It has happened. Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. The party hasn’t just lurched to the left, but dived headlong in that direction. Never, in the history of the universal franchise, has a leader of one of the two main parties been so far from the political centre.
Just because something is absurd doesn’t mean it can’t happen. This is the lesson of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership contest. At first, the prospect of Corbyn leading Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition was seen to be so ridiculous that bookmakers put the chances of it at 200 to 1. Labour MPs were prepared to nominate him to broaden the ‘debate’.
The temptation now is to declare that a Corbyn leadership can’t possibly last. The talk among senior Labour figures is not about his reign but his downfall; each has their own theory as to how and when he will be deposed. Surely, they say, the laws of political gravity would pull him back down so normality could be resumed. This view is dangerously naive. The forces that have propelled Corbyn to the Labour leadership are very real, and will change British politics in profound ways.
The Corbyn delusion is driven by a few grains of truth. There are, as his supporters claim, voters to the left of Labour who might well be won over by a more left-wing leadership. There is also some public support for some of the policies of the old left — re-nationalisation of the railways, for instance, or whacking the rich. But the overall Corbyn effect will be disastrous for Labour. He is Michael Foot without the anti-fascist record.
Labour lost the last election because the voters didn’t trust the party with their money and the nation’s finances. Corbynomics (and his proposed ‘people’s quantitative easing’) is not the answer. Then there is Corbyn’s long list of dubious statements and associations. One of the Tories involved in doing the opposition research on Corbyn says gleefully, ‘There’s just so much. Calling Osama bin Laden’s death a “tragedy” is just the start.’ Indeed, what should worry Labour is how silent the Tories have been during this leadership contest. When I asked one if they would throw the book at him straight away if he wins, I was told no. The plan is to wait until he is firmly ensconced before doing so. The Tories don’t want to just destroy Corbyn but use him to tarnish the Labour party as a whole.
Indeed, the very sight of him will awaken folk memories in the British electorate. One glance at him still gives a good sense of what his politics are. We might all laugh at Labour’s Peter Mandelson-inspired late 1980s makeover, but it was done for a reason. He wanted the party to look as if it was on the same wavelength as the rest of the country; Corbyn has no such concerns.
Even if Corbyn is deposed quickly, the public will question the judgment of the party that elected him. ‘The hangover from this is going to last an awfully long time,’ concedes one Labour strategist. The Tories will ask, do you want to entrust the country to a party that can elect Corbyn as leader? They would also warn that any Labour government will end up hostage to the far left.
Corbyn’s victory poses an immediate dilemma for any ambitious Labour MP. Anyone who served under him will be tainted. They will be asked in every interview if they want Corbyn to be Prime Minister; if they say yes, then that clip would be used endlessly against them come their own time at the top. But getting rid of him will be just as hard. Labour MPs who openly oppose Corbyn will find themselves in a battle to hold on to their own constituencies. Internal warfare will ensue. It will be back to the 1980s in more ways than one for Labour. It is easy to see why so many Tories are rubbing their hands in glee. One source in No. 10 says, ‘We wouldn’t have dared script it like this, people just wouldn’t have believed it.’ Corbyn as leader means that the next election is the Tories’ to lose, and they will need to make an epoch–defining mistake to blow it. All of a sudden, the Tories have gone from fearing that they would never win outright again to being confident of at least a decade of majority rule. One secretary of state predicts that in 2020 the electorate ‘will form their judgment even more decisively than before.’
Some Tories are unnerved by the coming Corbyn leadership, arguing that bad opposition leads to bad government, and some worry that an unelectable Labour party will lead to Cameroon complacency. What is perhaps most striking is the fear of the more radical Tories about what it means for their agenda. One of the more ideologically committed members of the cabinet frets that Cameron and Osborne will tack hard to the centre, abandoning Tory radicalism in the hope of hoovering up centrist voters disillusioned by Labour’s left turn.
In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher took advantage of Labour’s lurch to the left to push through right-wing policies that would not have been possible in normal times. But Cameron and Osborne are far more traditional Tories than she ever was: their aim is to hold power rather than to implement an ideological agenda. They both remember all too clearly the party’s 13 years in opposition. Facing Corbyn, their instinct will be to grab as much of the centre ground as possible, and much of this work has already begun. The Tories now pride themselves on being the party of the national living wage; Cameron’s first intervention of the new political term was to threaten firms who failed to pay it with the full force of the law. It won’t stop there; plans are also afoot for a major push on equal pay for women.
Corbyn’s victory will change the dynamics of the next Tory leadership election (which we can expect in about three years’ time). Until recently, Boris Johnson’s supporters argued that the Tories needed something extra for the party to win outright. Boris, who had won twice in a Labour city and had the appeal of a celebrity as well as a politician, appeared to be that something. But with Corbyn as Labour leader it appears that anyone sensible can beat Labour. It is no coincidence that in the past few weeks, the odds on George Osborne’s leadership chances have been shortening almost as fast as Corbyn’s. The Chancellor is now, for the first time, the bookmakers’ favourite. He offers continuity, which is more appealing to the Tory tribe by the day. One of the Chancellor’s cabinet backers argues that ‘the contrast could not be more pointed’ between Corbyn, who has never held office of any sort, and Osborne, the steady hand on the Treasury tiller.
The place where the Corbyn effect is least predictable is Scotland. The SNP has been posing as the only genuinely left-wing party; a Corbyn victory complicates that strategy. There isn’t much space to the left of him. But if he were removed as leader before facing the electorate, the SNP could use this to claim that Westminster politics is dominated by a centre-right consensus that tolerates no opposition. And how would Corbyn handle a Scottish Labour party led by Kezia Dugdale, a centrist?
Corbyn’s supporters are right about one thing: you can change politics without winning a general election. His time in charge will change both the Labour and Conservative parties and the contours of British politics. It confirms that May 2015 marked the beginning of a new era of Tory majority rule. A Labour party that is prepared to elect Corbyn as leader is a party that has consigned itself to not being in power for a very long time.