I’ve been banging on about Labour heading for electoral disaster since Jeremy Corbyn first looked like he would win the 2015 Labour Party leadership election. In 2015, I agreed with Tony Blair when he wrote in the Guardian: “If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader it won’t be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election. It will mean rout, possibly annihilation.” It seemed a given to me that Labour, having chosen a person with no experience and with beliefs way outside the mainstream, would, over coming months, leak away votes like a slowly deflating bicycle tyre and eventually collapse entirely.
As Corbyn built a leadership team of far left activists and MPs, I was outraged, and eventually ended my party membership. I assumed that over time other members would be equally repulsed and walk away from the party. Anyone who seriously believes Chavez’s Venezuela is a shining example of social justice in action (as Corbyn has written), and populates his leadership team with actual communists, can’t possibly be allowed to lead one of Europe’s great social democratic parties? And yet last summer, the Labour membership reelected him to the job, and today, just a few weeks out from a general election, he’s leading a party polling higher today than Miliband’s 2015 result, with a membership that has more than doubled.
In March it looked like Labour was beginning its slip into electoral oblivion, as multiple polls put the party at 25%. Just over six weeks later, and Labour is consistently polling above 30%. Yes, historically, the polls usually overestimate Labour, and of course, the Tories are polling near 50%, but here we are today, with an Evening Standard Ipsos MORI poll putting Labour at 34%. For a bit of context, in 2005—Blair’s last victory— Labour took 35.2% of the vote share, which means it’s now entirely possible, if trends continue, that Labour under Corbyn could very well take a higher percentage than Blair. Labour will end up with fewer seats than it’s had in two generations, but in terms of vote share, Corbyn will have surpassed a coveted Blair victory.
If Corbyn’s Labour out polls Blair’s 2005 victory, it will, to be blunt, kill off the soft left, who have always argued that while socialism is the goal, compromise is the means. As Polly Toynbee wrote in the Guardian in 2015, “The Labour question is always the same – how far can you go and still bring enough voters with you? … Like many Labour people, free to dream I’d go further than Corbyn… I don’t know how far you can go – but you have to win power to get anywhere at all.” Turns out you might be able to go farther than moderates and the soft left thought.
When you enter into a debate and accept commonality in principle, and outline your differences only in terms of methodology and the means to power, you end up forfeiting your values—in my case that liberal democracy is morally superior to communism. Which is why arguments like Toynbee’s have always made me uneasy. Because what if you’re wrong? What if Corbynism is achievable on its own without compromise?
If Corbyn achieves 35% or anything near it the left will secure their power in Labour for a generation. They will have shown that the party led by an uncompromising socialist can do as well or better than a centre-left reformer. The riposte to this will be that Corbyn has haemorrhaged seats, that he stacked up votes in the wrong places, that he didn’t win over Tory voters. But it won’t matter—at least to the left. They will have shown moderates were wrong about the left’s electoral appeal (many serious people assumed they’d end up in the low to mid twenties). Which throws up the really difficult question for moderates. What the hell does it mean to be centre-left any more?