Jeremy Corbyn and the decline and fall of British Labour


Jeremy Corbyn: accidental leader of the Labour Party

So what is to be made of the Right Honourable Jeremy Corbyn: accidental leader of the British Labour Party, champion of unpopular causes; and a meek-mannered vegetarian surrounded by carnivores?

There is no doubting the scale of Corbyn’s mandate. It’s huge. As his minions keep repeating, no other party leader has been elected with such a groundswell of support.

In the main, electoral systems are designed to ensure moderates (within an acceptable range) get in.

This has worked effectively enough for Labour in the past. The middle ground – represented by Wilson, Callaghan, Kinnock, Blair, Brown – has held sway. The donkey-jacketed left wing intellectual Michael Foot was the exception that proved the rule.

But the fratricidal Ed Miliband changed the rules ‘in the interests of party democracy’. Under his somewhat bonkers electoral system anyone with three quid spare could sign up as a Labour supporter and get a vote, and many on the disenfranchised left did just that.

That in itself would not have been enough to see Corbyn through. MPs are the gatekeepers to getting on the candidates’ list and, as we have seen in recent months, Corbyn does not have a natural majority there.

He effectively blagged his way onto the leadership ballot with the borrowed votes of some idealistic MPs (such as Margaret Beckett) who thought the left should have a voice in the leadership debates, but never imagined people might vote for Corbyn.

This, of course, is history. But understanding the nature of Corbyn’s ascent is critical to understanding the intricate power politics currently being played out in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Corbyn is perplexing because he does not play by the rules. In a parliamentary system that prizes loyalty above principle, he is a serial rebel. Indeed, it is reckoned he has voted against Labour more times than current Tory Premier David Cameron.

He abhors the theatrical cat and mouse game of Prime Minister’s Question Time, and raises issues on behalf of Joe and Jo Public. And he is suspicious of ritual and kow-towing (as well you might be if you, like him had attended a private school and endured its hierarchical ravages).

All this, of course, is part of the reason why he was successful in the leadership ballot. People don’t like career politicians (and who can blame them). Today we respond positively to ‘authenticity’, and Corbyn has managed to transcend his privileged upbringing. He is not afraid to call a shovel a spade.

On the face of it, he seems to be an awfully nice bloke. Even his political foes agree.

And there are those of us who believe that someone who has attracted the enmity of The Sun, The Daily Mail and Tony Blair cannot be all bad.

Among a certain class of people – let’s call them the contrarians – Corbyn is a good thing for politics, for parliament and for the democratic cause. As the course of Irish history has shown, great injustices are done when people refuse to defy the accepted wisdom. Corbyn’s record on issues of peace and justice is not what some would paint it.

But politics is not just about principle, it is also about power. Without power, you can achieve nothing – as the Liberal Democrats and Labour are learning to their cost.

Many in the parliamentary Labour Party have memories fresh enough to know what power tasted like, and they miss it. Corbyn has never had it, and wants it only on his terms. And there lies the fault line in Her Majesty’s so called Opposition.

It rift is not just between MPs and their leader, but between the parliamentary party and the party in the country – the hundreds of thousands who voted Corbyn as their leader, and who expect him to deliver a new style of politics: old Labour politics, stripped of the centrist trappings added by Blair and Brown.

Corbyn’s new year reshuffle was designed to tilt the balance in the direction of the party in the country. But it backfired. Hillary Benn – the primary target – proved to be untouchable. The leader in waiting, an effective parliamentarian with all the street cred of a Benn, remains Foreign Secretary.

And in resorting to the traditional black arts of spin and counter-spin, Corbyn’s aides cemented the notion that the reshuffle was a botched narrow-minded political putsch rather than a confident statement of intent by a strong leader.

Of course every mistake he makes is magnified by a hostile press. They are out to get him. But at the moment, Corbyn and his aides seem to content to write the Tory Press’s story for them, and the result of their ineptitude will be to put off even further the day when Labour regains a hold on power.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on January 8 2016