13 September 2015

Will Jeremy Corbyn be able to hold Labour together?


It’s going to be difficult. Already, many members of the Shadow Cabinet have refused to serve in a Corbyn-led administration. These include Tristram Hunt, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, and Dan Jarvis. In their places will be committed left-wingers such as Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Hillary Benn. Rosie Winterton will be kept on as Chief Whip, but it’s clear she will have a tough job on her hands keeping order among many MPs who will already be thinking about their seats in 2020. New Deputy Leader Tom Watson will be the éminence grise, holding the whole operation together and keeping the show on the road.

At the moment, the watch words are unity and loyalty, and the early announcements that both Andy Burnham and Lord Falconer will serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet suggest the party hasn’t been entirely ceded to the hard left. There is no doubt, however, that Corbyn has a very strong mandate from all sections of the party – not just the £3 members – granting him a legitimacy that will make it extremely difficult for his enemies – and there will be many – to immediately undermine him.

Peter Mandelson, writing in The Sunday Times (£), has been quick to warn where his party is headed if Corbyn sticks to his principles.

“We have to understand that a coalition limited to bringing together only the public sector, union activists, members of the metropolitan middle class, youthful idealists and urban ethnic minority voters will never be an electoral majority. They represent just a part of the modern British progressive politics that we need to advance. We have to show how we can deliver prosperity and progress for the strivers and those who want to better themselves, the self-employed and those in the sharing economy, the old as well as the young, in the countryside and suburbia as well as in the inner city.”

Corbin’s victory suggests managerial politics, which works on the broad coalition-building arithmetic that Mandelson and New Labour promoted, is breaking down. Localists, who combine right-wing views on immigration with left-wing attitudes to welfare and the role of the state, cannot be reconciled with globalists, the highly-skilled, mobile and well-remunerated people who view the nation state as a relic. The needs of the young, who feel let down by the labour and housing markets, cannot be reconciled with the needs of the old. Environmentalists are hostile to enterprise. Half of Scotland wants to separate from the UK, and large parts of England are hostile to London.

Islands of discontent are emerging that call for new solutions, and Corbyn is just the latest product of a rebellion against the elites that has produced leaders such as UKIP’s Nigel Farage and the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon. They are figureheads for a rejection of old-style mainstream politics. Corbyn has tapped into something which generally irks much of the electorate. Not only is Westminster politics still seen as a closed shop, disconnected from many of the concerns that people typically face, but it is believed – unfairly, some might say– to be populated by individuals who don’t believe in anything, who have made a career out of politics and enjoy playing the game. A survey by Survation for The Guardian last month found that of the four leadership contenders, Corbyn scored highest for being in touch with ordinary people (57%), trustworthy (40%) and intelligent (79%).

Yet despite these developments, there is clearly still space in British politics for a moderate party of the centre left, offering credible opposition. A party that pledges to eliminate the current deficit but borrow more for national infrastructure projects without wrecking the credibility of the Bank of England. A party that can tackle the causes of inequality and low pay without pretending there is £120bn in unpaid taxes waiting to be collected. A party that understands the power of competitive markets in driving wealth creation and comfortable living standards. A party that can be realistic about the effectiveness of Western foreign policy without advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament. Liz Kendall was the candidate representing those policies, but she received just 4.5% of the vote.

It might well be that Corbyn will not turn out as revolutionary as he appears, that he won’t use his new powers to stuff his court – his staffers and the national executive committee – with disciples and begins to water down his convictions for the sake of party management. If that happens he will be a major disappointment to his supporters, accused of being a traitor or, worse, a Tory. If it doesn’t, the electable part of the Labour Party and their supporters will be marginalised. As soon as they conclude that Corybn is not an aberration but instead marks the return to the Old Labour politics of the 1980s, it won’t be long before they get restless.

However, it is uncertain where leadership for any new movement of the moderate centre-left would come from. Former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown spoke on Sky News this weekend about how Labour’s lurch to the Left offers an opportunity for his Liberal Democrats to appeal to people as a “modern, centre left party that addresses the conditions of today rather than the those of the 1950s.”  Under leader Tim Farron, that, for now, seems possible but highly unlikely.

There are representatives in all three parties – the Blairites and Brownites of Labour, the liberal Orange Bookers and the One Nation Tory Left – that would be comfortable in a new grouping. This party would support wealth creators and functioning markets but not be afraid to challenge vested interests and unhealthy concentrations of power, and to use the power of the state to break up cartels, fund infrastructure and promote a sensible industrial policy.

In the 1980s the SDP broke away from the unpalatable Labour of Michael Foot and merged with the Liberal party. UKIP and the SNP are recent additions to the political furniture which look set to stay. With Corbyn almost impossible to remove – thanks to the scale of his mandate – don’t bet against something similar happening in the near future in the centre and centre/left of British politics.

Zac Tate is Deputy Editor of CapX