It couldn’t happen, could it?
Could Jeremy Corbyn – the perpetual backbencher and thorn in the side of Labour leaders from Neil Kinnock onwards really be in with a shot of being elected Labour leader? Given that he only squeaked on to the ballot paper by virtue of non fellow travellers deciding they wanted to “broaden the debate”, it would be extraordinary if this perennial outsider became an absolute insider.
What once seemed as likely as me opening for England at Lords is now much less of a long shot. In a cracking scoop on Wednesday, Stephen Bush at the Staggers found that private polling has Corbyn leading by as much as fourteen percentage points and on Thursday Corbyn took the lead in CLP nominations. A Corbyn leadership is still a long-shot but it’s much less of a long-shot than it seemed a few months ago. Just have a look at how his percentage chance of winning has moved over the past few weeks on Betfair:
According to this, his chance of winning has moved from less than one per cent a few weeks ago to over 20 per cent now. Some have argued that the week of Jezzamania might act as a shot in the arm for moderates in the Labour Party and others have rightly pointed out that CLP nominations shouldn’t be regarded as scientific – people who turn up to meetings tend to be more left wing than the general membership. But what if the impossible does happen and Corbyn rides the wave all the way to the leadership?
Lewis Carroll’s quote that “sometimes I’ve believed in six impossible things before breakfast” is brought to mind when you read the views of some Corbyn supporters on social media. Apparently Britain is screaming out for a radical Tsipras style leader, ready for some proper Bennism after Ed Miliband’s insipid social democracy. They argue that Corbyn alone can save the Union and inspire non voters to vote. All of these points are various shades of nonsense, but plenty of people seem to believe them.
Political parties do, after all, have form in refusing to hear a loud and clear message from the electors. It took the Conservatives almost a decade to accept that compromise with the electorate was a necessity after 1997. Tony Benn famously called the left’s two great defeats – in the 1975 Common Market referendum and the 1983 election – foundations to be built on. The shock of defeat sometimes leads a party to be brave and think about reasons that they have lost. But on other occasions, they seek the warmth of the comfort zone.
What if Labour opt for the latter and actually elect Corbyn? What would happen to the Labour Party and to British politics?
The first would probably be a very long party at CCHQ as Labour seem to abandon hope of winning the next election in favour of rallies, marches and protest – futility over power as Blair might have put it. There seems little doubt that if Corbyn’s Labour Party reflects the narrowness of his campaign, it would mean a historic and catastrophic defeat for Labour. It would effectively abandon the centre-ground of British politics to the Tories.
A Corbyn victory would throw the centre-right of the Labour Party into existential crisis. After Ed Miliband’s victory was announced at the 2010 conference, many supporters of his brother simply left town rather than having to ‘endure’ the rest of the conference. This would be mild compared to the reaction if Corbyn won.
His first challenge would be persuading figures from Labour’s moderate wing to serve in his Shadow Cabinet. Would Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Tristram Hunt and Dan Jarvis really feel comfortable serving under a man that they almost certainly regard as unelectable? How could Corbyn control a parliamentary party that was almost universally unwilling to nominate him for the leadership until the spurious reason of ‘broadening debate’ was raised? Could history repeat itself with some moderate Labour MPs abandoning the Party or would moderate MPs, already chiding themselves for not striking against Ed Miliband, bide their time before trying to depose Corbyn? There’s just a chance that a Corbyn victory could give an unexpected kiss of life to the Liberal Democrats.
Policy issues would also rear their head quickly. Corbyn has made sceptical noises on the EU and it’s clear that he wouldn’t be the enthusiastic supporter of ‘in’ that most of his rivals would be when the referendum came. How could he square his views on the Middle East and Hamas with the rest of his party? How could a man who has rebelled more than any other Labour MP really expect loyalty when he leads them?
Strange things happen in British politics and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader would be one of the strangest of all. It’s unlikely but by no means impossible that Labour could be led by its most left wing leader since George Lansbury, with unfiltered Bennite views. If that happens, Labour can expect an internal crisis not known for 30 years and the country can expect the kind of polarised politics that many thought was the stuff of the history books.