At 11.30am yesterday in the room where the Labour leadership result was to be announced there was an uninvited guest: a spectre who had hovered over every party gathering for almost twenty years. Then when the result was announced an older yet spritely man strode forward to do battle with the spectre. Wearing his priestly garb of not a tie (though he did have a dark sports jacket and had removed any Lenin style hats) he approached the lectern. Then he began the incantation which was the renunciation of Blair and all his works. Although the words were different the meaning was the same as Dr. Paisley’s 30 years ago in Strasburg: I renounce you as Labour’s enemy and anti – Labour.
It felt a bit like the latest Hobbit film when Kate Blanchet as Galadriel banished Sauron from Dol Guldur and like in the film you fear he may yet be back. For the meantime, however, he had gone, back in Blair’s case, to assorted towers in Connaught Square and Buckinghamshire. Suddenly the spectre had gone. Labour party members emerged blinking into the light uttering a word which had been forbidden and near forgotten for an age of the political earth – socialism. The scarlet standard was lifted high, beneath its folds they pledged to live or die: though one suspects, many a traitor was inwardly sneering whilst much of the country looked on incredulous though not always negatively so.
Corbyn’s anointing as Labour leader seems quite extraordinary to the political classes (and I happen to agree that his political programme is less likely to win Labour power than many alternatives – unlikely but not impossible) but to many outside the Westminster bubble and the North London cognoscenti it is attractive if for nothing else than its authenticity.
Part of the incredulity is appearance: he does not feel like one of them let alone think like one of them. In a world of media focused and focus group politics Corbyn stands, not out of focus, but out of picture.
Politicians are meant to be forty something attractive youthful figures all wearing similar clothes. This actually is driven by the media for technical reasons. All suits must be solid colour, preferably dark blue because it takes digital cameras best: pin stripes are broadened by digital television cameras and make the wearer look as if he has a clown suit (remember some of Edwin Poots’s early choices). Then there must be a light blue shirt or blouse as white looks too harsh on the cameras and finally a solid colour tie as again other ties look wrong on the cameras.
Corbyn on the other hand conforms to none of those stereotypes. He is a little older and much less polished in appearance. It is unclear if he has many ties and of course he has the dreaded beard which whilst acceptable for hipsters is simply ludicrous on a politician. Corbyn, however, looks more a prophet, sage (or madman) from the long ago: Long ago in this context being the rumoured dark ages before the 1980s.
The issue of long ago comes back to an interesting issue about the other candidates. All are forty somethings whose political childhood was in the 1980s. As such they largely imbibed not only the supposed un electability of Labour throughout the 1980s (complete with the supposed “Longest suicide note” manifesto of 1983) but also the truism of the dreadful 1970s. I have offered a corrective to both narratives previously (here and here) but they are largely still regarded (to my mind falsely) as immutable political facts by all too many forty something politicians. Corbyn being a generation older will remember the 1960s when even the Tory Party was well to the left of its current position (arguably to the left of the likes of Tony Blair and Liz Kendal at least in economic terms). Furthermore he will remember the curates egg reality of the 1970s and not the narrative of disaster the others clearly accept.
Margaret Thatcher supposedly said her greatest triumph was Tony Blair and New Labour. By that she meant that she has so shifted the parameters of political debate within the UK that Labour morphed into New Labour to compete. That New Labour creation, many would argue is another free market neo liberal party with a slight increase in interest in the poor as window dressing and some right on social liberalism to differentiate itself from the Tories. Interestingly the Tories then adopted much of New Labour’s social liberalism itself.
In that way Corbyn like many grandparents can reach out to the younger generation who feel disaffected by their parents’ views and the cosy political consensus which has built up since the early 1990s. Corbyn remembers the good of a democratic fairly socialist society as well as the bad. As such being older he is actually the future rather than the stale Kendal, Burnham and Cooper.
Their staleness of course is exacerbated by the rift which ran through Labour over the last twenty years: the Blair Brown feud. Kendal is a Blairite whilst Burnham and Cooper are Brownites. In reality there was little real policy difference between the two groups and that very lack of difference between the groups and their leaders seems to have fuelled the personal and group animosity. Corbyn was massively outwith the counsels of either group and as such has no personal baggage of that sort – though he does come with overwhelming amounts of other baggage.
Baggage he does not come with though is the whiff of the self important self righteous entitled elite which pervades much of current British politics (in contrast many might suggest the left of Corbyn’s ilk simply have a different version of self righteousness if not the self importance and sense of entitlement). The treadmill of private education, Oxbridge PPE or similar and then party researcher is not Corbyn’s hinterland. To be fair he has not had any significant employment outside politics and if he looks like a nearing retirement polytechnic lecturer that is inaccurate flattery as he did not finish his polytechnic degree. That said he very clearly has not used politics as a way to make himself significantly independently wealthy and famously has extremely low expenses (though being a London MP helps in many ways). This does not seem to be self righteousness (though many of his supporters may present it as righteousness) but rather that the man is simply not especially interested in the things which one needs money to buy. Allotments, straightforward clothes and a simple push bike tend to be cheap (bikes not always but Corbyn’s thankfully is not a middle aged man in lycra typed bike).
Corbyn then appeals to the older generation of Labour voters distrustful of the semi Tories and their ilk who took over Labour in the late 1990s. He also appeals to some of the young. In addition he may appeal to some of the working class who defected to UKIP. That is a bigger ask but not impossible.
The reality is that the centre ground of UK politics has narrowed significantly over the last two or three decades. In so narrowing it has lost significant numbers of voters in all directions. These people are not necessarily extremists but their views have been presented as odd if not bigoted. UKIP started to tap into a part of this demographic and they appeal by no means solely to the economic right. The Greens also appeal and again not solely to the sandal wearing hippies who deserted the Liberal Democrats after that party was also taken over by a neo liberal right wing coup. Scotland of course has in an even more impressive fashion fallen out of love with the current political consensus.
This failure of the current political elite to represent a very large minority of the population has been exacerbated by the media inhibiting the same intellectual space. The BBC and Guardian have been exposed by this election campaign as having little idea about what the left actually think and are clearly no longer on the left if viewed from an historical perspective. Again this is because although they may perceive themselves as left wing they are in reality economically centre or even centre right and from highly privileged backgrounds albeit it with very strong social liberal views to counteract their economic conversativism and hence, allow them to continue to claim to be of the left. They simply do not see themselves as what they are: an upper, upper middle class ultra educated ultra elite. In addition they do not see that moving the nature of the left right debate solely to social issues does not mean the economic left right debate has gone away. Rather it means that they are no longer willing or capable of engaging in or even seeing it.
Personally I do not think Corbyn increases the chances of Labour winning again. He will create massive enthusiasm and will motivate large numbers. However, although a different sort of trendy lefty to the Blair, Brown or Cameronites he is still very much an outsider with little appreciation of the average concerns of the average voter. His may be a different and less privileged metropolitan bubble but a metropolitan bubble it still is. His economic views may be dangerous but his social views are arguably more unacceptable to average voters and the media will mercilessly exploit every link no matter how tenuous to terrorists, anti-Semites etc. We have already seen both the papers (especially the Guardian) and the BBC try this repeatedly.
He may well be able to shift some of the parameters of debate towards a more left of centre economic analysis but that does not mean that he will gain power.
As such Corbyn may not have that a high a chance. He comes from outside the normal power structures of his party, is backed by ideologues both national and international. He is too far to one extreme of his party and his image is not that media friendly. Many in his party are probably already preparing the knives for him and he may not last the whole parliamentary term. All this we have seen before most classically in 1975 when an individual with an ideology at the extreme end with limited appeal, a problematic media image and internal dissent was elected. In that case the leader was defeated – after 15 years and three victorious general elections. That leader’s name: Margaret Thatcher. Lightening rarely strikes twice but it is worth thinking on.