7 July 2017

Is the Corbyn bubble about to burst?


The problem with the Labour party is the Labour party. This, I should say, is not my view so much as it is the view of, well, the Labour leadership.

The view, too, of the people who put the Labour leadership where it is. So it is hardly a surprise that Momentum Tyneside compiled a list of 49 prominent Labour figures whose remaining presence in the people’s party was no longer conducive to the common good. Noted deviationists such as Chuka Umunna and Jess Philips should bugger off and “join the liberals”.

Dozens of Labour MPs, who can never be forgiven for having doubts about the glorious leader, now face the threat of bruising reselection battles ahead of the next election, whenever that may be. Luciana Berger has already been told to grovel to her leader; she won’t be the last Labour MP to be chided in such terms by her local party.

All hunches should probably be reckoned provisional right now, but I am not persuaded a fresh bout of internecine warfare on the Left is necessarily the kind of thing liable to impress voters, even if it is the far-left’s traditional, and much-cherished, blood-sport. The kinds of people thrown out of the party by Neil Kinnock are now increasingly powerful within it.

There is, of course, nothing inherently objectionable about party members having a stronger say in the selection of their representatives. It just depends on the kind of party members and, indeed, the kind of representatives you’re talking about. I suppose “join the liberals” is one step up from “why don’t you eff off and join the Tories?” but the extent of this progressive charity remains sharply limited. Deviation from orthodoxy is intolerable and power is something to be used properly. That means crushing internal enemies before dealing with the Tories.

This, after all, has always been the far-left’s way. The Corbyn project is a mission to build a different kind of Labour party. John McDonnell and Seumas Milne really are revolutionaries and the scale of their ambition should be recognised, not denied or wished away because it all seems too fantastical to be really happening.

In the end, a confrontation between the moderates – or what might be called traditional or mainstream Labour – and the far Left cannot be avoided. There isn’t room in the party for them both and, if Momentum has its way, that’s something to be welcomed even if it comes at the price of diminishing Labour’s credibility with the general public.

A far-left membership has the right to insist upon far-left representatives even if doing so compromises the messily compromised business of winning real power. The momentum, after all, is with Jeremy in every sense.

Be that as it may, I suspect the Left overstates the degree to which Corbyn and Corbynism is popular. Labour benefited from low expectations during the election campaign. There was a sense in which a Labour vote was a cheerful protest vote precisely because so few people thought that Labour might actually win the election. Voting Labour was the best way to send a message to a government that foisted an unwanted election on an unhappy people.

It was not necessarily an endorsement of everything in the Labour manifesto even if, individually, many of those policies polled well. (A reminder: many of the Right’s policies also poll well when considered individually or stripped of their association with the wilder wing of the Conservative party. People, remember, are brutes.)

Consequently the actual contents of the Labour manifesto and the party’s specific policy proposals were of relatively little importance. Labour offered an alternative – in terms of rhetoric as much as anything else – and that was more than enough. The contradictions in Labour’s offer mattered little; nor was it deemed necessary to explain how, precisely, that offer might be paid for. Labour’s weakness – that is to say its evident distance from power – became a paradoxical strength.

All of which is a means of warning the Labour Left that their triumph may be less substantial, and of shorter duration, than they currently believe. The volatility of our politics lends itself to the creation of bubbles. Corbyn – and Corbynism – is unassailable right now but, no matter what the opinion polls say, the party remains in opposition and, for as long as May’s government can limp along, some way from power.

Elections are a two-step process in which voters make two decisions. First, is the government good enough to deserve another term? Secondly, is the opposition good enough to deserve office themselves? In this election, voters answered both questions in the negative.

In any case election results are always subject to over-interpretation. The Labour Left is just as guilty of exuberant wishful thinking as the Tory Right. The evidence that voters thirst for purity, on either extreme, remains dubious.

Still, Tory difficulty is Labour’s opportunity even if it’s reasonable to think that a more plausible Labour party could actually have defeated May last month. Then again, if she faced a more plausible Labour party she wouldn’t have called an election in the first place.

Fundamentally, however, this is not a government bristling with authority. The public mood is sour and disappointed. Theresa May’s authority is shot, probably terminally. She is merely playing out the string and, if you will, reduced to just about managing.

Nonetheless, other questions abound. What happens when the public begins to appreciate that that the Labour leadership’s vision for Brexit is harder than is currently believed? If there is a revolt against Brexit – which, of course, there may not be – Labour won’t necessarily benefit simply because they didn’t start Brexit.

In like fashion, if Brexit becomes wildly popular it stands to reason that the Conservatives will benefit more from that than Labour.

And as the complexities of post-Brexit politics – and economics – become clearer the country will also need political parties possessing coherent and plausible visions for how the post-Brexit waters may best be navigated. At present, it is not evident either party is equipped for that task.

Alex Massie is a political commentator