Corbyn May Never Win Office But He Has the Power to Reshape Britain's Politics

A sense of nervous excitement - some might say panic - has swept the nation with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party.

From the Conservative voter calling in to Radio 4's ‘Any Answers’ to say that he was “delighted by Corbyn’s victory as it means a Conservative government for the next 20 years” to former frontbenchers refusing to serve on Corbyn’s shadow-ministerial team, the country seems gripped in a craze of panicky future-gazing predictions based on three-to-four chess moves out.

The first thing to remember amid all the excitement is that Corbyn is not Prime Minister and with no power to implement day-to-day policy. The second, is that it’s not even certain whether he will be fighting the next general election as Leader of the Opposition. 

With these two considerations in mind - and even if the man never gets to high office - Jeremy Corbyn could yet be a hugely transformative force in British politics. Era-defining, of the sort that came after the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 or the landslide victory of Clement Attlee in 1945. And he could do this -- as many of his critics say -- from the relative comfort of opposition.

Corbyn will force the Tories to talk about questions they thought had been settledJeremy Corbyn has an overwhelming mandate from his party to ask the questions that many of his parliamentary colleagues have so far been too timid to ask. Big, structural questions that ordinary people have been demanding answers for ever since we rescued the banks, closed Sure Start centres or shrugged when big tech companies refused to pay tax. Those voting for Corbyn want the post-1979 settlement of trickle down economics, widening inequality and the marketisation of almost every sphere of public life to be reassessed.

Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband managed to contain the debate. Corbyn is blowing the lid on it and changing the terms of the conversation. The 66-year-old Labour MP for Islington North will force the Tories to talk about questions they thought had been settled in the 1980s. That’s big, epoch-defining stuff. A’ Level questions of the future, if you like:

We should scrap the Trident nuclear deterrent because it is a waste of money and abolition will speed up disarmament - discuss.

A large majority of voters support taking the trains back into public ownership to operate alongside state-controlled Network Rail that runs the tracks - discuss.

The government’s target to balance the budget by the end of this parliament will mean steeper cuts in public spending than was seen under the coalition and will lead to a decimation of public services -- discuss.

Quantitative easing has only helped banks and pushed up asset prices rather than funding infrastructure projects that this country needs - discuss.

We should support further education colleges to help underperforming children, stop tuition fees, restore the education maintenance allowance and allow councils to build schools - discuss.

It will be a louder, more engaging conversation, more likely to result in political changeAs austerity grinds on and, in fact, accelerates over this course of this parliament it will attract more opponents and critics. Corbyn would blame any deterioration in health and education services on spending cuts.

Cosy government-business links would be scrutinised in new ways.The construction of the new £4.2 billion Thames sewer will provide an income from day one for German-owned Thames Water, insurer Allianz and Swiss Life Capital before it’s built. That will be paid for by an £80 annual water bill surcharge on Thames Water’s 15 million customers - in perpetuity. An open goal for London mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan and Corbyn.

Government ministers will have to recalibrate their response on all these fronts, and it’s not clear how David Cameron will cope with this at Prime Minister’s Questions every week. It will be a louder, more engaging conversation, more likely to result in political change.

Much damage to the Labour Party may yet come from the election of Corbyn. There’s no guarantee that he can hold it together. It may even consolidate Tory rule for another decade. But those predictions, while seismic were they to materialise, are still some way off and many other factors may yet come to bear on them in the future.

Now - and perhaps for the next year or two - is a time for ideas, for big ugly fights, for first principles, for asking “why?” rather than simply “how?” That may be all Corbynism ever amounts to, in power even if never in office.

More about the author

About the author

Phil has run Clarity Economics, a London-based consultancy, since 2007 and, before that, was Economics Correspondent at The Independent.

Phil won feature writer of the year Work Foundation Work World media awards in 2009, and was commended by the Royal Statistical Society in 2007.

He is the author of Brilliant Economics and The Great Economists.

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