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It’s yesterday once more with Corbyn set to lead Labour into the electoral abyss

It’s yesterday once more with Corbyn set to lead Labour into the electoral abyss

🕔11.Aug 2015

I have no reason to revise my prediction that Jeremy Corbyn will be the next Labour leader. In fact, his victory is becoming so assured that bookmakers will probably soon stop taking bets.

The latest YouGov poll based on 1,411 party members has Corbyn on 53 per cent of first preference votes, up 17 points in three weeks. Support for the three other contenders, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, is plummeting almost as quickly as backing for Mr Corbyn is rocketing.

Corbynmania is taking grip across the country, where the bearded one routinely addresses packed halls with his words of wisdom relayed to those locked outside unable to get in. We’ve seen nothing like it since Cleggmania, and look where that ended up.

It is significant that the number of people entitled to vote in the leadership contest has almost doubled since the General Election, with 190,000 newcomers joining the party or taking out associate membership in order to vote, with most of them seemingly intent on backing Corbyn.

This has been described in some quarters as entryism, as if an organised plot is underway to destabilise the Labour party. I’m sorry, but it’s nothing of the sort.

Entryism occurred in the 1980s when Militant infiltrated constituency parties intent on challenging Labour’s agreed manifesto and moving policy sharply leftwards. After the disastrous 2015 General Election, future party policy is up for grabs and the leadership election is the first, and most important, stage of redefining the Labour offer.

There’s nothing shady or behind the scenes about Corbynism. Mr Corbyn has been refreshingly open about his hard-left credentials and thousands of people are signing up to Labour because they think, however mistakenly, that he has the answers to the country’s problems. It should be said also that the poor quality of the other leadership contenders has simply underlined Mr Corbyn’s appeal.

It’s not entryism. It’s democracy, and a direct result of the decision taken after Ed Miliband became leader to base the next contest on one member one vote.

Anyone with experience of Labour conferences over the years, where the real membership emerge annually to demand a left wing agenda only to have their wishes denied by the party hierarchy, ought to have guessed that OMOV would unleash decades of pent up anger.

The irony this time is that the membership is only getting a chance to vote for a hard-left agenda because certain MPs who don’t even want Mr Corbyn to be leader agreed to put him on the ballot paper in order to start a ‘wider conversation’. They should have heeded the old advice about never asking a question unless you know what the answer is.

I am reminded of the early 20th century Tory prime minister A J Balfour who famously said he would rather take advice from his valet than the Conservative party conference. From the moment Labour decided to adopt OMOV, the party was always going to be in the grip of thousands of ‘ordinary’ members rather than career politicians in Westminster.

The reasons behind the Corbyn surge are not difficult to spot. Younger, more idealistic members, like the idea of nationalisation, getting rid of Trident, clobbering the rich, and the many levers of state control that Mr Corbyn believes will make Britain a fairer place. Older members remain nostalgic for the days of Clause Four and British Rail-style nationalisation when Labour was largely unelectable, but stood for something. Taken together, this is a type of legal high – a heady cocktail, albeit one that will lead to the hangover of all time.

And that, really, is the nub of the argument. As the German Chancellor Bismarck said: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best”. What he meant to say was that if a political party doesn’t have power, or even the prospect of obtaining power, it is irrelevant.

It seems increasingly likely that Mr Corbyn will win on the first ballot. The question is what happens next?

Labour’s big beasts are huffing and puffing about the dangers of a Corbyn-led party. Alastair Campbell joined his old boss Tony Blair to make a plea in his blog for common sense:

Labour governments do more good for working people than Tory governments. But first you have to win power. To many who have recently joined the Corbyn campaign, they have only ever known Blair as PM, Gordon Brown for a short time, and David Cameron, first without a majority, now with one.

Labour having been so dominant during their childhood and youth, they can be forgiven for thinking there is a kind of pendulum in our politics that goes Labour – the Blair-Brown era – then Tory – the Cameron-Osborne era – and then it will go back to Labour, and step forward Jeremy with his anti-politics look and his anti-establishment talk and his ability late in his career to get people queueing round the block to hear him.

Campbell concluded in typically forthright style:

The Labour party, if it elects Jeremy Corbyn as leader, is selecting someone that every piece of political intelligence, experience and analysis tells you will never be elected Prime Minister.

My instincts suggest Corbyn will enjoy a honeymoon period as leader because he appears to represent something interesting and different in a predictable and dull political world. Labour may even briefly overtake the Conservatives in the opinion polls.

But as the 2020 General Election approaches, one of three courses seems inevitable.

  • Either Mr Corbyn will fudge and trim his hard-left offer, which appears unlikely
  • Or he will lead his troops into the electoral abyss with a ‘yesterday once more’ manifesto further to the left even than Michael Foot’s doomed campaign in 1983
  • Or the Labour party will split with those on the right and centre joining the Liberal Democrats or forming a new social democratic party.

Labour’s awful 2015 General Election performance has left the grassroots searching for answers. Anyone who thinks a Corbyn programme so far to the left that even the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition may sign up to is going to get widespread support at the polls is so deeply in denial that it is pointless wasting any time attempting to argue with them.

The party is showing every sign of travelling through the five stages of grief. First there is denial, as in the only problem was we weren’t left wing enough. Then there is anger, which is manifesting itself in the Corbyn surge. Next will be bargaining, which will come after Corbyn wins and has to deal with his MPs. Then depression as the sheer awfulness of years in opposition sinks in.

Finally, Labour can move to the final stage of acceptance and produce a moderate centre-left manifesto behind an electable leader. The problem is, that may not happen until 2025.

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