Vote Corbyn to help Labour get over its left-wing fantasy
Published by The Independent (2nd August, 2015)
The Labour leadership campaign has turned into one of the unexpected delights of the summer, a farce so absurd that even the cruellest political satirist might have rejected the plot for lack of credibility. Centre stage is the crumpled character of Jeremy Corbyn, a pensioner happily pottering about his north London allotment who suddenly discovers his vintage leftism has flared back into strange fashionabilty in some circles.
It is hard not to smirk. He is only in the contest because some patronising colleagues nominated him on the basis it would be good for ‘debate’ (fast becoming the most abused word in politics). What they really wanted was to crush the left; instead, Mr Corbyn is dictating that debate and could soon be leader. Yet even he thought he was only making up numbers after being persuaded to follow Diane Abbott and John McDonnell as the left’s tokenistic candidate.
Although currently dodging questions on whether he is a Marxist, Corbyn has been a fixture on the fringe of British politics since I was covering his constituency for a local paper in the mid-1980s. His surge is the latest sign of disillusionment with traditional Westminster politics felt by many, especially young voters. He offers them an authentic voice – although his views are largely absurd and the prospect of him running the country alarming. Yet if I were a Labour supporter, I might still be tempted to vote for him.
For so dismal are his rivals, so devastated his party, it is hard not to wonder whether this decent, if utterly deluded, figure might not be the best person to shore up Labour in the short term. At least he seems to have created a frisson of excitement, inspiring thousands of new recruits to sign up for the party. This unexpected fillip could be just what is needed to stabilise a shattered political force, while his staunch opposition to austerity might be misguided but will energise many of the troops.
Consider the alternatives. Early favourite Andy Burnham is a fellow Everton fan, but it is hard to find much good to say about him politically beyond his superb campaigning on Hillsborough. He was a poor health secretary who failed to focus on patient safety, since when he has flipped and flopped all over the political spectrum. He seems to daily reinvent himself in some new guise, undermining his credibility and slowly shriveling in the spotlight of this strange contest. After failing to win over unions whose support he sought so hard, he was left with the consolation endorsement of comedian David Walliams.
Liz Kendall seems unlikely to win but has enhanced her reputation from the moment she faced down the BBC’s fiercest interrogator Andrew Neil at the start of her campaign. She understands why her party drove away moderate voters, appreciates the volatility of modern politics and knows elections are won – and lost – in the centre ground. This should be a winning message for a party that just suffered its second worst share of the vote in almost a century. But for all her fortuitude, Kendall has failed to convince critics who doubt her leadership qualities while her forthright stance alienates members still angry with the electorate.
This leaves Yvette Cooper as the Stop Corbyn Candidate. She is articulate, smart and a safe pair of hands – yet it is hard to recall when she has taken significant risk or said anything remotely interesting in public. As shadow home secretary, she played dreary political games with carefully-crafted interventions on issues such as immigration and drugs – and even now seems largely defined by distancing from rivals on either flank rather than her own appeal. She might stop the slide in the polls, but is she really the charismatic saviour of her troubled party?
Corbyn offers his battered party a comfort blanket with his desire for higher taxes and more state control; he typifies the nostalgic conservatism of the hard left that seeks to turn the clock back to a mythologised time before Thatcher. He is at heart a protest politician, whose myopic support for posturing populists such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Alex Tspiras in Greece, together with his opposition to Nato and dodgy position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, underlines why he should never get closer to Downing Street than waving placards at the gate.
Picking this man as Labour leader puts him one step away from being prime minister, which would be diplomatically and fiscally disastrous. This risk is intensified with the looming EU referendum, given Tory Party stupidity on this issue. Yet having rebelled more than any other Labour backbencher – at least 500 times since 1997 – at least Corbyn might break the stifling grip of the party system in parliament, so corrosive for British politics.
Whichever of this uninspiring quartet wins, there is a good chance they will be kicked out again quickly given their leadership abilities, the fragile political mood and self-harming state of their party. So why not pick Corbyn and shore up the party base? Besides, it is surely better to have this foolish flirtation with the far-left now instead of after a short spell in the doldrums under one of his rivals. Then perhaps Labour might finally come to its senses before the next election and find a decent leader for the first time in two decades – so long as the party survives the shock.