The Doomed Age of Corbyn and The Existential Challenge For The British Left

So this is it. The age of Corbyn has finally arrived. So spectacular has been the battle and so strange, even engrossing, that May’s election seems a short life-time away. Another world. Perhaps that is why Labour has got the result it has. The result is that it has elected a leader who has as much chance of winning the next election as Donald Trump has of winning a charm competition.

Sorry to rain on the parade but it really is that simple. People will say that he should not be underestimated, that he will grow into the role, that anything can happen. It is never wise to underestimate anyone - and Corbyn’s election means Conservatives will have to argue about public service cuts from first principles rather than wedge politics - but the greater danger is (and has been) that Corbynistas overestimate their man. He might grow into the role but, after thirty years as a serial backbench rebel, he probably will not. Anything might happen but, more likely, it won’t. Between 1992 and 1997 the Conservative Party did not implode spontaneously: it self-destructed after Black Wednesday because it faced two popular, serious leaders it could not combat.  

A dangerous notion will lose Corbyn the election, if he gets that far: the belief that there is no need to persuade Tory voters to vote Labour; that it is enough to get those disillusioned non-voters to vote and Labour can win. The thing about non-voters is that they do not vote. Decisions are made by those who show up. And there is absolutely no reason to believe that non-voters are radically different from voters in the opinions they hold. Quite the reverse in fact. For every vote that Corbyn wins from a non-voter or Green, Cameron and Osborne will win one too, or even one back from right-leaning deserters. They played an effective game toying with people’s fears of a Miliband-Salmond government to marshal their vote and win a majority. They will repeat this.

Elections are won by parties who own the future

He will struggle in Scotland. Rhetoric has clouded the reality that Scottish opinion is not so divergent from the rest of the UK. The idea that now Labour has elected an “anti-austerity” candidate, the SNP will roll over and allow Labour a free reign over Scotland is absurd. For good or ill, the party has had a mesmeric impact. Supreme politician that she is, on Corbyn’s election Nicola Sturgeon changed the goalposts dramatically: after months of deriding Labour as austerity-lite, she demanded Labour become credible. She set the trap; Labour walked in.

Elections are won by parties who own the future. Corbyn does not. Personally, I think this is best demonstrated by his attitude to education policy. I remember in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Conservative conferences and manifestos were filled with calls to return to a grammar school system. Corbyn is replicating the error. The average parent does not see a comprehensive or free school. They see a good or bad school. They will also see in Jeremy Corbyn a politician promising to close their local school. I am a believer in the comprehensive ideal but they're dead. By pledging a return to comprehensives after the “failed experience” of free schools and academies, Corbyn is merely embracing a comforting past. A shrewd politician would look at how to make free schools and academies more democratically accountable to local areas, less reliant on central control and make sure they operate on a level playing field with other schools. “Forward not back,” Labour said in 2005. It won.

This decent man will become the butt of remorseless Tory attacks

Corbyn will lose because he has sold his voters a false bill of goods. The tragedy is that moderates have let him get away with it. It is absolute rot - and nothing else - to argue that Corbyn’s election represents a party returning to its roots. Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin, who both served under Churchill to fight Nazism and later acquired Britain’s nuclear arsenal (“whatever it costs”), would be appalled that Labour has just elected a leader who cannot bring himself to condemn IRA terrorism or Putin for invading Ukraine, and who equivocates on the sheer awfulness inflicted by ISIL on Syrian citizens. Attlee and Bevin may never have become Blairites but nor would they have been Corbynistas.

He'll become the butt of remorseless Tory attacks. For that I am truly sad. For all my disagreements I think he is a sincere man. He has a contribution to make to British politics. Not as leader. But he must be allowed to lose on his own terms. Those who oppose him in the party must not resort to facile point-scoring. He will face early electoral tests next year against the SNP in Holyrood elections and against Zac Goldsmith in London. Both would be challenges under normal circumstances: Sadiq Khan has talent but Tessa Jowell stood a better chance of winning.

Short of a game-changer (and in real politics, as opposed to The West Wing, these are few and far between) Corbyn will fail. The risk is that he will also taint all those associated with him. Moderates have long been attacked for careerism. There is an element of truth in the accusation but now is their moment - from the backbenches -  to show that their principles are as valid as his and that realism is a far cry from cynicism. If they find an idealism which gets beyond the managerialism of late-Blairism to speak to both the core and new voters, they might yet save the left as serious force in British politics. Because that is what we are speaking about now.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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