Recently I’ve been pondering why, despite a deep resentment of austerity and extreme wealth inequality, the UK doesn’t yet have populist leftist movements like Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos. The answer of course is that things aren’t as bad here as they are in those countries. But there are signs of a resurgence of populist, anti-establishment movements in the UK: the SNP landslide in Scotland, 3.9 million votes for UKIP, 1.1 million votes for the Green Party, and now Jeremy Corbyn’s performance in the Labour leadership race.
I also wrote about the recent history of the contemporary Labour party, and how Blair’s 1997 landslide victory was the worst thing that ever happened to it. Many Labour supporters, and most of the parliamentary party, confused correlation for causation and became convinced that Blairism was the reason Labour was elected. They forget that a) anyone could have led Labour to a victory against Major’s hated minority government in 1997, and b) Blair would have lost had he still been party leader in 2010 (which is exactly why, with characteristic savviness, he wasn’t). They remain convinced of this fallacy today, and are now in a panic that the grassroots party might choose a leader who isn’t from the approved list of “new” Labour robots.
Meanwhile, old lefties, young idealists, the unions, and anyone who prefers sincerity and principle to weaselly poll-chasing, are putting their hopes on Jeremy Corbyn. But rather than a victory for the left of the party, a Corbyn win could actually mean the final victory of Blairism and the end of Labour as the leading organisation of the left.
That’s not because I think Corbyn is “unelectable”, as everyone in the Westminster bubble seems convinced he is. That’s the same people, by the way, who were surprised by the SNP’s victories and Labour’s collapse in Scotland – indeed, by the entire election result. Corbyn has a track record of electoral success, increasing the majority in his seat when the general trend for the rest of his party has been downward. He has decades of experience in politics, and tears apart his adversaries in debates. Most importantly, he has principles, conviction, authenticity and trustworthiness: all the things which voters say they want in a politician, and the lack of which has turned many, especially younger, voters off political participation at all. (The ability to mobilise grassroots support and engage previously non-voting groups was a major factor in the victory of a US President whose race made him “unelectable” in the eyes of many.)
However, Corbyn certainly wouldn’t have it easy in a 2020 election campaign. He’d have the entire political and business establishment ranged against him, and the right-wing press (that is, 90% of the British press) would be rabid and merciless in their attacks. And, no doubt, he’d have plenty of traitors in the right wing of his own party who’d be briefing against him throughout the campaign. So, while I don’t think it’s self-evident that Corbyn would be unelectable, it’s very possible, even probable, that he’d lose an election in 2020. At which point, all the Blairites would rise up and put Chuka Umunna in charge (and probably win in 2025 after Prime Minister Osborne presides over an early ’20s recession).
In the long-term, the best result for the left wing of the Labour party in the current leadership election would be a Liz Kendall win. I find it hilarious that people give Corbyn the epithet of “unelectable” without also mentioning Kendall, because she’s clearly the most useless no-hoper of the lot of them. ‘Think-tank research, special advisor and Shadow Minister for Old People’ is not a Prime Ministerial CV. She’s not so much a Blairite as a Blair fangirl. Can you really imagine a Prime Minister Kendall? No, and neither would anyone else when it comes to placing their ‘X’ in 2020.
So why would Kendall be the best leader for the Labour party, when she’d definitely lose the next election? Because if a flag-waving Blairite is defeated at the ballot box, it would be the final nail in the coffin for Blairism, the end of the fallacy that Labour should be right-wing in order to be electable. Then, and only then, will the time be right for a popular left-winger to take the reins.
Taking the strategic view, the left wing of the Labour party should be backing Kendall instead and setting her up to lose. Unfortunately, it looks like Kendall is too useless to stand a chance of selection, with barely any polls putting her above last place. Also, it’s quite a sacrifice: could the left really stomach ten more years of Tory government before making their play? But that may well happen anyway, especially if the UK economy is still growing five years from now; a leftist opposition attacking prosperity, however unevenly spread, is likely to set itself back twenty years, not ten.
One thing which won’t go away is the groundswell of support for radical change, which will only grow bigger with further austerity, employment insecurity, an ageing generation of renters, impoverishment of both the working and non-working poor, worsening health and education provision for those who can’t afford to go private… basically, as more people are excluded from the benefits of post-Thatcherite prosperity. For the moment, that support is still acting within the sphere of mainstream politics (because Corbyn, for all his socialist ideals and whip-defying antics, is still a main party MP). However, if mainstream politics loses that popular sentiment, it will manifest itself outside of the mainstream, in a popular anti-establishment movement: like Podemos, in a best case scenario; like the NSDAP in the worst case.