It was the most astonishing result since the by-election in 1 Samuel 17, when David beat Goliath. It demonstrates the truth of the old adage: be careful what you wish for. A few weeks ago, a simple proposition would have gained universal assent in Labour circles. Far too many idealistic young people were alienated from Westminster politics. They believed that the old way of running things was complacent, inefficient, elitist – and corrupt. So how better to spearhead Labour’s recovery than to encourage mass participation by making it easy to vote in the Leadership contest? Liz Kendall, the only one of the four candidates who sounded vaguely sensible, thought that she could win lots of support as Labour became the cheap and cheerful party.
It is certainly cheap. Miss Kendall came last. One wonders when – if ever – she will once again feel cheerful about politics.
Mr Corbyn has one good quality. He is sincere. He believes what he says and says what he believes. His idea of a compromise would be a peaceable meeting between a Trotskyite and a Stalinist. Apropos Stalinism, a couple of weeks from the end of the campaign he published an article in the Morning Star.
One would have thought that advisors might recommend caution: “We’ve already got the Warsaw Pact vote, Jeremy. Why not offer a piece to the Guardian or even the FT, saying that its readers ought to be willing to pay higher taxes for a fairer society.” But that is not how they order matters in Corbyn-land. In his rambling, sullen, graceless acceptance speech, which gave little indication of an IQ in three figures, Mr Corbyn more or less invited the press to do its worst. It will.
When that happens, he will pay little attention. For Jeremy Corbyn is a socialist without a scintilla of self-doubt. He believes that socialism is absolutely morally superior to the free market, and that once the argument is put, the great mass of the public will agree, throw off their chains and throw out the boss class. He is impervious to doubts, scepticism or disagreement.
He may even believe in historical inevitability. Tony Benn certainly did at one stage in his career. I remember a conversation with him during the Callaghan government, in which he said that socialism was inevitable. There was only one force that could delay its advent: the Labour party. As long as it was run by trimmers, the working class would be confused and divided. So there was a simple task: purify the Labour party to ensure that when it next had the opportunity to move forwards to socialism, that would be no hesitation. The short-term electoral consequences were irrelevant. It did not matter how heavily Labour was defeated at the next election as long as it then became fully socialist. Once that happened, history would guarantee success. Corbyn, who was a Bennite and has not had a new idea in thirty-odd years, might well nourish a similar delusion.
It might be unwise to conclude that socialism is absolutely finished as a political force. In the hands of an able and attractive Lader with a formidable command of rhetoric, one could imagine a case being made. It would draw on the Early Marx: it could almost be summarised by quoting Wordsworth:
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers
Little we see in nature that is ours.
But that demands powers which Jeremy Corbyn does not possess. He will try to mobilise the bankers against the food-bankers. He will succeed – in mobilising most people who have bank accounts, against him.
So what happens now? The Labour moderates have a problem which is easy to define. They can neither go backward nor forward nor stay the same. Given the moral authority of a massive majority, removing Mr Corbyn will not be easy. Moreover, what is to stop the Three Pounders from joining constituency parties? In view of the boundary changes, most Labour MPs will have to face re-selection. If their fate is in the hands of the Corbynistas, it will not be a pleasant one. Tony Benn’s dream may make posthumous progress as the Labour party is purified, without any lingering alloy of electability.
The sensible tendency have one obvious option: a split. But that will be very difficult. Where is the new Roy Jenkins, the next Shirley Williams, a young David Owen: where is today’s David Steel? As Marx did not quite say, history repeats itself, the first time as drama, the second time as farce. The Liberals are in an even worse mess than Labour and many of their activists, who promoted Tim Farron, have more in common with the Corbynites than they do with politicians of the centre. Uniting the Liberals and moderate Labour could well prove as futile as inciting a pair of corpses to copulate: strange noises in the political mortuary. The probabilty is that there will be a split, because Mr Corbyn will drive the sane people nuts. But it is unlikely to be anything like as formidable as the SDP of the early Eighties – and look where that ended up.
To think that it is only a little over eight years since Tony Blair was PM. When he was having trouble with his party, he used to say: “I stuck by this party through three election defeats. Can you not stick with me through three victories? The answer was no – because Tony Blair had never been Leader of the Labour party. He was like a new organ that had been inserted into its body politic, with doses of immuno-suppressant drugs to help it settle down. But the doses grew larger and larger, and it never did settle down.
Eventually, there will be a reformed Labour party which is prepared to appeal to the electorate, but “eventually” is a long way off.