduction of civil partnerships, record investment in the NHS, signing the Kyoto agreement, devolved power to Scotland and Wales, the fox hunting ban, peace in Northern Ireland, bringing the Olympics to London.

If you think this list sounds familiar, that is because it is the one traditionally reeled off by, for want of a better term, Blairites, in the middle of an online row with a Corbyn supporter. That it is now being parroted by the other side in that argument is real and substantial evidence that the basic facts of political life are finally beginning to dawn on the Labour Party leadership.

Cast your mind back several millennia to the summer of 2015. Labour was electing a new leader. The BBC televised the first hustings, and they did so from a church in Nuneaton. There were Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper, sitting on stage behind some ageing crank dressed like a geography teacher, the token throwback to Labour’s days of yore, there briefly to “widen the debate”, placate the fringes, and then be ignored again anew.

The point that was very clearly made by the BBC hosts in that broadcast was that they had come to Nuneaton because this had been the key swing seat in the 2015 election. It had gone blue, again. Whichever of the four candidates on stage emerged successful had a clear job to do if he or she wanted to govern, and that job was to win back Nuneaton person.

Local elections 2018: The final results

You won’t need to be told that the hitherto unknown geography teacher won that contest by miles, and for no more straightforward reason than being the best, most articulate, most electrifying and most inspiring candidate by a distance.

But in the three years since, it is fair to say he has not made political overtures to Nuneaton man or Nuneaton woman.

The birth of a new political movement has been breathtaking, but the consequence is the age in which we now live. Friday was a political zombie dawn. A stalemate. Both main parties and their votes entrenched. Both parties held captive, with varying degrees of compliance, by their fringes. The swing vote almost non-existent.

It would seem even Paul Mason is aware that Corbynism might have reached its psephological limits – and that the old rule, about winning from the centre, might just still apply. But if Corbyn is attempting to breach this stalemate, and it is clear that he is, it is not straightforward to work out how he does it.

That old rule, by the way, is often best explained via an old lesson taught at business schools about two ice cream sellers on a beach. If a beach is four hundred yards long, it would make sense for the two sellers to position themselves a hundred yards from the middle and a hundred yards from either end. No one would be more than a hundred yards from an ice cream.

However, in the end each seller inches towards the middle. Those to the outside of him can be taken for granted. Those in the middle are there to be fought for. And so the two ice cream sellers end up side by side in the middle of the beach. The very same thing happens with mainstream political parties in two party systems.

But taken for granted in the analogy is that is a nice sunny day, and that everybody wants an ice cream.

The beach that Jeremy Corbyn must now inch his way across is more like Normandy on D-Day. Brexiteer has his machine guns turned on Remainer (or the other way round, if you prefer). Young is at war with old. A housing crisis splits the country into owners and renters. One generation has been greatly enriched by obscene property price inflation, while the same thing has smashed to smithereens the hopes and dreams of another.

Who even is Nuneaton man or woman? Did Nuneaton person vote remain or leave? Does Nuneaton person own a house?

Nuneaton person voted three times for Tony Blair, on one of those occasions even two years after the invasion of Iraq. But Nuneaton person probably has a dim view of the Iraq war now.

If part of Corbyn’s journey is to win back more centrist elements of the party itself, that battle is probably already lost. He has been admirably consistent, in his three decades in parliament. He was an opponent of New Labour even while it governed. He has taken several opportunities to attack the record of the party he now leads, not least in apologising on behalf of the party for the Iraq war (though it must be said, Mr Blair has not exactly been reticent in attacking him either).

Nuneaton will be harder to find than ever before. It is not marked on any map. It is a mountain shrouded in mist. Corbyn may not even know when he gets there. But he is on the move, and the journey will be interesting to watch.

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